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Dealing with Verglas (Ice) while Climbing?


Original Post
Justin Meyer · · Madison, WI · Joined May 2012 · Points: 51

Recently a partner and I attempted to climb Grand Teton in a day via Owen Spalding or Exum. There was rain on the mountain the night before so when we got above the lower saddle we encountered a thin layer of ice on much of the rock. A guided group was retreating and said that they weren’t able to climb due to the ice. We climbed up a little ways but decided that we should retreat too.

It seems like the options were:

  • Retreat, hopefully try again another day
  • Continue to climb unroped (too risky)
  • Rope up and plug a lot of gear (too slow, risk getting to a point where upward progress is not possible and retreat is difficult)
  • Climb unroped with crampons and/or ax (didn’t have these, beyond my abilities even with the gear)
  • Climb roped up with crampons and/or ax (didn’t have these, beyond my abilities even with the gear, still too slow)

How do people usually deal with this situation? Is there something I’m not thinking of? I’m from the flatlands so my mountain experience is very limited. Just trying to learn more.

Rui Ferreira · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jul 2003 · Points: 869

another consideration is whether the temperatures would be increasing sufficiently in the immediate hours to melt the verglas.  At this point you would have to assess how long to wait and your comfort level climbing wet rock.

Retreat is always a good option when in doubt.

Ryan Hamilton · · Orem · Joined Aug 2011 · Points: 20

Exum would be tricky, but I think experienced climbers could manage the verglas on the OS. You only have to rope up for 2 or 3 pitches (I can't remember exactly) but the hardest moves are 5.6 and it's mostly 5.4. However, now that I'm thinking about it. There is a fair amount of 4th/5th class scrambling above the last of the pitches that people traditionally rope up for. These are easily done without being roped up, but I might want to stay roped up if there is ice. A fall would be deadly. But, even then it's probably still doable to simul-climb. OS is easy to escape from most anywhere on the route. 

I guess if there is a lot of ice, bailing is really the only option, but if its sporadic ice then you can probably get through it on the OS. The Tetons are notorious for having tricky stuff like this to deal with. Regular snowstorms in any month of the year, rain that freezes, etc. Owen Spalding is the easiest way up, but it's also in the shade so it can get some of the worst conditions. 

Allen Sanderson · · Oootah · Joined Jul 2007 · Points: 1,135

A solid coating of verglas will pretty much shut most climbing down. Even when one has crampons and an axe. There are exceptions. I have found verglas on many Teton climbs, fortunately though it has been in patches which with some finesse we were able to over come (well except once when my partner took a full rope length fall because of a miss step that can be attributed to ice, but not verglas).

The Exum being south facing dries out faster than the OS so while the OS may be out of shape for ascending, with care it can be descended. The problem is that on the OS  there are slabby sections sans pro which is where verglas can be found.

When in doubt retreating is a good option - leaves more time for drinking beer.

The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too.
- Hervey Voge

Justin Meyer · · Madison, WI · Joined May 2012 · Points: 51

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, I appreciate it.

Skibo · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 5

For perspective on verglas and the Grand, Allan Bard, a well known climber and Exum guide, died in a fall on the OS due to verglas, and he was wearing crampons.  There's not a lot of room for error.

Brandon.Phillips · · Portola, CA · Joined May 2011 · Points: 55

Be aware of the limitations of rock gear placed on icy/wet routes as well.

I climbed Exum a couple of weeks ago and it was fine, while the OS was covered in ice. The OS gets little sun and is more prone to verglas.  As long as you were rapping the OS the descent was fine, though down climbing the chimneys would have been extremely difficult/ terrifying. 

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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