The Sound of Ice: Erik Weihenmayer Climbs Bridal Veil Falls
Text by Tetsuhiko Endo: Photographs by David D’Angelo and Anthony Claudia / Serac Adventure Films
Colorado’s Bridal Veil Falls is an epic, 365-foot ice climb that ranks among the most classic lines in North America. Graded at a burly 5+ on a scale from 1-6 (roughly the equivalent of a 5,10 on rock), its first ascent by Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss in 1974 literally redefined the ice climbing game and ushered in the modern era of the sport. It is not a line for the faint of heart or weak of body, so it might surprise some to learn that on February 12, it was climbed by a blind man. But then, you should also consider that the blind man in question is Erik Weihenmayer, joined by Iraq war veteran Chad Jukes, who lost his right leg to an explosive device in 2007.
After losing his vision at the age of 13, Weihenmayer went on to become a prolific skier, mountain biker, climber, and alpinist. Between being the only blind person to top out on Everest and the only blind person to climb all Seven Summits, he has made a career out of performing physical feats that most sighted people balk at. It was no surprise then that he gobbled up the recently-reopened Bridal Veil in order to raise awareness about the work of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), an organization dedicated to opening and maintaining wilderness areas for public use. Since Weihenmayer can’t judge the ice by sight, he does it by sound. “You are listening for what sighted climbers see as blue,
healthy ice,” he says, “it sounds like what I imagine hitting frozen peanut butter
would sound like.”
When ADVENTURE called him recently for a chat, it was readily apparent that through courage, calculation, and perhaps just a pinch of lunacy, Weihenmayer is not one to back down from a challenge.
ADVENTURE: What made you choose Bridal Veil Falls for the site of your recent climb?
EW: There were two reasons. One is that, ever since I started ice climbing in 1997, I had always heard about Bridal Veil being maybe the most classic ice climb in Colorado, if not the Lower 48. People always talked about how it had a lot of character–how it wasn’t just a straight-forward blue shield of ice where you’re just swinging and kicking [ice axes and crampons]. That type of climbing is strenuous, but more repetitive.
Bridal Veil Falls are free falling, so when they freeze, the route becomes a series of narrow columns, curtains, and big mushrooms of ice that build up over time. When you climb it, you are weaving and bobbing around these big roofs of ice mushrooms. So it’s more like rock climbing on ice–you have to do a lot of gymnastic moves. When I started ice climbing, I would mention Bridal Veil falls and people would be like, “Woa. That’s a stiff one.” And it always had this aura about it for having a very intimidating face.
When you are blind, you kind of build things up in your mind so I had this big question of, Would I be able to do it without thrashing and dangling and bleeding a lot?
The second reason was that this was the perfect opportunity because the Trust for Public Land had just re-opened this area for climbers (it had been closed to public use for several decades due to land ownership issues). I had worked with TPL two summers ago to open up Wilson Peak, another icon of the Rockies, because I believe rivers and streams and mountains need to stay open for the general public.
As both a climber and a visually impaired climber, how do you train yourself for a hard ice climb?
EW: I think rock climbing is a good form of training–it will get you strong. I rock climb in the gym and outside as much as I can. It’s harder to get on ice, but I still try to get to Ouray Ice Park as much as I can. Before Bridal Veil, I probably had six days of ice climbing throughout the winter. Also, in my basement I have a pair of rock rings that I put cloth on top of then hang from with my ice tools. I pull a ladder just close enough so I can put the tips of my toes on it and then I do pull-ups.
You mentioned earlier about “building things up in your mind.” How do you prepare mentally for a difficult climb like this?
EW: I get as much information as I can about what I’m going to be doing so that I have a mental picture in my mind. After that, it’s just about letting go and going for it. Not being able to see the climb is a little bit of a deficit because you can’t look at the route and figure out the moves. But at the same time, you’re not expending a lot of energy worrying either. So you just roll with it and try not to be intimidated. I’ve tried to teach myself to not build it up in my mind.
