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Slippery slopes

Ice climbing tends to summon images of grizzled mountaineers and their loyal Sherpas on Mount Everest - everyone wielding heavy ice axes on their slippery summit attempts.

But if you live around the Sierra, you don't have to travel to the black-ice gullies of the Himalayas or the frozen couloirs of Alaska to enjoy one of winter's unique outdoor activities.

"Lake Tahoe is a hidden gem of California ice climbing," says Dave Nettle, a noted international adventurer who lives in Tahoe City. His conquests include Alaska's Mount McKinley; the Himalayas' Pumori and Ama Dablam; South America's Cerre Torre, Fitzroy and Aconcagua; and Europe's Mont Blanc and the big walls of Chamonix.

"Tahoe has a great concentration of ice. Coldstream Canyon, next to Donner Lake, has six to eight distinct routes that range from 100 to 180 feet high."

Other ice-climbing areas for beginners or the more advanced are near Emerald Bay (including Eagle Creek Canyon and Cascade Falls), near Highway 50 south of Lover's Leap, Lake Audrian and the Gun Tower Cliffs near the town of Myers. Farther south, along Highway 395 in Mono County, Lee Vining and the June Lake area offer ice climbing near the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park.

The very thing that delights ice climbers - the ever-changing and fleeting nature of good ice -- is the cause of one of Nettle's favorite sayings: "A Tahoe ice climber's most important piece of gear is a fast car."

Have a good ice day

In the Tahoe area, ice climbers are always in search of waterfalls, rock bands and watery couloirs that, under the right weather conditions, become Rapunzel-like and let down their frozen hair.

One area enthusiast is Craig Calonica, a professional climber and Himalayan helicopter-skiing guide who grew up at Lake Tahoe.

In preparation for a proposed ascent of Mount Everest this year, Calonica practices scaling frozen waterfalls around Emerald Bay and the icy rocks at Donner Summit.

He says ice climbing requires a more acute awareness of surroundings than rock climbing because ice is more complex and unpredictable than rock.

"One day you can find a good consistency to an ice climb, but go back the next day and the whole route might have disappeared," says Calonica, who has been on Everest a dozen times and topped out on South America's highest peak, Aconcagua.

Calonica says the variability of ice makes climbing it so appealing. Frozen waterfalls and icy cliffs have distinct personalities, which he studies closely.

"No two climbs are ever alike; nothing is ever the same," he says. "It's an ever-changing medium -- easy one day, more challenging the next."

"Obviously, the colder it is, the more consistent and thicker the ice. When it warms up, you need to study it. Ice can become wet, brittle and deceiving."

Complementary pursuits

While ice climbing can be quite different from rock climbing, the two disciplines complement each other. Both sports use anchors to protect the climber in case of a fall.

An ice climber's anchors are ice screws - hollow tubes of metal hammered in until the threads catch and can be screwed in or out.

Sometimes, climbers insert pitons called snow pickets, which are T-shaped aluminum tubes with holes drilled near the top, where a loop of webbing is inserted.

Though ice climbers rely on crampons and ice axes to ascend, most climbing is done with the hands and feet and not with the aid of mechanical ascenders, such as those used by rock climbers.

"Ice climbing can be enjoyed quickly and can be easier to learn," says Calonica, who instructs and guides first-timers. "It's a lot more natural than rock-climbing moves. The ice climber decides himself where hand and foot holds are going to be. Each move is your own creation. Each ascent becomes sort of a first ascent."

Though ice-climbing equipment can be expensive, Nettle says, initial costs don't have to be staggering.

"You need good crampons, shoes and ice tools to start," he says," but go with a person who has all the necessary gear and gradually invest in the sport as you improve."

With major concentrations of climb areas -- literally dozens around the Tahoe Basin under the right conditions - ice climbing becomes a natural progression for area adventurers.

"Combine incredible alpine scenery, no crowds, accessibility, athletics, and ice climbing becomes a great way to enjoy the alpine environment," Calonica says.

"At Tahoe, the ice climbing routes are the pick of the crop."

Those in the frozen know

Ice-climbing instruction is available at these locations:

* Alpine Skills International, 11400 Donner Pass Road, Truckee; (530) 582-9170 or

* Doug Nidever Mountain Guides, P.O. Box 446, June Lake; (760) 648-1122 or

If you'd like to read up on ice climbing, here's a good start: "Climber's Guide to Tahoe Rock" by Mike Carville (Chockstone Press, 1991), available at most mountaineering stores.