Digging Deep: Mental Tracks Into the Deep Freeze

Loch Lake with Deep Freeze on the cliffs to the left

What if I die?
What if I get hurt?
Can I really do this?
What if the gear is horrible?
What if I fall?

What if…….?
(As my mind enter’s a freeze or a “haulting” point) 

“What if” is the question I hear echo in my head constantly when it comes time to rely on my mental strength whether that’s running it out or soloing. I am faced with a mental battle that I have to leave on the ground. The thought of bailing always seems easy. It’s always easy to go back into your “comfort” zone but it takes a lot to get out of it. The things you do when you’re out of it are what make life 100% worth it. My best days in climbing were the ones when I was the most scared, overcame, and left a different person, within reason that all is. You can’t push that level to much over the edge. Was I pushing this too much? Am I pushing my climbing too much? Am I dreaming to big? Nonsense, there is no such thing as dreaming big, it’s all relative to how big a specific person can think outside of the box and make the impossible happen.

Traverse Ledge

Let me introduce to you Deep Freeze. (WI5+/6 M5+ R) One of the classic Colorado ice/mixed climbs and it joins the group of some of the hardest ice/mixed climbs in the Park. Now what in the world would drive me to take my tools on a walk to the Rocky Mountain National Park for this run out hard test piece? The answer? I don’t know. It’s simply such a beautiful and intimidating line.

I had no clue if it would even be in. It usually isn’t. I’m the ones to usually drag everyone into my plans. I suck people into them. This time three others. (Jacob, Jeff, and Michael) We all went Friday expecting to have a fairly short day. Two teams of two. I’d lead the crux pitch and let them play on it for a good pump. The approach turned out to be more then what we thought. A trudge up a gully with spindrift constantly blowing in your face was a nice start to the day. Normally a direct start can be had but to much sugar snow made that not really possible. Necrophilia was out so we could not approach from that. The last option was climbing up this steep gully, a WI3+ pitch to access the ledge that runs horizontally across the cliff bands to join the gully. The ledge reminded me of Broadway on Longs Peak. Don’t fall terrain and fairly interesting with a little snow on some 4rth class moves. 

Jacob descending the 4rth class slabs

At Loch Lake right below the face, I stared at the climb when it finally came into view. It didn’t look in but good enough for some good old mixed climbing to join the pillar up higher! Then all of sudden, two guys popped out and almost cut in front of us. I was pissed and of course they were going for the same route. Ended up it was no big deal, and we all got along. I was shocked and thought I would maybe be the 2nd person this season to climb Deep Freeze but that proved me wrong. My stoke level was at 10.

I talked to the two guys about Deep Freeze at the base of the WI3+ pitch to access the traverse ledge. The guy said it’s always been spicy to lead, from really scary to not “to” bad. So the climb is no joke. I was very nervous to be honest. Scared as I knew it would be R. (meaning a fall at the run out would mean broken bones or at worst, death, even when protected right) I knew it was under my abilities but still. Jacob led the first pitch and I followed quickly. We both started traversing the ledge. Michael led and belayed Jeff up. Jacob and I waited a while for them before continuing on. When we saw them, we hustled up to the approach pitch which gets you to the base of what you came there for. By then, the other two guys were off it. We were going slow and I hate going slow in the alpine, it’s no time to play around up there.

In the end, it probably was not smart to have 4 people on this route. I did not want to descend in the dark as that traverse ledge would be plain scary and dangerous without light but it was getting late. Jeff and Michael still were not up to us and they had most of the screws. I had two and just ran out 30 meters of WI3/4 to the base of the money pitch on thin ice. I belayed Jacob up.

Now alright, I was stuck staring at this monster for 30 minutes. It looked plain frightening. I’ve seen a lot of ice climbs and this one was just different. Wildly steep and overhanging ice at the top with difficult mixed on trad gear to get to it. I couldn’t see the run out, and in fact I didn’t think there was too much of one just looking at it. I was in for a surprise.

 “What if” played in the back of my head. Was I ready?

I was scared.

While this was in my head, Jacob and I waited for Michael and Jeff who had all our gear. They finally joined. They all said they weren’t going to get on this on top rope. They were all tired. I was too but I knew I needed to do this. It was late. We had two hours left of light. Did I have enough time? My comfort zone was saying no and to bail but my other side was saying just get on it. Yes, I was just going to get on it, and if I did not feel it on the first couple feet I would bail. The position makes it serious as well, total alpine and tucked away from anything. It’s not exactly cragging which I loved.

“If I die, would you share these pictures from today at my funeral?” I laugh, as I show my nervousness.

“No, I’ll say you died doing what you love.” Michael chimed in.

“Dude, you got this man, I know you can do this. Don’t be scared.” Jacob stated.

“Well wouldn’t you be scared just on top rope?” I say as I slightly laugh.

“Yes!” Jacob strongly stated.

