A Little Adirondack Ice

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.

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Alpine Trivia Quiz

I thought I’d try to brighten up the day here in dull, flat Peaklessburg with a little alpine trivia quiz as we start heading into the weekend:

1. What was the name of the route behind Helmcken Falls in British Colombia climbed by Tim Emmett and Will Gadd?

     A. Psychic Envy

     B. Spray On

     C. Soaked Through

2. Who are the first alpinists to top out on Denali in the month of January?

     A. Artur Testov and Vladimir Ananich

     B. Barry Blanchard and Steve House

     C. Peter Croft and Matt Ciancio

3. Who was the first alpinist to use glacier landings in Alaska?

     A. Allen Carpe

     B. Bradford Washburn

     C. Charles Houston

4. Oh Eun-Sun would be the first Korean woman to climb all 14 8,000ers if she climbed this peak without dispute:

     A. Shishapangma

     B. Nanga Parbat

     C. Kangchenjunga

5. What year did Lionel Terry make the first ascent of Fitz Roy in Patagonia?

     A. 1951

     B. 1952

     C. 1961

Answers in reverse order: B, C, A, A, B.  How did you do? 

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Ice Climbing the Adirondacks

If you were in the northeast during Martin Luther King Day weekend (unlike me) you could have dropped into Keene, New York in the Adirondack’s High Peaks Region for the International Mountainfest. It’s a great celebration of winter and the mountains that has been around for fifteen years, thanks to it’s hosts The Mountaineer, an outfitter in Keene Valley (just down the road) and Rock and River Guides, where the event is always held.

At the event the whole family or your friends can stay at the Rock and River Guides’ Inn or at one of Keene Valley’s B&Bs, and enjoy the ice climbing skills course or go snowshoeing if the climbing is too intimidating.  There really is something for everyone except those longing for the beach (and why would you in such a better environment?)

Rock and River Guides are open year round and offer ice climbing and general mountaineering skills in the winter and rock skills and fly fishing in the summer.  The 16th Annual Mountainfest will likely be held on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2012 as well.

The event is worth attending and it would be a great introduction to climbing in the High Peaks.  In fact, the guru of Adirondack climbing and the author of the bible on the subject, Don Mellor, is attending.  So go, climb (or start!) and explore the Adirondacks from the ice walls:

Pitchoff Mountain — great for top roping near the Cascade Lakes (between Lake Placid, NY and Keene, NY on Route 73)

Chapel Pond — solid for practicing leads some good raps (south of Keene Valley on Route 73)

Poke-O-Moonshine Cliff — a well known wall near Lake Champlain that is enjoyable when it’s full and thick and a brilliant challenge when it’s ice lines are few and far between in an unusual season, as Vermont alpinist Matt McCormick described (east of Keene Valley and Giant Mountain; about 3 miles south of exit 33 on Route 9)

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Simplifying the Crampon Selection Process

G-10 Crampons

Whatever crampons you choose, they should fit the boots you will wear on the mountain (Szalay 2010).

I took for granted how easy it was to go climbing with a guide in the Adirondacks that does all the outfitting for you.  I never had the complicated task of selecting the appropriate crampon for the trip.  Those guys just handed me everything! 

Then, before my trip to Alaska, I went to purchase my own pair — just in case.  Do you want rigid or flexible, straps or clips, horizontal or vertical teeth?  The options were overwhelming and the prices varied widely.  Because of the specialization, the choices can be overwhelming.  Let me try to get at some fundamentals of this gear to help you simplify your research. 

Purpose of Crampons

Crampons were the improvement upon the hobnail boot – which was literally nails placed in the boot’s sole for traction.  Oscar Eckenstein, a climber in the Scottish Highlands invented the 10-point crampon to give improved grip.  The French and the Germans embraced them in the Alps and adopted their own style of using them – the French flatfooted their way while the Germans tended to step in with their toes.  This was before front points, or “teeth,” so the proper technique needed to be practiced.  The whole point of crampons until the advent of front points and Yvon Chouinard was to improve a climbers grip on icy and snowy surfaces.  But when ice climbing was introduced, things got complex and the sport went in a new direction.  Waterfall ice and “mixed” routes became pursuits in their own right. 

While ice climbing crampons may be used for general mountaineering, and some of us have a tendency for overkill (for instance getting the all-wheel drive even when your car never leaves suburbia) they really are not necessary.  If you expect or want to be prepared for the sole 40-foot vertical ice cliff you encounter on an escape route from your intended route, your general mountaineering crampons can still do the job. 

Making Sense of the Choices

Figuring out which crampon suits you requires you to familiarize yourself with the gear and its functions.  REI’s website provides a helpful page on this by Nancy Prichard Bouchard.  Read it with an eye to what you will be doing in your crampons – not what you want to do.  There is way too much used and unused gear on Ebay for this reason!  Because of the specialization of crampons, you may need to buy the Grivel G-12s for your ascent up Algonquin Peak in January but then need something with more aggressive front points for the Ouray Ice Park in March. 

I used several pairs from Black Diamond from the Adirondack rental shop, and most of them were the step-in (with a clamp at the heel) type or a combination of using the step-in and straps.  Because I was mainly ice climbing, they all had front points and were made of steel, versus aluminum. 

Steel is preferred and stainless is the Cadillac of materials, however aluminum may be suitable for “light” mountaineering.  Aluminum, while less weight, it is not strong enough for unrelenting vertical routes when you’re standing on the teeth all the time. 

Practical Thought

The "tool box."

Whether you are considering strap or step-in models, bring your boots with you to make certain they work right together.  The crampon is an extension of the boot’s sole, and step-in crampons require the boot to have certain features to grip on and stay on.  If the crampon you prefer does not work with the boots you own, consider budgeting for new boots to go with your new spikes. 

Also, be sure to purchase a “tool box” or heavy-fabric cordura bag to fit just your crampons and maybe a few ice screws.  The bag will protect your luggage, favorite fleece and shell from being impaled by your new gear while on the airline to Alaska. 

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NEIce: “Let the Games Begin”

I could not say it any better than our friends at NEIce: The ice has arrived in Huntington Ravine on the eastern flank of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.  For northeasterner ice climbers, the season is beginning in earnest.  Check out the photos on their site and their reports throughout the season!

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