Ice Climbing Report – Pyrenees

Newsletter 11 – The Ice Edition, January 2024

I’ve never been so happy to be back at the comfort of my desk on a Monday!

I spent this past weekend out in the Pyrenees on an ice climbing trip with some new friends, and it’s fair to say that I made some mistakes and learnt some valuable lessons during this time.

I like to base my content on the things I mess up. I think this is a useful strategy for both of us. As I write, I get to relive the experience with the clarity and benefit of hindsight, and you get to learn the mistakes the easy way.

Even though this trip was based on Ice Climbing, I am confident that many of these lessons will translate to you as a hiker, mountaineer, runner, or whatever your chosen mountain discipline. 

Always remember this: ‘You win, or you learn.’

My climbing partners – Left: Oriol, Right: Jan

Ice Climbing Report – Central Pyrenees January 2024.

This weekend I joined two new friends Jan and Oriol for an amazing adventure into the high Mountains. Jan and Oriol are both very young, very fit and talented alpinists. At 22 years of age, they have already accumulated thousands of hours in the mountains doing whatever the conditions allow them to do. They’re both strong, focused, athletic and extremely pragmatic for their age. So when Jan suggested we take an ice climbing trip, I was totally up for it. We hashed out a plan to locate and climb some of Spain’s longest, hardest and most remote frozen waterfalls in the Pineta Valley, deep in the heart of the Pyrenees on the border of Spain and France.

Climbing frozen waterfalls is tricky business. Not only does it require a healthy balance or skill, strength, endurance and knowledge,  it’s also a case of being in the right place at the right time, especially in a country as warm as Spain. One can arrive to find the falls in either solid frozen, rotten or non existent. 

But the only way to find out is to get up and go!

We began the adventure at the Refugio Pineta, which sits deep in the Pineta valley with some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees on either side of a large previously glaciated valley. I distinctly remember coming down the western side of this valley when I completed the GR11 trail in the summer of 2020 – and this place in particular was hard to forget.

In my opinion, the descent to Refugio Pineta is one of the longest and most brutal descents of the entire 880km of the GR11 – and we needed to ascend this side of the valley to access the falls.

Oriol and Jan scoping out the falls from the opposing side of the Pineta Valley

When we arrived at Refugio Pineta, we were hopeful that the Tres Marias falls would be in condition, but the only way to find out was to do the 4-5 hour uphill slog with 20kg+ of gear and food and hope that we timed it correctly.

We had the chance to speak to the hut warden of the refugio before leaving, but what he said made our hearts sink.

He informed us that the falls were in good condition until a recent rise in temperatures melted all of them in a day. Since we had heard different information from other climbers, we decided to take a reconnaissance hike up the opposite side of the valley to see if we could locate the falls.

Luckily the weather was clear and stable and when we climbed the Eastern side of the valley we were pleased to see a small pillar of frozen ice hanging from the Western cliffs – it was enough information for us to decide it was worth hauling all the gear – at least to take a look.

I had the idea of flying the drone up to take a closer look at the falls but then came to the realisation that we were in the Ordesa-Monte Perdido National Park which is one of two Parks in the Pyrenees where drones are strictly prohibited due to the sensitive bird population. So the easy reconnaissance option was out of the question.

With a glimmer of hope in our hearts we decided to pack our bags and start the long, steep and arduous journey from the 1200m valley floor all the way up to the 2300m line where we hoped to find the falls.

With heavy packs and large climbing boots the ascent was quite slow, but our pace was steady.

A late start from the valley floor. Oriol is wearing two bags which earned him the trail name ‘2 bags’

After several hours on a steep, overgrown and barely marked trail, we ascended past the tree line and up into the higher reaches of the valley. As the views opened up around us, the snow became increasingly deeper and softer, to the point where we were occasionally swimming through knee deep powder for several steps in order to gain a single metre. 

Occasionally I would sink in the snow up to my hips which began to sap my strength and morale. Although I can’t say the same for Oriol.  The vast majority of trail breaking was done by him – an early sign that I was in the finest company.