What was it like climbing Bridal Veil?
EW: Bridal Veil is crazy because it’s this absolute carnival, just a huge playground of ice. It’s all columns and curtains and daggers of ice just hanging down out of space. So it was really interesting scanning the surface of that ice to find the right places to place my tools.
When you say “scan” you are doing this all by feel?
EW: Yeah. All by feel. When I scan, I pass my tool over the ice searching for a weak spot or little concave dish because there are certain places you don’t want to hit, like a free standing curtain of ice that is just going to come off and land on your head. Or sometimes there is a lot of brittle surface ice that will explode in your face or huge “dinner plates” that form when it is really cold and come off all at once. With all of these potential hazards, you don’t just want to be, as they say, “swinging for the fences.”
Have you ever been injured by falling ice?
EW: I was once injured when my partner knocked off a suitcase-size chunk of ice that hit me in the shoulder and gave me a nice hematoma that I had for months afterward. It makes you a little twitchy when you hear the ice flying by your head.
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How do you know when you have found the right spot?
EW: Maybe sighted climbers do this subconsciously and have just never told me about it, but I use this technique: Through trial and error, I have found that ice has different sounds. When you hear a big “dong”–a big hollow sound–obviously that is not a place you swing, or when you hear something like a fork hitting a dinner plate, that is surface ice exploding in your face. The sound you are listening for–what sighted climbers see as blue, healthy ice–sounds like what I imagine hitting frozen peanut butter would sound like, where you know the ice is good and solid and soft.
For many of our readers, visual perception is a large part of their outdoor enjoyment. As a visually impaired person, how do you enjoy the outdoors?
EW: First, I get a kinesthetic enjoyment from moving my body and problem solving. I don’t want to say that I’m glad I’m blind, but it does add a unique problem solving aspect to climbing where you have to find the holds and figure out how to use them. I wonder what climbing would be like if you could see the holds and just sort of gun for them. It might make it too easy.
I also love communicating and problem solving with my team. I usually climb in a group of three, because it’s the safest. One person will lead and then my partner and I will climb simultaneously, but separately, so that I won’t accidentally cut his rope with my tool. They help me with directions and we work in tandem.
Also, I do take in a lot of scenery, it’s just not big, sweeping views that you see with your eyes. It’s stuff that I’m feeling with my hand. Often, while ice climbing I will take my glove off when I’m at a belay and just run my fingers over the texture of the ice. It’s stunning. Sometimes it’s a giant tree trunk of ice as smooth as anything. Sometimes it’s a flat wall of ice as smooth as a window. Sometimes it’s a crazy kaleidoscope of ice textures just shooting in every direction, frozen in the air. Rock also has it’s own texture and feel to it.
The last thing I would mention is that when you get up high on ice or rock there is a sound of space that you can hear. Since sound is just vibrations, it bounces off the surrounding mountains and in a way, you can kind of hear them. When you are up high, any little bit of sound that is being created can be heard moving infinitely through space–it’s really awe-inspiring. It feels like you’ve been swallowed up by the sky.
Do you get branded as “The blind guy who climbed Everest”? And does it bother you?
EW: Oh, I’m sure I do. I’ll be eighty years old and I’ll be the blind guy that climbed Everest. It doesn’t really bother me though because, when I decided that I wanted to climb Everest, I went to the National Federation of the Blind and the president told me: “Helen Keller was a huge icon for blind people and she continues to be a wonderful hero, but she died in 1968. The problem is when people today think of blindness, they still think of Helen Keller. We need to update blindness, we need to give it a face lift”
So they funded my climb. The Federation got a bunch of blind people to do car washes and bake sales to fund my expedition because they want blind people’s public image to be a guy standing on top of Mt. Everest, they want it to be [an image of] absolute possibility. I want to help them with that, and when I think about all those blind folks out there raising $300,000 by washing cars and baking rice crispy treats I realize that if I die at 90, and I’m still the blind guy that climbed Everest, that’s enough for me.