What do sitting through an ice comp and a recital of Bach's Brandenburg concertos have in common? A: They seem brilliant after the fact, but during them you have to mainline espresso beans to stay propped upright.
This year's Ouray Ice Comp, however, on January 12, was a spectacle to behold, as route setters tossed the old play book, grabbed a chainsaw and created a line that was beastly, bizarre and beautiful. Fifty feet of steeply overhung M8 dry-tooling led to a 15-foot horizontal ice traverse. To keep it exciting, the bottom of the ice curtain was sawed off, forcing climbers to paw their monopoints at rock. Next was the real business: two eight-foot high wooden sausages suspended from ropes some 100 feet off the deck. Climbers had to bridge from ice to sausage to sausage, then onto the capper, a 45-degree overhanging plywood wall with holds set so far apart you'd swear no less than Magic Johnson could ever link them. The route, by the sounds and looks of it, was a mid-5.13 onsight. Competitors were given 20 minutes to run the gauntlet.
Allez! Jeff Mercier, of France, was the only competitor to stick the top of the woody.
Held in Ouray, Colorado, during the 13th annual Ouray Ice Festival, the competition attracted some of the world's burliest mixed climbers. The field was decisively foreign, only a third of the finalists were American, and not one of the top seeds had a blue passport. The lack of U.S. talent had me wondering if we were being lazy or lame, if our traditional alpine standards were holding us back, or if Survivor reruns were airing during the day.
Twelve men and five women queuedd up in near-zero temps for a go at the route that bared more wood than This Old House. While swinging swords on swinging wood is common in European mixed contests (where they dispense with the formality of ice altogether and hold some comps in the summer), it was a first here and took the crowd about two seconds to appreciate. The logs added diversity and excitement as competitors dry-humped and stabbed at the bobbing stumps like lumberjacks after the last tree on earth.
An eternal favorite is the lithe powerhouse Ines Papert of Germany, who returned after a year's hiatus. Papert, mother of a young son, is the world's undisputed female mixed and ice champ and former World Cup and Ouray winner. She would be the undisputed male mixed and ice climber if not for the irrevocable fact that she is woman. Top male was Evgeny Krivosheitsev, 2007 World Cup champion and last year's Ouray champ. After decimating the field 12 months ago, he had enough gas left to showboat, dangling upside down from his feet like a fruit bat.
Will Mayo was the first competitor -- and the only Yankee -- to reach the logs, and this after dropping a tool while on the ice curtain. To the roar of several hundred spectators, Mayo did not sag onto the rope. He gamely hand jammed a crack in the ice (love that American ingenuity!), thwacked a tool into the first log and swung aboard. After a few scrappy minutes spent leg-hugging the maypole and pawing a gloved hand at the wood, the uni-tooled Mayo slid off to eighth place.Jeff Mercier, 40, of France is an accomplished all-around climber and unknown here in the U.S. When he started up the rock section, few in the crowd gave him much hope, and took half of that back when he paused on every move to shake and warm his bare hands. I thought about offering him my gloves, but my hands were freezing. After a brief shake at the ice, he mounted the logs, then swung on the plywood diving board. But the clock was ticking and it appeared as if the methodical Frenchman would run out of time. Hanging from a matched tool, Mercier seemed vexed by the route's final blank four feet. Is this end? he asked the crowd. No, people yelled, the top! Mercier, helmet askew, squeezed himself down into a spring, uncoiled in an all-points-off dyno, and hooked a tool over the top. Merci!
Climbing next to last was Papert. She moved so quickly I thought she had found a worm hole and had simply reappeared on the plywood. Papert figure-foured between the reachy holds and camped, laughing and flashing her beautiful smile to the crowd. Well, this is it, I thought, she has won. But, like Mercier before her, Papert was stymied by the final long reach, a move that weeded out the less talented, the less strong, or in Papert's case, the less tall.
Papert tucked low, then in a big sweeping dyno stabbed at the top. Her pick thwacked an inch short. Amazingly, Papert down-dynoed onto the tool planted at her knee, regrouped and launched again. And again, and again. Gassed and frustrated, she dropped onto the rope. Last up was the reigning champ Krivosheitsev. He climbed the dry-tooling stretch as easily as if he had set the route himself, hopscotched across the logs and onto the plywood all in just eight minutes. With only two moves to go, Krivosheitsev, who looked as if he might actually eat the wall for a late lunch, plotted his exit and no doubt was already spending his $3,000 purse. A plasma TV perhaps? Vegas!
Then, as suddenly and shockingly as an air strike, Krivosheitsev was gone. I looked down to see him shrieking and plunging onto the rope. For a moment I thought the head had come off his tool, or he had pulled off an arm, because nothing else could explain his demise, but, apparently, he had simply slipped. The crowd moaned, then dispersed to go see what Papert was up to.