by Gray Thompson

In the winter of 78/79, Davy (David Vaughan) and I heard that Dexter Hale and Randy Winner had found and climbed this great, steep frozen waterfall somewhere near Plains or Thompson Falls. I called Randy and got directions, and Davy and I set off the following Saturday morning to find and climb it. We drove some old wreck of Davy’s until it mired in deep snow, and then started walking. We must have gotten to the base of the ice rather late, because even the first photos of this attempt show full daylight. It was the longest, steepest frozen waterfall Davy or I had ever seen. Our equipment was state of the art: leather boots, flexible Salewa crampons, a stubby Chouinard Alpine hammer for one hand, and a 70 cm piolet for the other. For pro we had a handful of the new tubular Salewa screws and a couple of rock pins.

It was cold, and the ice was dinner-plating badly. We both got hit several times, and had the facial cuts and bruises to prove that we were ice-climbing. Davy took a big ice plate in the upper lip, just below his nose, and left a continuous trail of blood for the next hundred feet.

Our ascent rate must have been painfully slow, because it got dark by the end of the second pitch. We were climbing on my old 300 foot, 9mm double rope, and just tied one end of it to something and rapped the full 300 feet in the dark to the base of the ice. I had bought that rope in Chamonix in 1968. Of course, since one end was tied above, we had no way to retrieve the line, and left it there, happy to be down. That guaranteed that we would come back soon.

Thrashing through the brush, in the dark, on our way back to the car, a branch scraped my eye. It hurt so bad that I had to patch the eye to keep from blinking. We finally found the car, both of us bleeding from multiple facial wounds, my eye patched with a bloody bandanna, and our clothing torn from encounters with all the sharp stuff we had dangling around us. We looked like pirates after a raid.

On the drive in that morning, we were running low on gas, but were in too much of a hurry to stop and fill up. We figured we would be back on the road before the gas stations closed for the night. Of course, we were wrong, and not a gas station in Plains was open. The bars however, were, so we stopped in for a beer, still looking like bloody pirates. Nobody in the bar showed much interest in us until Davy shouted “Hey! Look at this. I can drink without opening my mouth!” I looked, and sure enough. With sealed lips he was sucking beer through a hole in his snot-trough where a sharp chunk of dinner-plating ice had punched clean through. A few barflies looked over, but soon lost interest.

We were so low on gas that we thought of sleeping in the post office, but it was locked, so we drove on, hoping to find an open station somewhere along the road to Missoula. However, as usual when you’re low on gas, nothing but bars were open. We made it to the old Log Cabin bar in Arlee by about 1 AM, and the car was running on fumes. My eye was more painful than ever, and Davy ran into the bar to try to scare up somebody who had a key to a gas station. No luck on that count, but pretty soon a couple of young men showed up with a hose and can, and motioned us over to a nearby car. After a brief discussion, we decided that it would be best for Davy to start the siphon because the gas would sterilize his cut lip. As he sucked and complained, I thanked the fellows for giving us some of their gas. They said “Oh, that’s not our car; we don’t know whose it is.” Then a drunk, short, round, young woman arrived and invited us to come home with her. We considered it for a moment, but decided to continue on to Missoula instead to get Davy’s lip sewed up and my eye looked at. We got to the St. Pat’s Emergency Ward, drunk, bloody, stinking of gas, and half-blind, about 3 AM. Fortunately, the ER doc on duty was Dave Brook, an old friend who let us in and took care of us. He particularly took care of Davy, stitching him up without anesthesia.

That was our first try on Rainbow. The next day we were too tired to move, so we had to wait until the following Saturday to go back to retrieve the rope and make another attempt. This time we enlisted Dave Williams as a third, and, since we knew the road, arrived at the ice earlier in the morning. The rope was buried in new ice, and digging it out took a while on the first two pitches. The upper part was steep, too, and it was near dark again when we finally topped out. I thought I had seen an easy way down that involved climbing up a bit farther and then traversing to the left to a nearby gully that would allow us to descend without rappelling in the dark. After about three hours of thrashing around on the steep, brushy cliffs above Rainbow, we gave up and built a bonfire. It wasn’t bad as mid-winter bivouacs go: we had a fire and I found two pork-chop sandwiches in the bottom of my rucksack from some previous trip that hadn’t spoiled, and were a lot better than no dinner at all.

I seem to recall that both Dave and I had dinner engagements that evening, and the worst part of the bivy was sitting there comfortably by the fire knowing that somebody was mad at us for not being somewhere else.

Well, that’s all I remember about the early Rainbow climbs. Now we do it in three pitches rather than four, and it takes about an hour per pitch. A few years ago, Doogie (McCarty) and I rigged permanent piton anchors that serve both as belay stations and rappel points, right on the climb. People should know that the pins loosen up, probably because of all the freezing and thawing that goes on there, and must be carefully checked whenever they are used. It is still a great ice climb, although it doesn’t stimulate quite the level of terror that spiced the early ascents.

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