Ice: the Final Frontier

David Flinn out in the Adirondacks

Ice: the Final Frontier

Often I wonder to myself why certain people are drawn to frozen water. Not just from the perspective of an ice skater, but to that of those who search out vertical waterfalls. And not only to view the sparkling blue beauty, but mainly the desire to smash, thrash, and climb up these hunks of ice sculpture. One of my buddies loves the cold. All summer long he moans because he can’t wear his “‘fuzzy” pants. He mumbles about winter’s lack of bugs and crowds. If one mentions snow or ice, his complexion stiffens and a strange faraway look enters his eyes. Oh yes, snow and ice …

Most fascinating to ice fanatics is the ice axe. All year long you can catch the climber in the basement, staring at the ice tool in his hand. It’s just not the same holding a gas stove or a hiking boot. Ice climbers love their equipment. There is an awe generated around the axes, hammers, carabiners, crampons; all this gear that he gets to play with. If you are a gear lover not yet bitten by the climbing bug, don’t read any further.

Basically, ice climbs can be categorized as winter rock climbing. The same elements are needed: tons of gear, vertical and not so vertical cliffs, technique, knowledge, a general lack of sense, and lots of courage. But from this point, the two sports branch. The biggest difference concerns the equipment. While in rock climbing, one only relies on his equipment in the event, of the unfortunate fall. One uses the existing cracks and nubbins to hang on to, rarely resorting in aid from his gear. On ice, one chops, swings, hooks, places, or bashes foot and handholds. Your security depends wholly on your tools.

Another big factor is the cold. Because of the nasty weather, warm clothing and boots are essential. Today, with technology bringing us plastic boots, polar fleece, polypropleyene, and Goretex, it becomes infinitely easier to conquer the cold.

My major reason and interest in climbing ice developed because it gives me more mobility in the snow and cold. I love to snowshoe, ski, and hike, but now I can also play an the ice. The skill, technique, and adventure experienced in climbing helps to round out one’s outdoor skills. Climbing is just another part of mountaineering to learn and become familiar with. Every outdoor adventurer dreams of traveling to Europe, the Rockies, Alaska, the Himalayas, the Andes, or Baffin Island. These are big mountains and lots of skill and knowledge is needed to travel safely. For me, the techniques I have learned in the Adirondack snow and ice are going to pay off when I springboard up to higher mountains.

How to Go about it

It’s great to suddenly decide that climbing is what you wish to try, but it’s a totally different story to learn it. The majority of people doing it now were usually dragged out by their friends and thus exposed. But unfortunately, not everyone has friends like these. If possible, a knowledgeable friend is certainly the easiest and most effective method. Besides getting a buddy to teach you, either Outing Clubs or professional instruction are your best options.

Outing clubs are an interesting place to learn. In fact, my exposure to the sport was nurtured in one. The best part about a club is the abundance of gear for rent at extremely minimal cost. For anyone affiliated with or near a college, this can be your quickest and least expensive avenue to the sport. The drawback is that it is hard to find professional, personable, and informative instruction. Because most of the club leaders do not receive any payment, it is hard to find a leader who is continually willing to sacrifice his/her precious time teaching beginners. I recommend anyone in this situation to be persistent. If you consistently show enthusiasm, no respectful leader will refuse to take you with him. For those with the time and patience, the Outing club route is a great place to introduce yourself to the sport.

If one is not willing to wait around in a line at a club function, professional help is the next step. One can expect to pay around fifty dollars a day for lessons on the ice, and you certainly get your money’s worth. The schools carry all the gear you need and the one-to-one instruction allows you to learn the basics rapidly. Ice climbing is pretty easy, so with a small investment in a weekend course, you can begin climbing on your own. A big plus on your part is if you already know the basics in rock climbing; most notably the rope handling skills. I strongly advise strong understanding of the basics before pursuing climbing on your own.

As you develop more of a taste and desire, you will begin to meet more and more people who are also immersed in the sport. The objective is to enjoy mountaineering per se, and companionship you can trust is the only way to continue your interest. Besides Outing clubs, there are other organizations worth exploring. The Adirondack Mountain Club, the AuSable Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club; these are all fine places to meet people. Rumors abound concerning an Albany Rock and Ice club as well as one in Central New York. Whether you prefer waterfall ice climbs or classic alpine routes like the North Face of Gothics, there are many others out there and you only have to find them.

Where to find Ice

The two essential elements needed in order to climb ice are water and cold temperatures. The geography that falls underneath these two conditions is immense. Ice climbs are found in abundance all over New England. In good water years, the cold experienced in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and most of the northern Midwest, will carry good ice. People are even climbing frozen feed silos out there!

Even though the foothills and flatlands have splendid one pitch climbs, only the mountain regions offer longer and more enjoyable climbs., The Adirondacks per se, have many pleasant lower angled climbs in the NEI 2‚  3 range, while the majority of flatland climbs are extremely vertical. The lower angled stuff are superb training grounds for everyone. For example, found in the Cascade Pass between Lake Placid and Keene, the Cascade Waterfall is probably the most classic NEI 2 climb around. It is highly recommended. Anywhere one finds two or three weeks of extended freezing weather, ice can be located and climbed. Our next issue will cover many of the more localized areas.

