February 23, 1999 — Most ice in Georgia is found floating in glasses of sweet tea.
“When you go back to Gainesville and it’s close to 70 degrees and you tell somebody that you’ve been ice climbing, they’re going to look at you like you’re some kind of lunatic,” said Michael Crowder — no stranger to such looks — on our drive back from a morning of climbing at Hog Pen Gap, a uniquely ice-friendly spot just north of Helen.
To be honest, I don’t believe the unusually warm temperature had much to do with the incredulous stares I received later that day.
To be honest, most Georgians consider anyone who tries to climb a wall of ice a lunatic — regardless of how warm it is outside.
Such is the strange existence of the southern ice climber. Such is the existence of Michael Crowder.
“You can’t go when you’re in the mood to go ice climbing,” explained Michael, 36. “You have to go when ice climbing is in the mood. It’s not a choice you get to make in the South.”
Last week I received a late-night phone call from Michael: Freezing temperatures had put ice climbing in the mood. We headed to Hog Pen Gap the first thing next morning.
“This is one of the few things I close up shop for,” said Michael, who owns Crowder Signs in Gainesville. “Timing is everything in ice climbing. If you’re late leaving the house, it can ruin your whole day.”
We arrived at our precious wall of ice at Hog Pen Gap just in time. The freezing temperatures of the night before were now climbing into the 50s.
Some of the ice was crashing to the ground in large, sharp chunks. All of the ice was melting — slowly, constantly drip-dropping down the wall into large pools growing at its base.
Based on the sounds coming from that wall, I could have been standing next to a babbling brook. But the mass of ice before me — clinging to a wall of stone alongside Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway — was a sure sign that I was not.
This site, with an elevation of 3,485 feet, faces due north and is shielded from sunlight most of the day. This rare combination of factors is conducive to the forming of ice. When a cold snap hits, this wall is the first to produce ice — before any other wall in Georgia, even before many walls in North Carolina.
But even this wall was not immune to the day’s rising temperatures. Our routes continued to drip and drop to the ground as we donned our climbing gear.
“It’s getting warm and falling off,” said Michael after a huge piece of ice shattered on the ground. “Today will be the last day of climbing. It’s supposed to be warmer tomorrow, with a chance of rain. Ice won’t last five minutes in a rain storm.”
Michael has played this cat-and-mouse game with southern ice since he began climbing in 1983, often heading up to North Carolina for some of the South’s better routes. During a “good” winter, southern weather allows for anywhere between 15 and 30 days of ice climbing.
Thanks to the mild temperatures of La Niña, this has not been a good winter — by ice climbing standards, anyway. This was only Michael’s second climb of the year. Thus, a melting route is better than no route at all.
After anchoring a rope to the top of the wall, we took to the longest and seemingly sturdiest route, a 40-foot climb with widths and depths varying from feet to inches. Michael made the first ascent. Helmeted, wearing boots with sharp, metal spikes affixed, and holding ice axes in each gloved hand, Michael began to climb the ice in a deliberate, methodical fashion.
“It’s like chess and Russian roulette, a combination of the two games,” said Michael.
I watched as he scaled the route with relative ease, each axe swing swift and precise, each footplant strong and secure. All of his moves are mentally mapped out in advance.
But because of the impermanent nature of ice, a climb that at one moment seems easy, can change for the worse in an instant.
“You never know what’s going to happen next because it’s constantly changing,” Michael said as I slowly allowed him to repel down the wall. “Where rock climbs are generally the same each time you do them, ice climbs can change from hour to hour.”
Melting ice continued to cascade the cliff, as I prepared to climb.
“Get good, solid axe plants as high as you can first,” instructed Michael. “Swing it in there good. Swing it in like your life depends on that thing holding in there.”
“Does it?” I asked.
“Well, no. You’re top-roping, so your life depends on me,” smiled Michael, who, as belayer, was responsible for applying continuous tension on my rope, assuring that I wouldn’t fall.
I was on that wall for 16 minutes, but it might as well have been an hour … or two.
I lost track of time. I lost track of everything. Everything but the ice.
I remember kicking my feet hard into the ice until my toes went numb.
I remember swinging my axe wildly into the ice to stop from falling.
I remember losing feeling in my hands.
But above all, I remember being above all — boots and axes lodged into the ice at the top of the route — and looking behind me at the rolling rises of the Appalachian Mountains.
I realized at that moment, that I had nothing on my mind.
“That’s the sweetest thing about the whole deal,” yelled Michael. “It’s a total escape. I guess that’s what most alcoholics and drug addicts are looking for. A little bit of escape.”
As Michael lowered me back to reality, a huge pillar of ice tumbled to the ground 15 feet away from us.
“Whoa, that’s the route I was planning on doing next,” said a saddened Michael. “Now it’s gone.”
Gone too were Michael and I, taking our cue from Mother Nature.
Gone … until the next deep freeze in the mountains of Northeast Georgia.