It has a lyric name, Bridalveil Fall, and a majestic setting in the ragged San Juan Mountains, a mile or so above the Idorado Mine in Telluride, Colo. The fall starts at the brow of a 410-foot cliff where Bridalveil Creek drops away in a deafening cascade that generates enough power to light a sizable town. The plunging water creates violent patterns over rocky chutes and strikes angry rainbows in the mist that billows up. It hits bottom with terrible impact, and its thunder echoes in repeating detonations off the walls going down the canyon.
This is in the summer. In winter, all the violence stands paralyzed. Force has been over-powered by cold, and there is only silence. The scars from this battle between water and winter are visible all the way up the 40-story column of ice. There are knobs and odd writhings and strange gashes. Feathered arcs of frost and ice spread like angel wings along the cliffs to each side.
Bridalveil Fall is mute as marble in winter, but there is so much force locked into its frozen length that it still seems fraught with danger. There is a supernatural quality about it; it is a place where no man would care to venture.
Jeff Lowe is 28 years old, slender and bespectacled. He has long flaxen hair and the serene look of a seminary student. He stands looking at the fall on this late winter afternoon and says, casually, "It looks in better shape than I might have expected." He tilts his head back. "Those dark streaks up there might be a little rotten." His head goes farther back. "But it looks as if it could be O.K. all the way." Then he brings his head forward. "Climbing ice is sort of self-limiting. It's hard enough to do in good conditions without pushing yourself to climb when it's dangerous. If you're smart enough to climb ice, you're also smart enough to know when not to climb ice." He kneels in the snow and starts to rummage in his rucksack for his equipment.
December 11, 1978
Jeff Lowe has decided that today he is possibly smart enough to climb Bridalveil Fall. Alone. If he should succeed in this venture, it will be the first time that anyone has climbed it solo.
To an outsider, the prospect is frightening. Even to an expert climber, it is a daring idea. It was barely four years ago, in the winter of 1974, that two men managed to climb Bridalveil for the first time. That event is a celebrated accomplishment among climbers, described by author-climber Yvon Chouinard in his book Climbing Ice as "one of the most difficult waterfall climbs of the era."
One of the two men to make that historic ascent was Jeff Lowe; the other was his good friend Mike Weis. Now, as he unpacks his equipment at the foot of the fall, Lowe recalls the day. "There are not that many landmark climbs in your life. When Mike and I first tried it, Bridalveil was a total unknown. We had no idea we could do it. Technically, it turned out to be very difficult. At no time were we absolutely sure we could make it. It took us 10½ hours. At the end of any climb you always have some satisfaction—if nothing else, a kind of mellow craftsman's satisfaction. But when Mike and I got to the top of Bridalveil that first time, we started giggling and laughing. We rolled around like puppies. We slapped each other on the back. We howled and hollered. It was a little hokey, but we felt this incredible elation. Like we had just pulled off the crime of the century."
Lowe glances up Bridalveil once more and says, "There's probably not much about it today that is anything like that time we climbed it." He takes his crampons from his pack and then his ice ax. The ax has a curved and barbed point. Out comes a North Wall ice hammer; it has a similar curved sawtooth pick, but it also has a blunt end to be used for pounding in ice screws if he decides to belay on his way up. He coils a 150-foot length of Perlon rope at his waist, along with a cluster of ice screws, the pitons of "hard-water" climbers.
Lowe points out the route he will probably take: "Up the Apron about 60 feet, and that angle is, oh, maybe 75 degrees. Those lumps of ice above there are called cauliflowers or mushrooms, and there's an overhang—it could be tough. Then there might be some rotten ice—I don't like the color of it, but if it's O.K. it shouldn't be difficult. Then up there at 300 feet is another overhang. I don't know about that. If I get past all that, the last 100 feet look like they'll be like climbing a stairway—no strain." Most of the climb is going to be at about 90 degrees, pure vertical. Jeff Lowe finds this factor barely interesting: the condition of the ice surface is far more critical than its angle.
