Icefall: when your climbing route collapses

Ice climber Will Mayo was heading up – when everything almost came crashing down.

© Celin Serbo

Will Mayo hung from a single tooth of his ice tool hooked into a seam in the rock, his arms stretched into an iron cross. All he had to do to finish his new route, Superfortress, was to move onto the 30m free-hanging ice pillar called The Fang, a famous ice climb in Vail, Colorado.

He kicked his crampon points into the ice near the top of The Fang, with 5m to go. A second later, the entire ice column cut loose 20cm below his feet, and approximately 10 tons of ice crashed into the mountainside below him.

 

On the ice© Celin Serbo

Had the top part of the pillar fallen with him on it, Mayo would have swung to the right, hopefully out of the way of any ice coming down—but luckily, he didn't have to find out.

Mayo said on his Facebook page the day after he climbed The Fang: “The thing is a death trap. There's something about that column that makes it more unstable than any other I've climbed.”

The Fang has collapsed with climbers on it in the past, including alpinist Sue Nott, who survived the fall (but died on Mt. Foraker in 2006). Others haven’t been as lucky.

“I was not surprised that the icicle collapsed; I was completely astonished that it did collapse only after my foot was just above the fracture line,” Mayo added.

Fortunately his belayer was also out of harm's way.

 

Attacking the ice© Celin Serbo

Mayo's route, Superfortress, links four of the hardest mixed routes in Vail: Red Beard (M12), The Flying Fortress (M13), Red Bull and Vodka (M11+) and King Cobra (M11-). Mixed routes involve climbing up often overhanging rock on tiny holds and steep and thin ice using axes and crampons. It requires supreme technical ability, strength and coolness of mind.

The day before, he’d heard a loud crack as he climbed up the Fang — the column had fractured. He figured the tension was out of it and that more water flowing from above and freezing would strengthen it in the days to come.

The Fang, no more.© Celin Serbo

Every year, The Fang forms, and every year, climbers swing tools and kick crampon points into it. At some point, it falls.

Brendan Leonard writes at semi-rad.com. Get more from Red Bull Adventure on our Facebook!