Gear: the Key to Climbing Ice

When it comes to advice concerning ice, Yvon Chouinard’s words ring soundly; one must use the best available equipment possible. Hell, at some point, you may trust your life on it, and it better not fail! And of most important to ice climbing is the boot.

Where most people have trouble in winter is with their feet. Whether hiking, climbing, or skiing, most injuries occur in the form of frostbitten toes. But there is little excuse today with the introduction of plastic boots. Koflach, San Marco, and Kastinger are the most popular brands. These boots are just superior to leather in most activities concerning ice, snow, or general mountaineering adventures. They’re lighter, warmer, cheaper, and best of all, they remain rigid after sustained use.

Even with the popularity of plastic, leather boots are still quite effective. Leather tends to fit one’s foot better, it gives where plastic won’t, especially on low-angled ice where the “French” technique is used. The ankle tends to bend easier with leather than plastic. Plastic boots are much more available than good leather ones now, but look for Raichle or Asolo for excellent makes. My recommendation for leather boot owners is to purchase super-gaiters to enclose the boot from snow, water, and ice. Berghaus Super Yetis are the best an the market and worth the investment if you become serious about your play in the cold.

You can’t dance on hard ice with soft soled boots. Sorry, Sorrels and Mouse boots are too flexible, causing your crampons to shear out under weight. Stick to a boot with rigid soles!

For those who are not yet hooked on this sport, there is a cheap alternative in foot wear. Go out and find some of those old leather downhill ski boots that Dad used to wear. One can find these at rummage sales for under five dollars. They will be fairly warm and are certainly rigid enough. Beware the attempt to hike in them; it is murder on your feet.

But the best reason for first buying these old boats is to give the sport a try. There is no reason to spend gobs of money on a sport only to find it ridiculous. So buy some of these boots and go try them out. If you get hooked, you can scrap them dead soldiers and purchase mountaineering boots.

Once you have tried the sport, most likely you will catch the bug. Your whole life changes and focuses on climbing. And thus, you have to purchase more gear. If you are a safety conscious person, I highly recommend a helmet. The only one to get is made by Joe Brown (JBI in Wales, UK. They are without a doubt the best and safest out there). Helmets certainly shed many unasked for projectiles, but for those who don’t give a damn, buy crampons first.

The best reason for next purchasing crampons is that you can go anywhere in the hills, not just on ice. One can hike the icy trails to Marcy’s summit or stroll up an iced stream. They give you mobility in the winter woods. All the other gear comes later, once you really get trapped by the sport. I personally own a pair of Chouinard Everest hinged crampons, but would prefer those by SMC. Chouinards contain too many screws and bolts which can and have broken. The SMC’s only need two allen bolts and are much more reliable, stronger, and cheaper. But of most importance, the SMC’s are simpler to install on your boots. Those Chouinard ones take a Masters degree in Physics to fit correctly. I found out the hard way when one scampered 6001 down Tuckerman’s Ravine one day. You bet I learned how to fit them after that. So buy SMC; you won’t regret it.

Now that your toes are warm, don’t forget the rest of your body. The invention of poiypropeylene makes this extremely easy. Buy the stuff, as well as anything wool. What ii nice is that most of this clothing is universal for any winter activity. Don’t forget your hands. Mittens are best because they tend to be warmer. Shells to cover them are a good idea. Gates Goretex gloves are the new rage and are definitely great to wear. They allow one the dexterity of gloves with the warmth of mittens. They are a good alternative to Dachsteins.

All the hardware envolved in ice climbing becomes personal. There are many ice tools to choose from. The most durable ice axes are the Forrest Lifetimes. Nothing can break these tools. Chouinard’s X tools are light, fairly durable, and reasonable in price. Lowe and Co. make a good selection of ice gear, but their picks are not the strongest. Many tools are made overseas and give you more toys to choose from. Most climbers are very picky about their axes and hammers; always there to argue that their gear is the best.

Read the December 1984 issue of Climbing magazine if you are in the market for any ice tools. Every brand has it’s difference in weight, balance, and production. My recommendation is to try as many tools as you can and then make your own judgement.

As for ropes, ice screws, karabiners, pitons, and all such stuff, I leave up to yourself to explore. Most ropes and karabiners are essentially the same, with small personal differences influencing your choice. If you do wish to purchase ice screws, I suggest ice pitons, better known as SNARGS. They are made by Lowe and are the best in ice protection. Snargs are superior in strength, holding power, but especially in placement. One just places the sucker and whacks it in with a hammer. Hell with all that twisting and turning needed with screws.

Climbing Ice is lots of fun but it is necessary to have endurance, strength, lots of equipment, boldness, but most of all, technique. All the other elements one may have, but without practice and thus technique, one cannot begin to learn.

I hope you can find or have found a way to get together with someone so you may try this climbing of ice.

Ken Reville out on the Ice
Ken Reville out on the Ice

Sure it’s okay to write and read about it, but going out and doing it is where it is really at; out at the final frontier of your experience.