"The ice is wet, and that's good. It doesn't have that deep glassy blue that comes when it's really cold and brittle; ice' like that tends to shatter when you kick in a crampon or plant an ax. This is good because everything penetrates and bites like the ice is cork. The crampons will penetrate a good half inch—maybe more."
This may seem reassuring to Jeff Lowe, but one must consider that the "good half inch" he speaks of is going to be the foundation to support most of his weight. In effect, he will be standing on the side of the sheer ice wall, his boot soles horizontal to the vertical surface, held aloft by the bare half inch of penetration that his front crampon points have bitten into the ice. There are two forward points on the toe of each crampon; two more below them that slant on an angle downward. Together they stabilize the scant bite in the ice and attach the climber to the side of the fall. To an observer, it resembles the human-fly form of ascension more than other kinds of climbing because a man seems to be literally sticking to a sheer, slick surface.
Looking at the frozen waterfall, the outsider finds his thoughts returning insistently to the problem of ice shattering under the ax blows. The picture leaps to mind of huge slabs of ice breaking away. Lowe says, "It involves something that one might call the ice-cube theory. If you were to take an ice cube from the refrigerator tray, isolate it from the mass and hit it, it would shatter. But if you have a large mass of ice and hit it with a sharp object, you get some shattering—but you get penetration as well. And there is another important element: in large masses of ice, there are tiny air bubbles trapped inside. In the case of a developing fracture line, the air bubbles serve to stop it. You have to read the surface; when you strike at a section of ice without the bubbles, you'll get the sort of shattering that we call 'dinner-plating,' and that's bad."
Lowe examines his crampons. There is always the possibility of metal fatigue. He nods; they seem to be in good shape. Then he straps them on his hiking boots. He checks his ice screws and the loops of his rope. The ice screws, a Russian invention, are hollow tubes with exterior threads; they are hammered into the ice but can be screwed out. Lowe is not enthusiastic about setting a series of ice-screw belays up the fall. "It's time-consuming. But the worst of it is that it removes the reason for soloing. If you belay constantly, then you might as well be climbing with a partner."
The day is radiant under a brilliant sky with temperatures in the unseasonable 40s. But Bridalveil Fall maintains its mystique and its chill, for it stands in shadow throughout the day. The deep snow at the base is bluish in the shade. Lowe wallows through the last 15 yards of snow to the wide apron of ice leading up to the fall. There is a slight stagger to the pattern of his footprints; then he reaches the slick ice and he clambers up quickly on his crampons. His tracks in the snow stop abruptly at the base of the fall, as abruptly as if they were at the brink of a precipice. It is as if the walker had jumped or fallen into space.
Lowe pauses 30 feet up the relatively mild incline of the apron. There is a sharp, cannonlike explosion from far up on the peaks nearby. An avalanche breaks high and to the south of the fall. A sluicing cascade of snow plunges down a rocky chute toward the canyon floor. A moment later, there is another boom, and another avalanche spills over the brink. They will continue all afternoon, far-off facsimiles of the way Bridalveil Fall looks and sounds when it is alive and running.
The sport of climbing ice is about as old as man's need to climb mountains. There are watercolors from 400 B.C. China that show men climbing rock; in the winter they could hardly have avoided the ice. More recent ancestors to Jeff Lowe were shepherds of the Alps who maneuvered over slick and treacherous inclines shod with three-point crampons (a bit like spiked horseshoes), carrying iron-pointed staffs. Sometimes they chipped steps into the sheer ice walls with woodchoppers' axes. Climbing rocks, climbing ice, it was all the same to them—hard labor. Indeed, the whole idea of climbing mountains for fun did not come into any kind of popularity until the early 19th century, when a few of the hardier scions of British aristocracy began to do it in their abundant leisure time. At first, it was a suspect pursuit.
