Portland Winter Escapes
Once in a blue moon, winter storms from Oregon's eastern plains roll in over the Cascades with gusting winds and sub-zero temperatures to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting inhabitants of greater Portland. Traffic grinds to a slippery halt, children celebrate a short reprieve from school, and a handful of excited adults migrate to the many waterfalls of the Gorge with steel claws strapped to their feet and an assortment of scrappy tackle draped from their bodies. Regional ice climbing alter-egos are unleashed. "Around Portland, any avid ice climber has his tools sharpened and is ready to go on those rare occasions when optimum conditions prevail," says Mark Kearns, an avid climber who works at Oregon Mountain Community. Ice climbing in the area would be world-class, if only it got cold more oftenas it is, ice weenies bide their time, sharpen their tools, and revel in the chaos of the next big freeze.
For 700-foot ascents on crystallized monoliths with near-vertical pitches, Ainsworth State Park is the place to go. Head south out of the Park along the canyon wall, and in less than a mile, conditions permitting, you'll see the tall frozen remnants of the once-aqueous falls on the right. Cinch down the crampons, wield the ice ax, zip up the Gore-Tex shell, clamp on the climbing rope and hardware, and attack the ice in an ascent that will take the better part of a day. The going is slow and soggyhandholds are few and far between and water seeps from beneath cracks and over ice to saturate gloves and clothing. Much of the climb, particularly the steeper top pitches, require runners to tie off on nearby trees, specters to jam into muddy cracks, and screws for exposed rock. It's like rock climbing in a sleet storm, and requires strong technical skills and familiarity with ice. Rappelling back to the bottom is the easy part (less so than falling, but infinitely more enjoyable), and by using slip lines and fixed anchors climbers can hopscotch back to terra firma and leave minimal gear behind.
To reach the Ainsworth Falls, take I-84 east from Portland to Exit 28 (Bridal Veil), and follow highway 125 for about six miles past Multnomah Falls and Ainsworth State Park entrance. Other regional hotspots include the Crown Jewel and Sheppard's Dell in the Gorge, Elliot Glacier, and Holly Falls on Hood Mountain.
A word of warning: Do not try this at homeice climbers are certifiably insane or well versed in their art, and neophytes are best to seek professional help. Timberline Mountain Guides (541-312-9242; www.timberlinemtguides.com) offers one-day basic and advanced ice courses ($140), various multi-day ice- and rock-climbing seminars, and guided climbs on Gorge falls on the rare occasions that they freeze. There are also a wealth of how-to manuals, including Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue, by Andy Selters ($18, The Mountaineers), and Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills ($27, the Mountaineers). For more ice-climbing opportunities in the area, take a look at Portland Rock Climbs, by Tim Olson (Piton Press).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication