Ice Climbing Stairway to Heaven Toprope Solo

Ice Climbing season is finally here in Utah. I climbed some in Utah before Christmas with some friends. I climbed in Colorado at Lincoln Falls with another friend during the Holiday. Since I’m going to Ouray for the Ice Fest next week I decided I needed to get in some more ice climbing practice.

approach from the parking area for Provo ice climbing
View from the Nunn’s Park parking area approach to Stairway to Heaven in Provo

It’s been really cold this past week, with temperatures around 5-10 degrees F. I was told by a friend that Stairway to Heaven was in good condition. Stairway is a classic route that sometimes is over 5 pitches tall. It’s near the Bridalveil Falls climb in Provo Canyon. I was working a half-day and had the afternoon off. I decided that I could do some toprope solo ice climbing. I took a bag of my clothes and gear to work and changed when my shift was over. I drove up the canyon to the Nunn’s Park parking area where there were a half dozen cars already. I could see it being pretty busy on a sunny but cold day. I used to be a lot more shy about rope solo ice climbing, but now not so much.

Stairway to Heaven Ice Climbing
Stairway to Heaven Ice Climbing in Provo Canyon

Ice Climbing Stairway Approach

I walked up the snow and ice covered road for nearly a half mile to the ascent up the gully to the ice climbing area. I saw crampon tracks the whole way, and stopped to put my crampons on before going up the gully. It is a steep climb of about 400′ to the foot of the frozen falls. Last time there was hardly any snow on it. This time it was a very good thick packed snow ramp and easy in crampons. Well, easy footing but steep. As I hiked up I rested a bit to keep my heart rate down. I moved slowly and scoped out a line a little to the right of where we had climbed over two weeks ago. The ice looked very thick there.

approach gully to Stairway to Heaven Ice Climbing routes
Ascending the gully to the base of Stairway to Heaven

I stopped at the foot of the falls and put in a screw to attach my water bottles to the ice climbing wall so I wouldn’t have to haul them up with me. I had two water bottles, one with electrolyte mix [my favorite right now is Camelbak Elixir 12 Tablet Tube], and the other with water. I also had a shaker bottle of protein mix, since I hadn’t eaten in a while. I put on my insulated jacket, holstered an ice tool and using the other as a pole, hiked up around the right to the first shelf.

ice climbing routes at Stairway to Heaven
Fat ice climbing conditions at Stairway

There was a pretty good flow of water at the far right side. I stepped carefully over the ice and gravel bridges then onto the ice and snow shelf. On the way up I had eyeballed a landmark to tell me where to set the anchor on the chains over the route. Sometimes they’re buried in the ice and hard to find. Sure enough they were buried in the ice, but the pipes marking them were sticking out. I used my ice tool to chip them out. Water was loudly gurgling behind and around the chains, and dripping down the surface of the ice. It seemed weird to me to have running water at 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I guess it’s sunny enough to melt the snow and ice up higher in the sun, even though the ice climbing down here is cold in the shade.

ice climbing solo anchor setup
Toprope Solo Anchor System based on Petzl System

Ice Climbing Solo Anchor Setup

I clipped into the anchor to protect myself in the unlikely event of a slip and fall. The edge of the world here is about 8′ from the anchors. Not really much time to self-arrest. I took off my pack and clipped it in, stowed my tool in a deep slot in the ice someone else had used and made an anchor. I usually use two short ropes in a system I learned from the Petzl website. It’s pretty well doubled up and redundant and all the important things. I flipped the ropes over the edge of the world.

rapping down the first pitch to begin ice climbing
Ready to rap down over the first pitch of Stairway to Heaven

I set up my rappel using my handy-dandy Petzl Reverso 3, then unclipped my tether from the anchor. The locker was covered in a thin layer of ice. The webbing of my tether was totally stiff. Water had soaked into it and turned into ice in the webbing. I bent it around my neck without thinking too much about it, then rappelled over the edge and to the bottom of the route I’d selected. Sometime while I was up setting my anchor a couple of other climbers had started lead ice climbing about a hundred feet to my left. No biggie. I straightened up the ends of the rope and tied in knots about 2′ off the ground. I clipped the water bottles to them for weight to help the system feed. I set up the most recent toprope self-belay version on the Petzl website using a GriGri and an ascender, but the GriGri wouldn’t feed with just the water bottle weight.