Many early climbers would embroider their journals with endless paragraphs of technical and scientific jargon, turning what was basically just good, dangerous fun into something that pretended to have more serious purpose. The era also offered mountaineers the excuse to pursue their sport ostensibly for patriotic interests—the cover-up motivation for being the first men to climb a certain peak. The world was willing, indeed delighted, to accept almost any pseudoscientific or patriotic reason as justification for such perilous folly as climbing sheer mountain faces. But never pure enjoyment. When two Englishmen named Frederick Slade and Yeats Brown announced in 1827 that they had just scaled the Jungfrau—and had done it simply for the fun of it—it was considered something of a scandal. Their honest lack of non-recreational justification for the expedition was seen as being somehow less than honorable, possibly even immoral, in that it put human life in jeopardy without other rationalization.
Still, as the 19th century rolled on and leisure time grew, climbing became acceptable as recreation. The theory that risking one's life climbing a mountain could be a justifiable form of pure sport became not only admissible but downright popular.
Climbing was one thing, climbing ice quite another. For those who practiced the sport, climbing ice was considered a vicious necessity, to be avoided if possible; almost no one sought ice on purpose. As Yvon Chouinard writes in Climbing Ice, "With its laborious step cutting, the fickle and often dangerous snow and ice was left behind for the more glamorous and dynamic rock, which anyway was closer to the essence of climbing—the ape swinging from limb to limb."
There were, however, a weird and hardy few who actually found climbing ice a joy and a huge entertainment, namely, the Scots. When the Scottish Mountaineering Club was founded in 1889, one of the major pursuits of its members was winter climbing under what they euphemistically called "full conditions," meaning to ascend an ice-plated cliffside in howling wind and heavy snow.
But the way of Scots mountaineers was not the way of the rest of the world—at least not until 1908, when an imaginative Englishman named Oscar Eckenstein invented the 10-point crampon. Before crampons, climbers had worn nailed boots, and they could not climb steep ice without cutting steps. This was usually accomplished by hired guides who chopped steep ladders in the ice while their toffs stood patiently in queue, one above the other on the icy cliff, waiting for one handhold to be hacked out, then another, then a footrest so they could all rise another step. With Eckenstein's crampons, men could clamber up quite steep inclines with no aid other than the bite of the bottom spikes.
Even though it was now possible to do it, ice climbing did not develop very far in the U.S. until the 1960s. And then it happened only as the logical aftermath to a more intense revolution that overtook mountain climbing in general. Lowe explains it this way. "I can't think of another sport that has undergone such a radical change in attitudes in such a short time as climbing. We're making climbs today—on rock as well as ice—that were sheer fantasy a few years ago. People aren't limited psychologically. There aren't any barriers of tradition. Men know now that, somehow, they are able to conquer any mountain."
Lowe began climbing when he was seven, accompanying his father on trips to the Grand Tetons. He grew to mature climbing just in time to participate in some of the more hair-raising exploits of the 1960s, that traumatic decade when everything from moon landings to hallucinogenic drugs worked to change man's perceptions about things—including the possibility of making previously impossible climbs. "Everyone was trying everything in the 60s," Lowe says. "Big-wall climbing was the thing, and there was a real aura to something like El Capitan [the famed 3,000-foot butte in Yosemite Park], a sense of mystery and risk. It wasn't that the height was so much, but that the face was so continuously steep, so sheer. You had to haul your gear up the side with you. You were hanging up there for five, six days. It was like you were leaving the earth, going on a long voyage. Of course, now those things are climbed all the time."
