The Ice Experience

Publication Year: 1980.

The Ice Experience, by Jeff Lowe. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1979.

211 pages, with photographs. $6.95.

After writing much of Yvon Chouinard’s ice book, I was naturally curious to see what Jeff Lowe would do with the subject. But before I would see the book, I had a chance to climb ice with Jeff last spring on Ama Dablam. Jeff spoke ambivalently about his book as a first effort written in a hurry, but his climbing piqued my curiosity. He was so relaxed on steep ice, quite simply the best ice climber I have ever seen. At the end of the expedition when the rest of us were wiped out, he confirmed that impression by returning to the summit, blazing a fine new line up the southeast face in the process.

Lowe’s Ice Experience comes in three parts: history, technique and guidebook. By sticking to North America, Jeff’s ice history is quite complete and complements Chouinard’s world overview. Here the tone is established with what turns out to be an easy, flowing style, swapping stories and sharing advice. The isolated brilliance of early alpine climbs by Conrad Kain and Fred Beckey gives way to the rush of waterfall climbing as ice gains favor in the seventies. The technique section launches right into an enumeration of the dangers of icy mountains, which may seem a bit morose. Really it’s fair warning: ice climbing is the most dangerous branch of mountaineering, and the enchanted novice might as well know it straightaway. Jeff races through snow climbing and French technique rather quickly, anxious to get to the steep ice he loves. The photos of French technique look contorted and off balance because not even Jeff can do it right with too short an ice axe. But soon enough we’re into front-pointing on steep water-ice and learning such valuable techniques as the monkey hang for conserving arm energy in the vertical. The technique section is short and begs numerous questions, but there are tips here even for the best.

There follows an extensive “Hardwater Guide,” the most complete yet compiled for North America. It doesn’t contain all the ice climbs, just Jeff’s pick of the best that have been reported, with a nod to the many areas where the local climbers prefer to cherish the unknown by maintaining silence. Jeff will introduct the character of a region, list a dozen selected climbs, then move in for a closeup on the two best.

Finally it’s back to storytelling. We are treated to accounts of 16-year- old Jeff’s first serious ice climb up the Black Ice Couloir, a day of soloing in the Canadian Rockies, an alpine epic on Mount Hunter in Alaska complete with collapsing cornice and a suddenly broken ankle, and finally a look from inside at Jeff’s “mental marathon”—the very serious solo of Bridalveil Falls. Jeff is at his best with these stories, which leaves me looking forward to the prospect of a whole book of them.

—Doug Robinson