toperope solo ice climbing rig
Toprope Solo Rig based on Petzl Instructions with some modification YMMV

Ice Climbing Solo System Failure

I switched to the Shunt trailing about 18″ off my harness. I doubt I’ll reach for it in the middle of a fall and disable the cam [see article about Petzl Vague Shunt Warning]. I’ll try hard not to anyway. Just a quick aside. This is actually very dangerous in spite of any light I might make of it. Please don’t ever do this. I started up the route then. The ice was very plastic to the right side, and a bit brittle to the left. Weird. The ropes fed really nicely. It was awesome fun climbing. Suddenly the rope seemed a bit tight and heavy. I looked down to see the pink rope from the Shunt looping and the water bottle coming up after me. The Shunt was coated in ice. I reached down to shake it free, but it was down between my knees courtesy of the 18″ of webbing. I was about 25′ up the 60′ route. The ascender was feeding nicely though.

at the top of my ice climbing solo
At the top. Whew! That was a tough solo. (note frozen rope loops under feet)

For a while. For about 10′ actually. By then I had a frozen loop of stiff pink rope maybe 20′ long. The Shunt rope. Now I had a loop forming of the yellow rope. I pulled on the ascender and fed some rope in. I decided that I only had about 20′ of ice climbing to go. If I were leading I would probably just top out without any more pro. That was the logic of the moment anyway. In fact, a few years ago I was leading a little to the right where the cliff was 50′ tall and had set only two screws. I was sinking my right tool perfect on every swing. My left was off the mark a bit and took a few swings. In the interest of safety I began switching. I stuck it with my right hand, grabbed it with my left, then took the other tool in my right and stuck that. I did that for the last 10′ of ice climbing. As I crested the bulge my feet came off the ice and I did a pullup over the lip. I made it to the top. And I was really wasted.

toprope solo ice climbing on frozen ropes and gear
Water soaked and frozen ropes

I clipped in and pulled up the frozen ropes. They were stiff and the ice climbing self-belay system was frozen up. I unclipped the gear and stowed it on my harness. Both ropes, yellow and pink, were frozen for most of their lengths. I realized then that if I had fallen going over the bulge at the top I would probably have taken a 40′ whipper. Maybe more with rope stretch. I did have really good sticks with the tools though. I set up my rappel. It was difficult getting the rope to fold into the belay device. As I passed over the edge of the world, the rope began to slide through my hands. It was covered in an icy layer all the way down. Fortunately the ice had to peel off passing through the Reverso, so that slowed me down a lot.

icy rappel after ice climbing solo
Ice on the rope, my glove, and the Reverso while rappelling

Partway down I decided that one lap was good enough for ice climbing under these conditions. I put on my insulated jacket and drank my protein shake. About that time another solo climber came up and I chatted with him a bit. I went to the top to retrieve my ropes and pro, taking my backpack to load it in. I walked around the far right again. I had to chip out my stuff and bang the ice from it. I had to dig out my ice screw. The ropes were really stiff and wouldn’t go into my backpack very well. They took up about half again as much space.

frozen ice climbing ropes
Frozen Ropes after ice climbing solo on Stairway to Heaven

I managed to squeeze everything into the bag and exchanged information with the other solo guy, in case we decide to do any ice climbing together in the future. I hiked down the gully and left my crampons on all the way to the road.

hiking back to the car after ice climbing
Hiking back to the car after my ice climbing adventure on Stairway

Ice Climbing Aftermath

At home I dumped out my pack to start thawing and drying out my gear. Overall it was an amazing and educational ice climbing experience. From now on I’ll have to carry an extra screw, sling, and set of lockers as an emergency measure. If my rope and system get junked up with ice again I can just quick set a screw, clip in, and hang while straightening everything out. I can also go old school and tie in to the rope with a sliding clove hitch rig.

frozen rope at home after ice climbing
Stiff rope after ice climbing in running water on a freezing day