But so is ice climbed all the time now. Lowe is one of the acknowledged masters of the sport; his International Alpine School in Eldorado Springs, Colo. offers an intensive special course in ice only, and this winter Lowe is publishing a book called The Ice Experience. He estimates that there are probably no more than a few hundred truly expert "hard-water" mountaineers today, compared to several thousand first-class rock climbers. Explaining the reasons in his book, Lowe writes, "Perhaps the main difference between rock and ice climbing is that though the quality of rock can run the whole spectrum from crumbling sandstone to iron-hard granite, any given piece does not change a great deal from week to week or even year to year. Ice, on the other hand, exhibits daily, even hourly, change. A ribbon of water ice may exist only in the morning hours after a hard freeze, and by late afternoon all that remains is a wet streak on the rock."
"I'm not into bagging peaks," Lowe says. "The heavy K2 kind of expeditions aren't in the mainstream of mountaineering for me. What I like is climbing with the simplest tools, where you carry everything you need yourself. The problem with expedition-style climbing is that it results in a slow, tedious buildup which is almost bound to eliminate the possibility of a spontaneous and inspired ascent. Instead, the climber becomes something like a cog in a machine that operates in a vaguely militaristic fashion."
The optimum approach for the purist is to climb with no tools at all, but this is something sheer ice does not allow. As Lowe has written, "The rock climber may reject all tools, and even shoes and clothing, thus achieving a totally 'pure' experience. However, man is obliged to use tools to climb ice. The purity of the ice experience lies in learning to use the minimum number of aids in the most efficient manner possible."
He surveys Bridalveil Fall from a ledge above the apron. He is so small now against the mass of ice above him that it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of his presumption: that he will climb the face.
Lowe has begun his Lilliputian attack shortly after 2 p.m. Earlier, during the hike up on skis from Telluride, he had said something more profound than it might have seemed at the time. "Climbing ice is like chess games, because each climb has its own specific intricate set of problems to be solved. But here, the intellectual problems of climbing are also physical problems."
Now it is possible to watch this physio-intellectual game progress, as Lowe's mind analyzes the opponent and then thinks out the strategic moves. It is an eerie contest: slowly he begins to rise above the incline of the apron, ascending toward the first overhang, which is set up like a defense line of mushroom pawns 100 feet above the ground.
There is a meticulous efficiency to each movement. Always he keeps three points of contact with the sheer ice face—two axes and a crampon, two crampons and an ax. The kick of the crampon must penetrate in that precise half inch, then he must rest his weight in such a way that the angle of his foot is perfect, or he will drag the tips out of the ice. His legs must be relaxed sufficiently to avoid the tension that will turn into fatigue. The snap of the axes as they bite in, one after the other, must be as exact as surgery. Each blow is delivered with a clean flick of the wrist. It is machinelike and repetitious, yet sensitive. "There is a vibration of security that you feel through the axes," Lowe had said. "It is something that you sense in your wrist, in your arm...that the ax has hit and sunk in just right."
He climbs on. He comes to a brownish streak of ice that had looked rotten and weak from below. He finds that it is firm, three inches thick. It is also transparent, and he can see water trickling over moss and brown rocks behind the ice. All through the climb, even from behind the most opaque, thick plate of ice, Lowe can always hear the gurgle of water running.
He reaches the first overhang, and it almost becomes the end of the climb, only 100 feet up. Later, he will say, "I wasn't prepared for the extreme difficulty of that overhang. There was no room to swing cleanly. There were big icicles over my head, and I definitely didn't want them to fall on me. I needed a short tool where I could swing shorter. I had to constantly counteract the urge to hurry. I got scrunched into a weird position, but I had to be sure I didn't hurry too much and end up with a marginal placement of an ax. There was lots of rotten ice. I just kept working and working until I had a bombproof placement. I moved where I could."
Lowe also committed his moves to memory; his book on ice climbing was not quite finished, and this attempt would add new material to the manuscript. A few days later, Lowe put it all down, writing in first person about the near-hypnotic concentration he riveted on this section of the climb. "A long time is required to find a way past the overhang. The problem is bold, but the solution is intricate. I lose myself in an effort to find the combination that will unlock this passage. The underside of the bulge is a cathedral apse.... I reach into a slippery hole at the point where the ice begins to jut out to form the ceiling. A small indentation is found that's just enough, but my fingers are being washed in waves of cold that seep through the wool covering. They will soon be numb and useless. 'Stay calm,' the mind instructs the body. Vision becomes acute, time slows down until there is plenty...."