Unfortunately our efforts were not rewarded quickly, as we arrived at the headwall to find only small remnants of a single frozen waterfall at the 2200m mark.

I was doubtful of the existence of more falls, and suggested that we consider changing our plans to climb the North Face of Monte Perdido instead – but in the end we decided to follow the headwall further North to see if we could find the ice pillar that we saw from the opposite side of the valley.

After a few more hours of swimming through knee deep snow, and passing several streams of avalanche debris, we rounded several corners to see more and more snow, but very little ice.

Oriol was way ahead and as he rounded a large cornice his posture changed, and from a distance I could read the excitement in his body.

He waved excitedly with his ice axe and pointed up to our left.

We had found the 3 falls. Our efforts had paid off!

Traversing as close to the headwall as possible to lower avalanche risk

Three large, vertical frozen waterfalls hung like crystal chandeliers from the headwall at 2300m. They sparkled in the sub zero temperatures in near perfect condition – exactly where the other climbers said they would be. My faith in Spanish winter was restored!

With night looming, we decided to search for a safe place to camp and rest up for a day of climbing the following day.

A few minutes later we found a perfect overhang under a rocky headwall which would protect us from both the wind and any possible avalanches. We quickly established an open bivouac by digging flat platforms in the snow, laying down our camping mats and fluffing up our sleeping bags – coincidently all 3 of us had Cumulus sleeping bags which speaks something of their adequacy for these kinds of situations.

By 6:30pm we were safely chatting away in our sleeping bags, melting snow and cooking dinner. A half moon lit up the valley so brightly that we barely needed to use head torches. We fell asleep under shelter of the rock cave with a partial view of a clear starry sky which hinted at perfect conditions for the following day.

With almost 12 hours of deep, comfortable sleep, we awoke at 6am and started melting more snow for the day. The water I boiled tasted like burnt pasta from last night’s dinner but it would have to suffice for today – in the sub zero temperatures there was no chance of finding water this high up.

By 7:30am we had packed our climbing gear and left our camping gear in the cave which we planned to return to before descending.

The approach to the falls was fast, but fairly challenging in increasingly deeper snow.

Below us, we could see no less than 3 streams of avalanche debris. Upon testing the snowpack it confirmed our fears that the slope we were traversing was a ticking time bomb.

We continued to traverse carefully and tried to put the thoughts of avalanche danger to the side. To minimise the risk we stayed as close to the rock as we could, but the risk continued to loom as every other step sent large square blocks of snow hurtling down the slope beneath us.

Step by step, breath by breath, we eventually arrived at the bottom of the most impressive of the three falls, which loomed above. We slowly made our way to the closest of the three falls which offered a long and fairly gentle start.

It began in a small gully, then offered a snowbank about a third the way up – and finished with a final crux – a large, free hanging ice pillar which tediously hung above, only partially connected to the slightly overhanging headwall.

The 3 Marias – We climbed the falls on the left which are partially obscured

Jan, the strongest ice climber out of the 3 of us, beamed with excitement. Oriol and I remained fairly quiet as we unpacked all of the gear, being careful not to send anything on a one way journey to the hanging valley below us.

I put on my crampons, took out my ice axes and started studying the falls.

The first section looked fairly friendly to me, so I offered to take the first lead. I figured this would be the easiest and likely the safest pitch to take a fall on, and it was probably my only real chance being able to get a lead climb in, given my relative inexperience.

My first swing with the axe was all I needed to feel confident. The pick of my axe sunk deep into the ice, so much so that I had difficulty getting it out. The adrenaline started to pump and I reduced my breathing to a silent, almost still breath

One placement at a time, I made my way up the gully at first, then traversed right onto the first truly vertical section where I placed my first screw.

Unlike other forms of climbing, protecting an ice climb relies solely on temporary states. Meaning that the safety of the climb relies solely on smart placements of ice screws and the maintenance of sub zero temperatures. If the temperatures rise, the risk increases.

As I ascended the wall, I felt confident in my body, my breath and the points of my crampons and axes. I was surprised by my confidence, often looking down to realise I was 3-4 metres above my last ice screw, which would result in a 7-8 metre fall at the least.

