The word “Climbing” is a broad term. Most sports have multiple specialties within the discipline, and climbing is no different. In the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to try different types of climbing, including mountaineering, sport climbing, trad climbing, and bouldering and am looking forward to expanding my climbing horizons by trying more.
Of all the climbing I have tried up to this point, ice climbing is by far my favorite. Unlike rock climbing, ice isn’t usually year round, and it forms only in places with ideal water flow and very cold temperatures. Plus, in rock climbing you can feel the rock with your hands and feet, but in ice climbing you are using ice tools and crampons to ascend the ice.
I tried ice climbing for the first time last year with a good friend of mine, and I got the chance to climb all sorts of great stuff in Idaho. Now that I am in New England with Joe, both he and I have been itching to find some ice to climb. Especially since one of the mountaineering routes we have our eye on for this summer (The North Ridge of Mt. Baker) involves a large ice wall. This gives us even more incentive to brush up on our ice climbing skills.
Unlike in Idaho, ice climbing is much more prevalent here in New England. So much so that there is a website that provides updates on the conditions of the major ice climbing locations. Joe and I had been watching the ice conditions online, and doing research on the different climbing areas. We wanted to make sure we could top rope the ice, and ended up deciding to go to the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
So last week we packed up the car and headed out towards North Conway, New Hampshire to a great climbing area on the north end of Cathedral Ledge. Though it was not very tall, it gave both Joe and I the chance to work on our technique. Ice climbing is completely different than rock climbing. Not many of the rock climbing techniques we gained from our road trip rolled over to the ice, so we spent an afternoon working on what we hoped was good technique.
We spent a cold night in the car, and the next day drove to another climbing spot in the White Mountains. Champney Falls, located on the Kangamagus highway. It is a 45 minute hike to get to a small gully with the frozen falls. The hike in gives you a great warmup, and once we arrived we were greeted by a blanket of ice covering a wide cliff face. The best part was arriving, seeing no other climbers, and having the whole place to ourselves. We could pick and choose from all the different routes as we pleased. We set up a top rope on a smaller more vertical section of the ice and started climbing. As the ice got more vertical, the more tired you became, and before you knew it your technique flew out the window. After a few climbs, my arms were dead. Joe set up the rope to climb the taller section of ice only to burn out quickly. After he got to the top of the climb we decided to call it a day.
We had been lucky enough to get the chance to base out of Massachusetts and enjoy our rest time at Joe’s dad’s home. With family coming and going as they please, we get to enjoy company and some R&R.
Champney falls ended up being such a great place to climb, we decided that we wanted to go there again. But this time we would do some winter camping and climb there for two days. We waited through the weekend, which is usually when the ice is being climbed most. More importantly it was cold that weekend. When weather gets cold, it does the obvious – creates more ice.
So we packed up all of our gear, hopped in the car on Monday and drove out to Champney Falls. It was about a 4 hour drive in the Suzuki and we arrived around noon and hit the trail by 12:30. By the time we arrived to the base of the falls we were amazed; after just a few days of not being there, the cold temperatures had expanded the ice by a noticeable amount.
Once Joe had set up the top rope we had a few hikers watching us climb. Starting the day on the shorter 15-20 ft. piece of ice, I burned out disappointingly fast. My second time up the ice my technique was gone and my arms were on fire. Not to mention it was cold, single digits if not lower. The moment any water would touch you it would automatically freeze to your clothes. As the temperature drops, the ice gets harder, which makes placing your tools more difficult. As an ice climber one of my weakest points is the swing needed to solidly place the ice tool, this ended up being my downfall on the first day of climbing and part of why I burned out so quickly.
By the time we called it a day the sun was dipping below the horizon. We started to set up camp and placed the tent in the gulley right near the ice. Easily one of the coolest places I have ever camped. As the temperature continued to drop, Joe and I took turns cooking while the other person would run up and down the alley to keep warm. By the time we were getting ready to climb into bed the moon had crossed above the cliff wall and started to light up the ice. A sight I’m sure few get to see. That night we fell asleep listening to the water dripping off the massive icicles that surrounded the tent.
When we woke up the next morning the temperature was slightly warmer, and we had new motivation to climb. We ate a gourmet breakfast of Pop-Tarts and Shot Bloks and hopped on the ice by 8:30.
We warmed up on the short piece of ice we had climbed the day before, both of us feeling surprisingly better about our technique. Whether it was the Pop-Tarts or the desire to warmup, I am not sure, but we both climbed well enough to set a good tone for the day.
Joe then set up a top rope for tallest section of ice in the gully, around 40 ft. The ice was intimidating, but with a few cold days and a good warmup climb, we were both ready to give it a try.
I was the first to hop on the climb, focusing on technique and not burning out, the climb went very smoothly. Each rest spot along the steep ice was well used and it ended up being easier than expected. So much so that I was able to climb the same line about 4 more times over the course of the next couple of hours.
Not only did I end up having a good day of climbing but Joe was able to climb really well too. He hopped on the blanket of ice that he struggled on last time we were here and climbed it like it was no big thing. Plus, not only did he climb that harder section, but he climbed it two more times to finish up the day with a total of 7 climbs for him and 6 for me.
By the time we had finished, neither of us had taken a fall on the ice and though we both had tired arms and legs we were still able to hike out with energy to spare.
The entire two days we were there, we didn’t see another climber, and were both pretty stoked on how our climbing technique soared the last day. Made for easily some of the most fun ice climbing I have ever done.
On our way home we stopped and admired some ice from afar, called “The Black Dike”. We hope to climb it next year, and added it to our list of “to dos”.
We are both fairly sore this morning and are looking forward to a few days of one of our other favorite activities: resting. Though it won’t last for long. This weekend we are headed to an Ice Climbing festival in the Adirondack’s in New York. We are hoping to watch some presentations and get some more ice climbing in. This will be a new stomping grounds for the both of us.
Follow more of Katie and Joe’s travels on their blog – Miles to Go. All photos are credited to JDStylos.