Lowe works beneath the overhang for half an hour, maybe more. He plants an ax, moves his foot a few inches and kicks with his crampons, plants an ax again. He ends up in an ungainly wide straddle between two ribs of ice, one foot almost as high as one shoulder. He manages to work an arm up over the ledge, then finally makes an ax point stick. He pulls himself up onto the overhang. He has made it. But it is long after 3 p.m., and he still has more than 300 feet to go to the top.
Now he finds that his rope is snagged on a lump of ice below him on the ledge above the apron. Irked, he pounds in two ice screws, belays his rope and rappels down to free the snag. Then he quickly climbs back up along the rope to the top of the overhang he has just managed to surmount with such desperate concentration and physical effort.
He pauses a moment, then begins the rest of the climb on a slightly diagonal route from left to right. There is a chute of brownish ice that may be too thin to climb, and the angle of the waterfall face is now almost always at 90 degrees—straight up, straight down. The idea of hanging from a vertical face is chilling enough to the imaginative outsider who has never done it. Yet the true orientation of a man on such a wall is even more frightening than one imagines: he is not actually standing straight up and down but must lean out a bit—backward—from the wall in order to have room to work his body and his tools.
Lowe's cautious planting of ax, ax, crampon, crampon now takes on an oddly tranquil and regular rhythm. Yet no circus tightrope walker or daredevil steeplejack ever created more tension in an audience than Jeff Lowe does as he slowly manipulates his slim body up the sheer face of Bridalveil Fall.
Later, he speaks of it with analytical detachment. "You can't muscle your way through a climb like this. You have to grope along, figure it out by yourself, foot by foot. I find great satisfaction in performing that series of similar movements over and over and over again. Each one must be done perfectly. You can never let your concentration lapse, despite the sameness of the movement. Ice climbing is a lot more alien than rock climbing. Sometimes it seems to have no connection with reality at all, but that's when you will have serious problems—when you start to let go of your tics with reality during a climb. The harder it gets, the stranger it gets, and the more you'd better be squared around in your own head."
The afternoon remains radiant, and avalanches continue to crack in the peaks and spill down the canyon walls on both sides. Now Lowe has risen above 200 feet. It is almost 4:30 p.m., and the sun will set in another 90 minutes or so. He has belayed himself above the first tough overhang, and now he has reached the end of the length of rope. He must make a decision: go on alone, with no protection, or climb back down. He pauses, holding himself on the ice face with the half-inch purchase made by his crampons, hanging comfortably out on the two ice axes by the nylon loops around his wrists.
He stands motionless for a moment, his head back, examining the route above. He decides to go for it. He pounds in another ice screw to tie off the upper end of the rope and then, for the first time, he is climbing free. He is unattached, 20 stories up and climbing.
To the uninitiated, each move, each crack of the ax or kick of the crampons becomes a kind of unbearable climax of its own. The rope is left farther and farther below as Lowe rises a few feet, then a couple of yards, 10 yards.
He is truly aloft now, seeming almost to be afloat on that translucent surface. Leaving the rope behind is a critical transition in the climb. Lowe is acutely aware of it; later he explains what was going through his mind. "Before I decided to leave the rope, I looked up and thought about where I was going as rationally as I could. I tried to get rid of all emotion. Climbing solo is always an emotional thing, and I needed a perfectly rational calculation before I could make the decision to go higher. Below me there was no protection at all from then on. I hadn't had much anyway, but now there was nothing. I was very conscious of leaving the line. But I knew the ice was O.K. now. And I knew I was climbing better and better the higher I went.
