The only picture of me climbing ice is before I learned how to climb. I’m spread way too long vertically with my arms straight up, picks stuck in the ice and my legs straight. I learned quickly that you don’t climb like that… anywhere.
While my college classmates went to Mexico, Florida or to their homes for Spring Break I got in my blue Mazda MX-6 and drove to Keene, New York. The plan was to do some short one-day climbs for two-to-three days with Bill Simes, who was guiding for Ed Palen’s Rock and River Guides. Rock and River is also a B&B so I had a room in the “Guide House.” In fact, I was the only guest at that time.
The weather would hold for the day I got there, my 22nd birthday, but the climb at Chapel Pond the second day was in doubt. The layer of grey clouds were growing thicker through the day and sealing off the spouts of sunshine. The forecast called for freezing rain, and lots of it.
Bill and I chose an only-slightly gentle slope to warm up. He set up the top rope, rapped down and reminded me to only use the pics for balance and to stand on my feet. Just like on rock, sort of. There aren’t front points on rock, usually.
Kick, kick, swing, swing. I stepped up and repeated. At the top, the first rappel was a little dicey. I quickly swung to my left, my hip and arm hitting the ice; clearly I didn’t start with a wide stance. Or I was just plain unbalanced. I don’t remember.
We walked over to a steeper wall of ice and I climbed and practiced placing ice screws. Bill told me that a recent study concluded that the screw will hold better — surer — if it’s angled downward, as if it would slide out. It seemed completely counter intuitive at the time. He explained why, but I’m not sure he completely understood. Bill was clearly convinced and I trusted him — he was one of Ed Palen’s guides — so I bought it too, without completely understanding. I read the engineering explanation later.
After we ate some granola bars and fruit for lunch, Bill set up the rope on an ice wall that was plain verticle and finished slightly overhanging. Gravity pulled at me from behind the whole time and I felt my heels dipping low, stretching my calves. I gripped my axes tighter — probably unnecessarily. This was when we had axe leashes (does anyone still use them?) and Bill told me to relax my grip and let my skeleton hang in the wrist loops. I tried. But even that hurt too, just differently.
I fell and hung suspended. Bill lowered me down. As it were a video game, I had to start over. I did top out — a couple of times. But I was spent. By four, we called it a day.
This would have been the perfect moment for him to slap me on the shoulder and say, “Let’s grab a beer.” Instead, I enjoyed a Saranac Pale Ale with dinner in town by myself. I watched the TV in the bar, got the news and then I got the weather forecast.
The next day wasn’t an epic. It was awash. But it was a nice birthday.