Yes, that is a wall of ice

Members of Montrose Search and Rescue Team scale an ice slope as part of its recent vertical ice training session at Lee Vining.

By Mary O’Keefe

There are some that spend their weekend gardening and others that go for walks around the neighborhood. Then there are members of the Montrose Search and Rescue team that hike a few miles through snow to climb about 150 feet up a pure ice slope.

Montrose Search and Rescue is a volunteer unit that is based out of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station. Members train in mountain rescues and are called to assist in searches throughout California as well as other states.

Training is key to their success and climbing an ice slope at Lee Vining Canyon just north of Mammoth is all part of that training, although to these members this is not all about work.

“It was fun. A real adrenaline rush,” said Dr. John Rodarte. This was Rodarte’s first trip to Lee Vining. “I wasn’t as [frightened] as I expected it to be.”

Team member Mike Leum began taking members of the team to this vertical ice training session near Tioga Pass four years ago.

“We get winter time calls where our access is limited by the type of training and equipment we have,” Leum said. “I have been on a search at Mt. Baldy where there was a 1,500 foot ice shoot. All we could do was search from above or below. We were never able to find the [lost person].”

Leum said having this type of training is invaluable for winter searches.

“Unfortunately there have been a few people that have never been found on Mt. Baldy,” he added.

Although team members are trained in mountain climbing techniques, climbing a wall of ice is much different.

“The tools for vertical ice climbing are shorter and have a more curved design,” Leum explained.

Rodarte has climbed many mountains in the past but found ice and snow to be a unique challenge. “When you climb a mountain you get into this rhythm. Climbing ice is more instant adrenaline rush,” he said.

Part of that rush comes from the fact that the climber is putting his, or her, entire weight on ice screws that are placed into the ice slope with a rope attached to it. This is what holds the climber to the ice slope and how he, or she, progresses up the wall.

“Your entire body weight is resting on a piece of metal less than four square millimeters. If you stop and do the math it can make you nervous,” Leum said.

Rodarte added the hike through the snow to get to the ice slope was a workout in itself.

“Friday morning we were supposed to have about two inches of snow but instead we had eight inches. We had to put on our snow shoes and hike,” Rodarte said.

Although in the immediate area there are not many ice slopes there have been times when the training was used.

“The skill came in handy with a rescue at mile marker 74 in Angeles Crest,” Leum recalled.

A young man and his girl friend were ice climbing and roped together. The man unclipped himself from his tethered line and fell a couple hundred feet. Unfortunately the man died, Leum said.

The girl was left clinging to a tree that was on the slope.

“I deployed the ice tools and we climbed straight up the frozen cliff using our tools. We lowered her to the highway below,” he said.

Other members of search and rescue on the training trip included Robert Sheedy and Jason Johnson and John Grisbach from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Air Five. They spent two days training with an instructor from the American Alpine Institute.

“The training gives everyone an additional level of expertise and a comfort level of an [ice and snow] environment,” Leum said. “If you are comfortable climbing a vertical wall of ice you can do just about anything.”