"This is the hardest solo I've ever done—and I was well aware of that, too. But once I left the rope, I actually felt better. There was less uncertainty. There wasn't any possibility for retreat, and that made me feel sharper. More lucid. Now I could concentrate everything on going ahead, with no thought at all of going back. That's a great feeling."
Did he feel the presence of fear more without the rope than with it? "No, no more or less than before. You get to a certain point on any climb where you are high enough so that you know you are going to eat it if you fall. Once you're past that height, there is no point in thinking about falling anymore. There is always an element of fear in a climb. You need it. Fear shapes your perceptions."
He climbs smoothly, precisely. The sky is turning just toward lavender in the east; it is now after 5 p.m. The waterfall is becoming more gloomy, the colors in the ice deepening to blue and purple in a suggestion of the coming night. The snow also is turning blue, and only the high peaks and brinks of the canyon walls catch the wintry orange light of the setting sun.
Lowe comes to the threatening overhang at 300 feet. He finds that there is a small chimney rising through it. His next moves are executed with consummate care: he squeezes into the chimney and inches upward. Emerging at the top, he crawls out and over a final lip of ice. He now faces the last span of 100 feet. It is slick and sheer, straight up.
Recalling it in The Ice Experience, Lowe describes his perceptions during these last 100 feet of the climb. "Unleashed from the rope, body and mind feel lighter. No thoughts of failure now. Real difficulties seem to disappear.... Unexpectedly, there is a change in orientation, as if the ice is falling forward in front of me. I realize after a moment that my vertigo is a result of a lessening of the angle of the ice. Adrenaline spurts through my system when I look up to see that an easy slope is all that separates me from the top of the climb. But the adrenaline is wrong. To rush the climb now would be folly.... Every last step to the end is made as carefully as all the rest. The deep water-worn gorge at the top of the falls is a final tunnel between the climb and the other world to which I now return...."
As twilight falls, he has become a silhouette against the spill of white ice at the top. Then, suddenly, he is outlined against the sky. He waves one hand, gripping the ice ax, then he disappears over the lip and, seemingly, into the sky.
It is over. Jeff Lowe has soloed Bridalveil Fall. No man had ever done what he has just done. How triumphant he must feel.
But, no. Some 20 minutes after he disappeared at the top, he reappears at the bottom, having walked through the deep snow around the side of the rock wall. He is serene, outwardly untouched by the drama of his feat. It is easy to overstate the size of his accomplishment, but Lowe's coolness over the climb nearly tips it out of proportion the other way. "This is not really the same thrill I felt the first time," he says. "Sure, this is the hardest solo climb I've ever done, but I really knew all the time that I could do it. When Mike and I went the first time, we had no idea if it was possible to climb the fall. Everything was harder, the problems more concentrated. This was a lot more mellow."
Mellow? It scarcely seems the right word to define such a feat. Still, it has been Lowe's triumph, so let him describe it as he wishes.
The moon is rising over the canyon wall, and the face of old Bridalveil Fall, as familiar in its way now as the face of a friend, catches the moonlight here and there. It glints like polished brass. Something over four hours have passed since Lowe began his climb. An afternoon has gone. The quitting-time whistle blows at the Idorado Mine and, suddenly, reality rushes back. While Lowe climbed that face of ice, men elsewhere were mining copper, catching trains, pouring cement, making money. How does Jeff Lowe's achievement fit into all that? Just what was the point of climbing an icefall?
Naturally, Lowe has fielded this hoariest of all mountaineering questions many times before. "One of the biggest problems about climbing is to feel that what you are doing is O.K., and that it is worth doing. In fact, there is no point to anything you do—or anyone else does—unless you give it meaning yourself."
Lowe pulls off his crampons and straps on his skis for the moonlight run home. And one can only agree that, once having given significance to a solo ascent of Bridalveil Fall, no one could ever do it with quite the authority that Lowe did it the first time it was ever done. And certainly not with the mellowness.