I Meet Jim Whittaker
and other stories


Jim Whittaker as bag boy at REI

Ice Climbing "Ringer"

In my first year at Colorado State University I attended meetings of the Climbing Club. One of the members offered to teach an ice climbing course and I decided to take the course, thinking I had never really climbed “ice” in the proper sense. While I had traversed a very exposed ice apron doing the Ptarmigan Ridge route on Mount Rainier, my only other experience with ice was the compacted snow ice of glaciers, not the water ice common in Colorado winter climbs.

On the appointed weekend, students of the class met and carpooled into the mountains where we could find some ice. The course was rather dull for me, as the instructor covered very basic things that applied to any ice. We then did some easy climbing – I was beginning to think this was a waste of time. Finally, I suggested we hike to the top of a nearby cliff, lower students down next to a frozen waterfall and give top belays for anyone who wanted to try to climb it. Everyone agreed this would be a great idea, so we headed off. Having reached the top of the cliff we set up a solid belay. No-one appeared anxious to be first, so I volunteered. I rappelled about 40 feet to a ledge, traversed to the waterfall and started to climb.

At this point I should mention that I had cheap but very durable REI crampons plus a Chouinard ice axe and ice hammer. The instructor had the latest light weight, big-name crampons and the latest specialized ice climbing axes. I had sharpened the front points on my crampons to a razor edge. In addition to sharpening, I had filed the ice axe and hammer picks back for a negative angle of attack – this means they contacted the ice at a very sharp point rather than with an edge like an ice skate. The rationale for this preparation is that ice melts when pressure is applied; a sharp edge or point can apply a lot of pressure to a small area and will gradually melt into the ice as weight is applied. On snow ice (ice formed by compacted snow), a hard blow will drive a tool into the ice but on water ice (ice formed by freezing water), a hard blow will chip away ice without necessarily establishing a good hold. On water ice it is better to rely on melting into a good placement. This is great in theory, but I had never tried it in practice.

I started to climb the very steep ice, axe in one hand and hammer in the other. The sharp points meant I only had to gently tap crampons, axe or hammer into the ice and apply weight for them to melt into the ice and provide adequate support for my full weight. The higher I went the steeper it got, until it was starting to overhang toward the top, where the water had continued to flow and freeze over existing ice. To complicate the situation, the rope had gotten caught on an outcrop and I had told my belayer to start letting rope out so I could proceed up. And, since I was no longer technically “top roped” I told him to prepare for a real fall. As the degree of overhang increased so did the difficulty of maintaining three solid points of support. Several times a new placement of crampon, axe or hammer would not hold and had to be redone. At one point the hammer and one crampon came out of the ice and I pivoted from the face on the axe and one crampon. I managed to get four good supports again, but felt that if I moved any one of them I would come off completely. I quickly pulled the hammer back, gave it a gentle tap into a higher placement and slowly applied weight; it melted firmly into the ice and held. That was all I needed to pull myself over the bulge at the top of the waterfall and onto the final few feet of easy ice. My hands and arms were so tight from the exertion I had trouble letting go of the axe and hammer.

At this point I think the instructor thought I was making too much of a show and decided he would go next. He rappelled down and started looking for marks that would indicate where I had climbed. Since I had relied on the sharpness of my equipment to penetrate the ice, the marks I left were quite indistinct. He finally located some marks and began to climb. Before he got to the overhanging part, he was slamming his equipment into the ice in an attempt to get good placements. The front points of his lightweight crampons bent from the force and he was unable to climb any higher. We had to lower him down so he could find an easy way up.

I taught the course for the remainder of the day.

How Many Pull-ups Can You Do?

One of my fellow graduate students was on the Lacrosse team. At an afternoon post-colloquim tea party, he speculated regarding the relative physical prowess of Lacrosse players versus mountain climbers. Finally, he challenged me to a test of physical strength. In a show of magnaminty, he observed that mountain climbers were probably good at pull-ups and challenged me to a contest. He asked me how many I could do.

“One,” I said. He looked rather surprised. I walked to a nearby door and did a pull-up on the door jamb. The jamb was barely ¼ inch thick, but it was easy for me since I did this many times every day as a quick break from studies.

“After you,” I said. He walked to the door, tried to get a grip on the jamb but could not.

“You jumped,” he said. I went back to the door, got my fingers onto the jamb and bent my knees to hang freely. I did a pull-up, lowered myself and, without touching the floor, did a second pull-up.

“I lied,” I said. “I can do two pull-ups.”

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