Climbing Superfortress, Near Vail, Colorado

Climbing Superfortress

I was completely engaged in the climbing, not thinking, not doing, just being, says climber Will Mayo of his second ascent of Superfortress, a very difficult mixed ice and rock climbing route near Vail, Colorado.  Yet when the partially formed icicle of the Fang collapsed beneath my feet, the whoosh of air and the corresponding cacophony of about ten tons of icicle shattering a hundred feet below instantly snapped my mind back to the situation beyond the climb.  Worried about the people below, Mayo recalls yelling, Are you OK?  There was no immediate response so he yelled again.  “My girlfriend yelled up that she and everyone else were okay.  I realized afterward that because the amphitheater overhangs by about 50 feet, the ice had fallen well out and downhill from where they all were belaying and watching.

One of the other routes I have established in Vail I named as a tribute to my late Great-Uncle Tom, who was a copilot of a Flying Fortress, the nickname for the B-17, with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II.  He was shot down in occupied France and survived, says Mayo.  The double entendre is that the amphitheater seems fortress-like and the widely spaced bolts provide opportunity for flying-like falls.  Superfortress, which is the nickname for the B-29, seemed like a logical next route as it crossed my first route.  I named it before the Fang collapsed, yet it seems very appropriate considering that the amount of ice that fell like a bomb likely weighed about as much as the plane's bomb load capacity.

Getting the Shot

I turned around to see the entire pillar fracture about eight inches below Will's feet, says photographer Celin Serbo.  I guess it's the classic case of when to put the camera away.  Will had just pulled through the final ice section, and I could only see his feet.  I started packing away my camera and preparing to rappel down when I heard a deep crack.  Everything was in slow motion as I watched the entire pillar come down—it was like something out of a movie.

The dramatic end to Mayo’s climb on the Fang occurred after Serbo photographed Mayo climbing the difficult route.  This climb is way above my climbing limits.  On Will's 'warm up' lap he trailed a static line, which he fixed at the top anchor for me, recalls Serbo.  I wanted to be close enough to Will at the routes crux while still giving a sense of place.  It is a pretty aesthetic amphitheater.

Serbo photographed with a Nikon D800 and a 16-35mm, f/4 lens.  Select the photo for the large version.