I put the thought of falling completely out of my mind, and concentrated only on making good swings of my axes and solid foot placements. Finally, after placing 4 or 5 ice screws, I pulled myself up over the ledge to find a solid slab of hard crusty snow.

I let out a scream of joy as my crampons made contact with less vertical ground, and I made my way up to the top of the snowbank to find another solid sheet of ice to place in 2 new ice screws in order to form a belay for Oriol and Jan.

Soon enough, both young Catalans had arrived at my belay station and Jan volunteered to lead the next pitch which looked much steeper, and offered no visible signs of a logical belay point.

I belayed as Jan slowly, but confidently climbed up and to the right, out of sight. Both Oriol and I remained at the belay and watched as some of the ice stalactites above us started to drip with melt water – the temperatures were obviously rising quickly, and our window of opportunity was rapidly closing.

Jan called down from above stating that he had established a good belay point, and Oriol began to follow him up, leaving me alone at the bottom of the second pitch to watch the ice melt. 

Once Oriol was safely above me, I removed the 2 ice screws that I set up as an anchor and started up the second pitch of vertical ice, collecting the screws that Jan had placed as I ascended.

This section offered a longer, more sustained vertical section, which challenged me physically, but it was mentally, far easier, knowing that Jan was belaying me safely from above. A fall at this point would result in only a 1-2 metre drop due to the dynamic nature of the rope – but I had no intention of falling. Again, I focused my attention only on the breath and good swings of the hands and feet.

The second pitch rounded the ice fall from left to right, and culminated in a small chimney with ice on one side and solid rock on the other. I arrived to find Oriol and Jan tucked closely into the corner with a very solid looking ice anchor – but sadly, no other possible option for traditional rock protection. As much as my logical brain knows that ice is as strong as concrete, there was still a slither of doubt in my mind that would continue to torment me for the next few hours.

No sooner than I had arrived, Jan readied himself to continue climbing – I was a little bit surprised…

Who is this kid? And how did he gain such a strong physical and mental ability at only 22 years old?

There was no sense of Spanish bravado or over confidence in either of these young guys. Up until this point, they had both demonstrated a quiet confidence underpinned by a very conservative and measured approach to mountain safety – despite hanging 60 metres above a near vertical ice pillar that hung precariously to the overhanging rock face, I knew that I was safe and in good company as Jan rounded the ice pillar and began making his way the third and final pitch.

As Jan climbed, Oriol and I remained in perfect silence. For what seemed like an hour we said nothing to one another. I eventually broke the silence by asking Oriol….

‘So, are you going to send it?

Oriol – “yeah I don’t know…what do you think?’

Me – “Well, I don’t really want to, but I’m not staying here alone, if you do it I’m going to have to do it as well!’

Another long period of silence followed.

Then, Jan screamed out something unintelligible from above. From the movements of the rope we understood that he was setting up and anchor in anticipation of our ascent.

For a brief moment, I tried to falsify positive thoughts and visualise a successful attempt on the final pitch. I could see myself getting through the climb, absolutely loving the experience and reaching the top in exhilaration. But the negativity rushed back in swiftly when I looked down at my watch. 

It was 1pm. 

It had taken Jan about 45-60 minutes to ascend the pillar. I looked up the valley to see the midday sun scorching the top of a nearby peak. I turned to Oriol:

‘I don’t think it’s wise for me to do this man. It’s midday, this pillar is melting and it’s barely attached to the wall. It doesn’t feel right to me.’

I spoke the truth, but it was obviously laden with fear. 

Oriol – “yeah me neither, I’m at my limit.’ 

Neither of us had climbed a water ice this difficult (WI 5/6) and it was not the right place to start. We both made the decision to call Jan down and repel as soon as we could, but as soon as we attempted to communicate with Jan, we both realised we had made a serious error.

Unexpectedly, Jan was out of ear shot – we could not communicate to him the decision we had both made. In our rush to climb the pillar before it melted, we had failed to have the honest conversation about what should occur if we decided it was not for us.

