Ice climber Vern Nelson originally posted this story on the CascadeClimbers Forum and it was too good for us to pass up. With Craig Gyselinck, Vern climbed Goat's Beard in Mazama this past weekend, completing what was only the second known ascent. Although we thought Vern's story was a heart-stopper, he coolly followed up with a comment that Goat's Beard is "Still in, people should go get it. A moderate day out." The words below are by Vern, with photos by Vern and Craig unless otherwise noted.
For perspective on this climb's magnitude, one reader commented: "I'm not sure that the pictures Vern posted make it clear...how big this line was. There is a bolted rock climb, Restless Natives, that closely parallels the Goat's Beard. It is 11 pitches." Another reader wrote: "I was almost beyond words just reading [a] brief explanation of your accomplishment, - eleven pitches of ice?!!!!!"
I was full of uncertainty going into this past weekend. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what would be on the menu. Craig Gyselinck and I had made plans to ice climb Goat’s Beard in Mazama, but I was torn by a message from Craig Pope about going into Strobach Mountain. Decisions, decisions… I knew that in the 20 years since it was first climbed, there has been no second (known) ascent of Goat’s Beard. I also knew that going into Strobach with Craig Number 2 would mean getting some first ascents on unclimbed routes. Which Craig, and which crags to choose? The fact that Strobach ices in just about every year but Goat's Beard comes in maybe ever 20 years meant the choice was fairly obvious: Craig Number 1.
According to Washington State Ice, Goat’s Beard was first climbed in the early ‘90’s going at Grade V, WI 5/5+, 5.9, A2. As far as I know it has not seen a complete second ascent. Goat’s Beard has shut down some of the best climbers in the world. Things were not looking so good for us.
I met Craig G. at the Park & Ride at 4:15 and off we went to Mazama. As the miles ticked up on the odometer, the temperature ticked down on the thermometer. In both of our minds was the thought that we were going to drive up there and climb someplace else today. As we drove further and further up towards Mazama we watched the temperature gauge on the car drop from 16 down to zero.
“Does your temperature gauge go below zero?”
“I don’t know. Don't think I have ever taken the car anywhere that cold.”
A second later it dropped to -1. We both laughed, but knew it might be getting too cold to climb. We discussed other options, both knowing there was really only one option at this point. By the time we park the car, it is -6 degrees.
We throw on Rage Against the Machine and try to get pumped. I’m tired and if not for Craig, I would have fallen asleep in the car and waited for sun. A partnership is good if one person can bring the stoke when the other is tired or sketched. Craig pushed me out of the car and up the first pitch, and then somewhere in the middle of the climb we switched roles.
In the early dawn we get a few looks at the route and start walking. Snowshoes are a must, and there are no tracks ahead of us to ease our way. My mind drifts back to the simpler times in life (before I found ice climbing) and thinking how fun it would be to snowboard down this soft untrampled snow.
The sun comes out and we finally get a good look at the climb. Another setback appears: The second crux pillar is not in… It seems the dream is pretty much gone, but we have a small rock rack. Craig claims that he will “aid it even if he has to do it with ice screws”. We continue.
We get a good look at the route and I notice a small corner that appears to be holding ice. I dub it “Nelson’s Corner”. Stoke is back on, and although our excitement amps up our pace, we force ourselves to slow down to keep from sweating. We both know that wet clothing in -6 degree air could quickly end our attempt.
We gear up and are climbing by 8 a.m. As Craig starts the first pitch, ice starts falling down. I’m concerned, and these words surge up from my memory: “In the winter of 2000, climbers watched as over 300 feet of the route toppled to the ground. No doubt this is a dangerous but spectacular climb...” Craig seems to be okay with how things are and I focus on how to efficiently second. The less time we can spend on this route the better.
