Ice Climbing in Lee Vining Canyon

15 Nov 1998 - by Ron Karpel

Sunday morning we met John at the Nicely's Cafe in Lee Vining. Our plan was to climb the frozen waterfalls in Lee Vining. If there is no ice, plan "B" was skiing on the gated highway 120.

We slept near June Lake on the night before and the temperatures were balmy 33 degrees. I couldn't imagine ice forming anywhere except in a refrigerator. To top it, there was no snow anywhere around Lee Vining. We quickly devised plan "C". We will hike up highway 120 and peer into the waterfall. Then we will proceed and climb or snowshoe Mount Gaylor.

We started trudging along 120. Bob and John lead and Nancy and I trailed behind. 3 1/2 miles and 1500 feet later, just before we hit camp-9, we got the first view of the falls. There was ice. A closer inspection with my binoculars convinced us that it is climbable. We returned to the cars, drove to the PG&E power plants parking area, got our gear together, and hiked the boulder-covered canyon towards the ice. Have you ever gone boulder hopping in plastic boots with 4" of snow over the boulders?

It was 2 PM when we got to the base of the waterfalls. I guess calling them waterfalls is a bit of exaggeration. The water simply flows over the rocks, and when it gets cold enough, it freezes. The canyon is very narrow at the bottom and gets no sun. The sources for the water are primarily a leak in the PG&E aqueduct that supplies water to the power station. More water comes from melting snow up above the canyon. The area is immediately below camp-9.

We followed exiting footsteps in the snow to the top of the falls, and setup our top-rope. There are fixed bolts set in strategic locations providing excellent top-rope points, but we had to rappel a short pitch to get to them. Then we used a double rope setup from the bolts to the bottom. We then rappelled back down. Now it was time to climb, and it was already 3 PM.

Our pitch was around 120 ft tall, but because of poor ice coverage we could only climb about ft. I went first. I climbed about 50 ft before my calf muscle started aching. On my second climb I tightened my shoelaces and had no problem. I quickly return down and we all took turns at the ice. John was able to climb almost to the top going left, but he had to stop when the rope put him into a pendulum situation. I tried to go straight up, but the ice was too thin in places, and my ice tools were hitting the rock. Bob, who was ice climbing for the first time did an excellent job, and he was wearing relatively soft lather boots.

Soon the threat of darkness drove us back down and to the cars. We didn't want to cross the boulder field in the dark. John says that usually the snow covers all the boulders and one can snowshoe all the way without problems.

Participants: Bob Suzuki, John Zazzara, Nancy Fitzsimmons, and scribe Ron Karpel.


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