To be fair, Jan began the climb being quite uncertain himself. I was sure that once he saw the hanging pillar he would back off. But he didn’t, he fucking sent it.

Now, Oriol and I are both huddled together in the corner, both of us refusing to climb as Jan intermittently yelled out intelligible things from above.

I looked at my watch.

2:20pm.

We had been sitting in this belay station for more than 2 hours already and our energy and moral was falling quicker than our core temperatures.

Our attempts of communicating with Jan either by yelling or pulling the rope had not yielded any results.

I kept my eyes glued above, hoping to see ice falling from above, the tell tale signs that Jan had decided to descend. There was nothing, only deafening silence.

Another hour passed.

Was he even still there? Has something gone wrong?

We yelled out again… A faint yell followed shortly after, but we couldn’t make out a single word. I didn’t even know if he was yelling in English or Catalan.

Staring at the rope Oriol was attached to, I had an idea.

‘Bro, untie your rope. Let him pull it all the way up. Straight away he’s going to know that noone is coming up – then he’ll get the message.’

Reluctantly, Oriol fastened himself to the ice anchor a second time and he set his end of the rope free. It disappeared out of our belay area and out to the front of the waterfall.

Again, we waited in silence. 

More screaming, more muffled replies – but nothing concrete.

I strained my neck to look upward, hoping to see signs of Jan descending… but nothing.

I pulled out my Garmin inReach and stared at the SOS button.

‘We can hit this button and there will be a helicopter here in an hour.” I told myself.

The more measured, logical part of my brain replied:

“This is not an emergency. You just have to be patient.

The tight space Oriol and I were stuck in for well over 3 hours.

I put the SOS device away and started moving my arms about as much as I could in the tight space. I attempted to wiggle my toes but they didn’t respond. I briefly considered putting my arm around Oriol to share some of his warmth but the thought of it made the situation seem unnecessarily bleak. I shuffled about nervously in my place and finished off the last remnants of a Clif bar, eyes glued to the sky.

After some time (I have no idea how much) my own rope began to feel slack, and soon enough the rope started to slowly gather at our feet.

‘Oh, thank fuck… he’s coming down. He got the message.’

Another half an hour later and we heard the sweet sound of crampons scraping against the ice. Oriol tentatively moved his head around the pillar as much as his tether would allow, and finally he could see Jan rappelling.

Minutes later we were all reunited, and Jan recounted his version of events.

Jan had been patiently waiting at the top, assuming that one or both of us was struggling aggressively with the start of the climb. He never took us off belay until he realised that no one was actually attached to the red rope – smart kid.

All up we had probably wasted 3 and a half hours of sitting in the cold ice, wondering what was happening when all we needed was a little bit of clear communication.

A preeminent conversation, or a radio would have saved us a lot of time, shivering, nervousness and worry. It’s a clear lesson to learn but unfortunately it’s not the first time I’ve had to learn it.

‘Never do multi-pitch climbing without radios!’

Finally rappelling from from the waterfall after spending an entire day on it
The end of the adventure, returning to the Pineta Valley

I decided to take the time to retell this account, not to fill space on an empty page, but to teach my brain a lesson – once and for all.

When we write down the stories of adventure it allows us a second chance to reenact the events, which helps us to learn the lessons – rather than directly moving onto the next adventure. If this continues, we tend to forget the horrific realities of adventure gone wrong without the benefits of self reflection.

Without self reflection, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

So I encourage you to write an adventure diary. A journal, a blog, or even just sketch out the notes of the key lessons from your adventure.

There is no greater teacher than experience, but in order for the lessons to be truly integrated and understood, the brain needs solid evidence, logic and analysis.

Good memories will only get you so far. We have to catalog the good and the bad so our subconscious is prepared for the new tasks ahead.

I hope you learned the key lessons here:

1. Communication is everything!

2. Stay calm and follow your breath in stressful situations

2. Write a journal/blog to record your findings

Thanks for reading what was a little bit of a different newsletter this month.

Chase