Craig climbs a rope-stretching 60 meter pitch and I follow. I get the first crux pitch on a thin curtain that looks sturdy from below. I start up and instantly lose confidence. I know I have the ability to climb it, but don’t know if this mountain will allow me to do so. The ice is thin, with no good purchase. Any minute I feel as though both feet or both tools could rip through the ice. Screws are pretty much worthless. Any good sticks come with a hollow thud and the whole thing shakes... Breathe, breathe, shake the mind demons, climb.
I finish the curtain, and my heart is in my mouth. I tell Craig that he’d better not climb it and tell me it was easy. My pitch leads up another full 60 meters. I set up my belay in a small gully. It’s not the best location, but where is on this route? I throw Craig on belay, thinking the whole time about the ice daggers hanging above our heads. The sun is now out and I know the risk has grown.
What do you do if your partner dies with the rope? At least he’d go quick. Left behind, I’d enjoy a slow, lonely frozen death... up rope, think about the next pitch.
Craig takes Pitch 3 for another 60 meters to a rock belay. We decide to move quickly to get by the ice dangling over our heads. The plan is for me to lead up to “Nelson’s Corner” get a belay in, and send Craig on with the next pitch. He keeps the rock gear. Up I go. The ice is cauliflower, filled with air. Protection is useless. Another 60 meters of rope takes me below the hangers... no good ice, no safe belay. The rope goes tight.
“We have to SIMUL!”
“YOU HAVE TO CLIMB!”
Slack in the rope. We begin to simulclimb. I go up through “Nelson’s Corner” with one okay screw. The ice is getting warm and I wish I had the rock gear. Long run outs on the rope mean that if Craig falls, I'm dead. Breathe, trust, breathe...
Finally, 30 meters of simulclimbing with no good protection brings me to a belay cave that I quickly flop into. Blast screws bring up Craig.
We are both tired. Water and Gu in the cave. Craig’s turn to lead. He gets the first good look at the final crux pillar.
“Craig, how does it look?”
Hard? That’s all I get? If you know Craig, you’ll realize this is probably a lengthy response.
Another 60 meters and he brings me up. I get my first look at the final pitch. It does look hard. WI5 shape and no telling from our viewpoint how consistent the ice is. If it’s anything like the first curtain, we need a plan B. Craig is about ready to bail. It’s too hard and we are not worthy.
Time for me to bring the psych.
I gear up and climb. It’s hard, but I have to earn all my own sticks---no drafting here...tired, until…top out the crux! Stoked!
Photo: Vern climbing the final crux pillar.
I follow low-angled ice to the trees, and the rope goes tight right as I get to the closest tree. Craig said he was worried that he was going to have to Simul the crux.
Photo: Craig and Vern, from the top.
Small celebration ensues, but it’s short-lived. We still have to get down.
We wander over and hope to find some bolts to rappel off. No luck. Back to the trees and back down into the danger zone.
Things go smoothly. Craig hits his V threads. We make a meandering rappel down “Nelson’s Corner” and blast in a thread.
“Pulling orange, correct?”
“It is not pulling.”
“Maybe it’s blue.”
We know it’s not blue but we are in the most dangerous part of the route. We need a hope. Nothing. We both know what has to be done, but neither of us want to do it.
“I’ll climb up and see if I can change the angle and get it free.”
“Clip into the strand so at least if you fall you’ll fall to me and not die.”
Up I go to try and free the rope. No luck. I go up a bit more. No luck.
I know what is going to have to be done. I’m going to have to solo the corner again. I don’t know if I have it in me, but what other options do we have?
I look closer and notice the ropes running under a small hanger. Blue rope is tight above it and loose below it. Grab blue, pull. Orange moves. Grab orange, and it pulls! Ecstatic! Down we go.
The rappels go well as we find bolts and take advantage of them.
Right as darkness hits, we are down. Smiles ensue. We both feel like we stole something. With all the objective hazards that this route presented, you can not eliminate the possibility that we did steal something.
Back in the parking lot we find a note on the car:
We drive back. We are happy after 400+ meters of constant ice. We rate it at WI5 Grade IV/V.
Craig says he’s quitting ice because he can’t climb anything to top this. I’ve heard it before. I smile...