“I had this little feeling, and started back aiding away from the ice. Then I heard that noise, you know, that sound, and saw what I thought was a little chunk falling. But it was the whole second pitch,” my friend Josh Hurst related to me after an unexpectedly sunny day at the south facing Painted Wall, trying for the second ascent of the cliff’s now infamous icicle. “It was like getting passed by a tractor trailer!”
Luckily, a couple of days before, the high clouds that had persistently been lingering over the White Mountains all weekend held their ground. A longer than usual ski out to the Painted Wall, due to some bridge work crossing the Swift River, worked me over. We had come loaded for bear, all the usual winter kit, plus extra tools and even a drill. But when we got there it was all forgotten. The ice looked amazing.
My phone had been ringing all weekend while I was out guiding, “Man, I saw a picture of your route on the web, you been on it yet?”, “I drove past the Painted Wall, that icicle is huge!”. Tuesday came, my first day off, and the posse had grown to four people, Doug Madara, Kevin Mahoney and Peter Doucette and me. We all trudged out there together.
It all went really smooth. After a warm up hanging the draws, I got on the wall, breathed more than my usual share of O2, and fired the first pitch; this year grabbing soft ice well below where I had ever seen it before.
Now, back at my previous highpoint, clipped to the bolted anchor on the ice ledge, I was back in a familiar position; confronted by the prospect of leading some really intimidating, steep-ass ice. This year though it was huge, the ice was soft and I had a three man cheer-leading crew. They tagged me up the necessary gear for the ice pitch above and Kevin followed the M9 pitch below, still learning the moves himself.
Up I went. What a pitch of ice climbing that was, forced out early onto the front side of the icicle, there was nothing to do but plug away, way up and out over the Swift River valley. The ice was featured and the column, that just below dropped away into space, was bonded and solid.
I topped out and everyone got a chance to follow, which was humorous to say the least; like a steep, cold, hard version of Thin Air on a busy summer Saturday.
We had gotten unbelievably lucky with our timing, the next day the south facing cliff baked in the sun and the icicle fractured below the belay ledge. The following day, despite a forecast for clouds, the sun came out again catching Eric McCallister and Josh Hurst off guard. With Josh clipped to a bolt just feet away from the sixty foot, unsupported column that is the second pitch, he watched it just slipped away, and crash to the ground.