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For The Ice Curious, A Q&A Session With Aaron Mulkey

According to the USA Ice Climbing website, “Competitive ice climbing is a fledgling sport in the USA that is continuing to grow.” To the uninitiated, the activity–climbing alpine or waterfall ice with axes, spiked footwear, screws, and ropes–certainly stirs the imagination, but it’s easy to see why it’s intimidating enough to keep the feet of most folks planted firmly on grippy ground. What are we missing? Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Aaron Mulkey shares what’s cool about this vertical pursuit.

Of the myriad ways to immerse yourself in the outdoors and clear your head of the clamor that comes with work and other responsibilities, what is it about climbing that gets you there?

The focus that’s needed–it wipes my hard drive. Climbing requires 100% focus; it takes everything, and as a result, the stress of daily life is gone. I guess I’m after the same thing any addict is after–that mental break. If I don’t do it enough, I get pretty crabby. I don’t know how people who don’t have an outlet like that get by. Over the course of a weekend out, I don’t think about work for a second. It makes me better at what I do in my regular life. I can come back to that reality reenergized.

Of the many ways you could climb, along with the variety of surfaces you could scale, why ice?

It’s never the same. Rock will always be rock. It doesn’t provide that challenge the way that ice does. Ice is in a constant state of change. I can’t help but think about being the first person ever to touch the surface of that piece of ice–making “first tracks.” That’s attractive to me.

You get up close and personal with ice and see things in the moment that no one may ever see. To see winter's creations, and what water can do over time is pretty amazing. Some climbing opportunities only last days or hours, and some of the first ascents I’ve done haven’t re-formed since I climbed them.

What structural qualities of ice do you most appreciate and how do those play into your thought process as you tackle a new route?

With different temperatures come different dangers. You can “feel change”– literally–as you climb. It never stays the same. You learn to understand ice and know when to climb or walk away. It’s a relationship I enjoy.

Is it safe to assume that by the time you reach the top of your chosen route the very nature of ice makes it a one-and-done for each climber? In other words, that the way it felt will be different next time?

In many ways, that’s true. Depending on the conditions of the day, it can get thinner as temps rise, or an influx of hydration can make the ice formation “heal itself” and thicken. From climber to climber, “traffic” changes the surface. It’s generally easier for whoever climbs second, as they can kind of “draft” by following the first climber’s pick holes. That can lead to a very different experience for them. But, because of the broad nature of the rating system used to classify a climb, the level of difficulty it was assigned can remain. It can get pretty complicated!

Photo by Christian Baumeister
Photo by Christian Baumeister

What if your hunch about a hard-to-find climb comes true, and it’s so good that you immediately know other ice climbers  would have the time of their lives climbing it. Does it ever bum you out that the experience can’t be shared and that all you can really say is, “You had to be there.”?

Ultimately, I want to share my experiences and routes with other climbers. It’s why I put in the work, so others can enjoy what I’ve found. And it’s the driving force behind a new guidebook I’m working on. The exercise of creating the book is very satisfying, and I hope climbers enjoy the journey to these spots as much as the routes themselves. They’ll find themselves immersed in one of the most remote environments in the continental United States! 

There is a personal take away that comes from doing these climbs though, that can get kind of weird–like an inability to decompress or return to normal after my senses were running so high. If the climb was a particularly dangerous one, or very stressful, I almost have to act like the whole thing never happened to slide back into my “regular life” at work Monday morning. It can be a struggle. 

To you, what keeps the sport of ice climbing fresh?

Finding that drip of ice that becomes something with potential for the first time, or getting the chance to climb a formation that hasn’t returned to a location for 50 years. There are so many stories of legendary climbs in places where the ice never came back. You can only wait. I have a laundry list of them. There is always something to chase. A few years ago, I got to climb the second ascent of a route put up by the great Alex Lowe back in the late ‘90’s. For nearly 20 years it disappeared, and for some reason, it formed again a few years ago. It was like finding lost treasure.

You were one of many gear testers for the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Prism Pack, Ice Screw Case, and Crampon Bag. What makes this pack and its accessories unique?

The collection is for anyone attracted to winter pursuits. Start with the pack– it’s light, durable, and water-resistant whether your objectives include alpine climbing or skiing. Carry heavy loads into a climb, climb with it on–this pack performs at an incredibly high level. This the Tesla of ice climbing packs! The low volume lid allows full neck mobility when worn. It’s specifically designed to be unobtrusive and to only keep essentials like your headlamp or food for the day. Waterproof fabric ensures your clothing and gear stays dry. The Ice Screw Case and Crampon Bag keep your equipment inside the pack organized, they also protect the gear itself and prevent the clothing you need to survive in cold conditions from getting holes. Everything works in synchronicity. All of these things allow an ice climber to comfortably and safely get out in the mountains in all conditions. Light, simple and functional. It’s the whole quiver, not just individual arrows.

What are the connecting threads between ice climbing and other backcountry pursuits for which Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes equipment?

No matter what outdoor activity any of us do, we are all looking for the escape–to get that mental break, to get into the places where our minds are put at ease and our day jobs are left behind. The right equipment unlocks the escape.

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