Michael said he would buy me dinner if I led it. It was that intimidating looking.

M5 5.9ish to the curtain of ice. The runout is from turning the overhung curtain to basically the anchors with the offwidth visible higher

I grabbed the gear and walked to the base and looked up.

What am i doing? What am I getting myself into…..

It was very steep. I stepped onto the rock and hooked my first hold and then another one. I hung off it and placed my first cam.

You’re committed now. You can do this!

The gear continued to be alright going from really bomber to okay but the run outs continued to get bigger. I kept hearing Jacob, Jeff, and Michael at the bottom cheering me on. I soon got to the ice. I could not place an ice screw in it until over the roof as it was basically hanging curtains. If I by chance fell on a screw in a hanging curtain, then the whole curtain might fail and the screw, rather then saving my life, could cause quite some damage to myself!

I then drytooled with my left foot and tool while on the ice with my right tool and foot. I clipped my last piece of protection before the crack got choked with ice and soon turned into an offwidth/chimney. I was getting higher and higher above my last piece. I turned the overhanging ice at the roof , stepped into the offwidth. No gear and this was a desperate offwidth/squeeze chimney. I looked down and my last piece was quite far down. I screamed in anger.

You can’t fall. Falling is not an option. Hold on, you’re almost through it. Relax!

I couldn’t swing my ice tools as the chimney was preventing me. Can I say pumpy and very serious? My feet slip but I keep regaining composure and thrashing my way up this crack. My arms were so tired but they couldn’t give out. I smell the fire from my crampons skating against the rock. It brings an even more real experience. Shake out, shake out, thrash, thrash. My feet slip, while my head gets stuck. I scream in anger again with adrenaline going off the charts.

This is really scary. What am I doing….This is just plain dangerous!

Finally the crack widens to where I could chimney nicely and have a super good rest and place my first screw in solid ice! I place a screamer on it, clip the rope to it, and scream in relief.

That was scary!

I climb up and over to the anchors and get lowered. I shouted how scary that was, laid back on the ground just staring at the sky.

Thank you God. Thank you for watching over me.

It was so “sick” and spicy that I really felt nauseated and almost threw up back on the ground. I’ve led a lot of really run out routes and kind of enjoy running it out but never have I been more focused and really this scared before. It is without a doubt the scariest pitch I’ve ever lead. An icy insecure crack like that just does not feel secure especially many feet above your last piece.

It was one of the best pitches I’ve climbed though. It had superb climbing. Later I found out a fixed piece at the crux is not there anymore, making it a bit more run out then usual. That makes sense now.

Usually the story ends here right? Nope. It starts to get dark and we make the first rappel. It’s a raging snowstorm with strong winds. I couldn’t find the rappels for Necrophilia so I made the decision to backtrack the way we came before total darkness. Jacob and I back tracked the ledge and got to the top of the first ice pitch we climbed of the day. There were very strong winds and lots of snow making it very cold. It was total dark now and Jeff and Michael were no where around. They appeared around the corner. I was super glad to see them but 4rth class in a raging storm with serious consequences if you fall was ahead. We helped each other out and soon after an hour or two were all safely at the last rappel. We all made the rappel and were super glad to be off the serious part. It was still serious though. We down climbed the gully and talus to Loch Lake. Michael fell from punching through wrong and fell head first downwards. He tweaked his knee. The wind was crazy and unrelenting and it was snowing inches quite fast.

A testimony of the descent. Michael ready to be down.

We finally got to the lake and found the hidden trail back. It was twenty three hours roundtrip from my house (Counting free Denny’s late night dinner, thanks Michael!) and about 18 or so of them moving. It felt like two days.

I do like being different. At 19, everyone I really know at my age is in college, while I’m basically a dirt bag climber chasing my dreams like nothing else and with determination that I never knew existed in myself. School has really never been my thing. From the time from graduating High School to now, I think I’ve changed so much, that I feel like I’m in my late 20’s. Climbing has taught me more about life in a year then school has in 12 years. After all, most of my friends are from there mid 20’s to there 40’s. Why am I saying this? Many like to follow the nice “trail.” I love to go through hell to get a new “trail” broken.

I don’t know why I take risks like this in climbing, sometimes risking my life, and putting it all on the line. It teaches me about life and the appreciation for it. It forms partnership with friends that nothing else will form. It’s my passion. It makes life REAL! Sometimes I ask myself why I do it and really, I have a different view of life from these experiences. Life is different for me from it. To me, this risk is worth it, for now. It’s part of alpinism. It makes life rich. In alpine climbing, everything is thrown at you. It’s up to you to adjust accordingly and make it as safe as you possibly can. It will forever be a learning experience and it will forever be my passion. Life is truly a gift. Don’t ever go one day not being thankful for it, because you never know.

Sitting in a chair looking at the future of tomorrow (Canadian Rockies August 2011)


About Noah McKelvin

Never skip a day of living life
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