February 29, 2020
Saturday Matt and I squeaked out one more day of February ice climbing than normal. Both due to the fact that somehow Utah has had a good ice season this year despite not being a “good” year and that it was leap day. Word amongst the Utah ice climbers in the know is that an “Unformed Hanging Pillar” was touching and fat in the Strawberry Pinnacles zone. The route had already been ticked a week or so ago and given the name Second Amendment (WI5). Matt and I took a leisurely head start there yesterday to find out.
I’ve not been to this area before in any season so it was nice to take a look at the terrain. Andreas and I had been through a similar area on a long motorcycle ride a couple years ago. In general it is a dry sparsely populated zone with shale type rock that is totally rotten. The Strawberry River cuts a canyon through the rock and given how terrible it is, water drainages often create overhanging cliffs that when cold enough form freestanding pillars of ice.
The first crux of the route was on the dirt road in. About 1/2 a mile from the climb, which is only a 2/10 of a mile from the road, we found a mud bog stretch of road. There were a number of tire ruts through it plus standing water. There were two trucks in the area and one went through without difficulty. We got out and poked around in the sticky, slippery wet mud, contemplating if Matt’s RAV4 with all-season tires would make it through. Matt sounded like he was game to get rowdy and give it a try. I on the other hand thought it fairly likely we’d get stuck. Since we were only a short distance from the route we opted to park and walk from there. This sort of meant we’d only climb one route since the other climbs in the area are more than a mile past Second Amendment.
The forecast predicted warm temps and sunny skies. That indeed was the case with a casual low 50’s temp according to Matt’s RAV4. We suited up with only a base layer and shell pants for the walk in. The second crux then came up, Strawberry River. The river isn’t all that big or deep in most places, but deep enough that you don’t want to fall in. We looked around for a spot to cross. One spot looked promising with a large ice shelf and a log, but the log was unstable and perched on some random bushes. It seemed like walking or even crawling across was sure to mean falling in the fast moving 3′ deep channel below. Walking upstream we found a wide, but shallow section that looked reasonable to wade across. Had the weather not been so spring like and pleasant I doubt the thought of removing our boots and socks to wade across would have seemed pleasant. As it turned out while the water was frigid, it was only a little above our ankles.
The route is clearly visible from the road and from the first view of it, it looks fat. So fat that it is hard to believe that this route is listed as unclimbed in the recent Utah ice guidebook. The route is two pitches, the lower a 45′ section of WI4 was nice enough on its own and the prize the 90′ freestanding pillar. I lead the first pitch to the large ledge below the pillar. After Matt came up we set our packs off to the side and started scoping out the ice to determine how stable it might be.
In my experience, which is limited with freestanding pillars, they tend to be circular in cross section and so are roughly evenly stable in all directions because of the spray cone that develops on the bottom. This one was very different. The pillar was formed more as a curtain that touched down. As a result the front of the pillar was perhaps 25′ wide, but the thickness front to back, was only 5′. On top of that the cone was significantly undercut on the front side with an interesting ice cave at the bottom of it. This gave us some pause to how stable the whole thing was. We viewed it from a few angles and heights to see if we thought it was ok to climb. We decided that there wasn’t any tension in the pillar because we could see a fracture line near the top and that while the cone was undercut, it was massive and a person’s body weight was insignificant compared to the weight of the ice—thus unlikely to tip over because of our weight.
Matt headed up tentatively to smack the ice and get a feel and sound of the whole thing. No red flags came up even after smacking around at the connection between the cone and the pillar so Matt decided to continue up. The front side of the pillar looked the most obvious line with a slight groove to follow and stem up. While a few times there was a bit of hollowness it sounded good overall. The climbing looked fairly easy, though awkward at times. The blobs of ice created good hooks and even better feet, but required a little bit of balance to climb and creativity for protection. The climbing was more like rock climbing than typical ice climbing.
Happy with getting one of the first few ascents of this climb we packed up and headed back. This time at the river we opted to dash across, not too worried if our boots got wet on the inside. My boots, Scarpa Phantom Tech, have a large waterproof zipper for the integrated gator which keep my feet nearly completely dry. Matt’s Sportivas have a velcro closure on the integrated gator and did allow some water in. A good test to know for future water crossings.
On the leisurely stroll back to the car we pulled up our long sleeve base layers and enjoyed the spring temps, sun shining, and birds singing. Hard to believe that it was still February, more so that we’d just done some awesome ice climbing. Back at the car the temp was nearly 60F.
On the ride home we were treated to a great sunset over Mt. Timpanogos.