Last week, during the cold snap that blanketed much of the country, NW Alpine founder Bill Amos and a couple of climbing partners set out in search of the elusive frozen waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge outside of Portland. They found some. Below are some tips from Bill on finding ice in the Gorge when all the necessary conditions align together to create some fun climbs in the region.
Arctic Blast! Snowmageddon! When Portland, Oregon’s local news outlets explode into hyperbole, Portland Public threatens to cancel school, and links to this infamous video of Portland drivers unsuccessfully trying to navigate icy roads show up on Facebook, ice climbers in Portland start to pay attention and watch the weather closely.
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Awesome ice climbing is not something that Oregon is known for, but when an arctic air mass moves in from the North and cold East winds start whipping, climbers sharpen their ice tools and crampons hoping that the waterfalls and seeps down the length of the Columbia River Gorge freeze solid enough to climb. While it doesn’t happen often, every few years the Gorge turns into a world class ice climbing destination, if only for a few days.
The type and difficulty of climbing varies greatly, but regardless of the grade, you’re going to find some adventure. Due to the often quick nature of the freezes, climbs rarely have the time to freeze solidly and then settle, so it’s not unusual to find poorly bonded ice or thin unprotectable features. Care is definitely required when choosing an objective, and risks must thoroughly evaluated before climbing.
Gorge ice climbing is quite different from climbing at the more well known lower 48 destinations like Ouray or Hyalite Canyon and generally isn’t the best place to learn the craft. That being said, there are definitely some classics to be found!
At the Cape Horn area on the Washington side of the Gorge, there are two tiers that have routes on them that regularly form. The lower tier has ice climbs right on the beach, directly above the Columbia River. These are generally fairly stout, like the classic Catch of the Day which logs in at WI5.
The upper tier above Highway 14 holds a number of easier routes that are consistently in during these cold periods. Salmon Run is a classic WI4 that climbs right off the highway, and further to the west there are two gullies that hold WI2 and WI3 routes.
Crown Jewel is the Gorge ultra-classic moderate route. It resides on the lower flank of Crown Point and boasts two pitches of WI3 climbing. It’s the first major climb one encounters when driving down I-84 coming from Portland and due to its high visibility, short approach, and moderate climbing, it is highly sought after. It can be quite crowded from the time it becomes climbable to the time it falls down, so plan an early start to beat the crowds
Residing on the huge cliffs behind Ainsworth State Park, Ainsworth Left was attempted many times before seeing a complete ascent in 2006 by local climber Marcus Donaldson. The route is a beautiful 700+ foot tall behemoth and boasts several pitches of WI4 and 5 climbing, with the crux coming at the top. It’s a hard classic and has yet to see a complete second ascent.
The Deer Hunter
Established in 2009 by Bill Amos and Marcus Donaldson, The Deer Hunter is the first “modern” mixed route in the Gorge. The first pitch requires drytooling up a steep, bolt protected corner for a short but stout pitch of M7 leading to a three bolt hanging belay. The second pitch is immediately committing as the climber pulls onto an overhanging curtain of ice and climbs funky ice features for almost a full rope length of difficult WI5 to the top.
This is just a sampling of what’s out there. Many other established routes exist and there is still potential to find unclimbed gems. Ice climbing in the Columbia River Gorge is an elusive endeavor, but get the timing right and you’re in for a character building and extremely rewarding experience.
For more information check out Tim Olson’s guidebook Northwest Oregon Rock which includes ice climbs of the Columbia River Gorge, as well as Cascade Climbers where one can find current conditions and up to date information.
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