The Adirondack Park’s frozen cliffs offer some of the best ice climbing in the country.
By Phil Brown
The Adirondack Park has thousands of rock-climbing routes, many of them stellar, but it will never rival such climbing destinations as Yosemite Valley in California, New River Gorge in West Virginia, or the Shawangunks in downstate New York.
Bugs, mud, moss, lichen—let’s face it, our cliffs can be manky. But come winter, they turn white and, in many places, silvery blue. And so when it comes to ice climbing, the Adirondacks are hard to beat.
“We’re the real deal nationally. We’ve got water, so we’re better than out west,” observes Don Mellor, the author of Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide.
Don and I are at the Ausable Inn in Keene Valley, where we gathered for beers after he took me on my first ice climb—the famous Chouinard’s Gully overlooking a frozen Chapel Pond. As if to prove Don’s point, three other ice climbers take seats next to us at the bar, and in due course we learn that they drove here from Maryland.
That’s 450 miles. Maybe I have been missing out on something. Despite living in the Adirondacks for fifteen years, I had always shunned ice climbing. I didn’t see the appeal of standing in the cold waiting for your partner to claw his way up a giant icicle. No, I preferred to ski in the backcountry and let gravity work for me.
It’s a good plan, but flawed in one respect: it requires snow. If you’ll remember, we had little of that most of last winter. And so, at age fifty-nine, I took up ice climbing.
You might think this another flawed plan, but at least I had brains enough to ask Mellor to show me the ropes.He’s been climbing, both ice and rock, in the Adirondacks for nearly four decades.
We meet at a pull-off beside Chapel Pond and soon are joined by the photographer Nancie Battaglia (who happens to be Don’s neighbor in Lake Placid). As we walk across the pond, Don points to a wide ribbon of snow and ice cleaving the cliff on the opposite shore. This is Chouinard’s Gully, one of the Park’s most popular winter climbs.
If you’re an ice climber, you should have heard of Yvon Chouinard. He revolutionized the sport when he started manufacturing ice axes with drooped picks, a design that enabled climbers to ascend steep ice with much greater facility. Legend has it he introduced his newfangled tools in the Adirondacks in 1969 on a weekend outing with the American Alpine Club.
“There’s no bigger ice-climbing icon than Chouinard,” Mellor tells me. “We’re really proud that he came to our place and climbed. It’s a cool piece of history.”
The gully above Chapel Pond is one of the routes Chouinard is credited with climbing that weekend. At three hundred feet long, it’s usually done in three or four stages, or pitches, making it one of the lengthier ice climbs in the Adirondacks—with some nice views of Chapel Pond Pass as you ascend.
What’s more, it’s only moderately difficult, or as Don puts it, “a multi-pitch route that is accessible to mortals.”
All this—its moderate grade, its length, its history, and its accessibility—explains the gully’s popularity. Don has climbed it more times than he can count, but he’s not one to gush over it. “I don’t think it’s a great route. It has a cool little headwall at the bottom and a boring snowfield in the middle,” he remarks.
Nevertheless, Mellor describes Chouinard’s Gully in Blue Lines as “justifiably the most traveled multi-pitch route in the region.” Certainly for a novice like me, it offers plenty of excitement.
One of the cool things about climbing ice is that a capable beginner, if led by someone experienced, can tackle a moderate route like Chouinard’s without much trouble. On rock, you climb with the holds you’re given, whereas on ice you create your own holds—by sticking the picks of your tools and the front points of your crampons into the ice. There is an art to deftly placing picks, but even a novice can manage, especially if making use of holes left by previous climbers.
When skiing, I wear mittens for maximum warmth, but Don suggests I wear gloves for climbing. I’ll need the extra dexterity for belaying, holding ice axes, and removing ice screws. He hands me a spare pair. They’re not the fancy high-tech gloves you see in gear shops. Rather, they’re lined leather work gloves.
Don sets off on the first pitch and soon disappears over a ledge. When the rope stops pulling I know he’s reached the end of the pitch. After setting up an anchor and putting me on belay, he pulls the rope snug. Now it’s my turn.
The first thirty feet or so of Chouinard’s is easy, low-angle ice leading to the “cool little headwall” on the left. It’s about ten feet high and nearly vertical. I plant my axes above my head, kick the front points of my right crampon into the ice, and step upward. Then I kick in my left crampon and step up again. It doesn’t seem that hard, but after a few steps, I lose my balance and fall. When I hit the base of the wall, the rope goes taut. Don has caught me.
“Testing the belay system?” he asks.
I am unhurt but feel stupid for falling. On my second try, I scale the headwall without trouble and clamber onto a snowy shelf. From here it’s easy climbing, partly on snow, partly on ice. Along the way, I remove ice screws that Don had placed for protection (clipping the rope to each screw as he ascended). Upon reaching Don, I tie into the anchor. He constructed it by embedding two screws deep into hard ice and clipping a nylon sling to them; it seems strong enough to hold a bus.
My hands are freezing. It’s a cold afternoon, and we are in the cliff’s shadow. But part of the problem, I suspect, is that I held the axes in a death grip during the climb—a common rookie mistake. Squeezing the axes may provide psychological security, but it inhibits blood flow.
Fortunately, Don climbs fast, so I am not standing around long. We move quickly on the second and third pitches. Neither pitch has an obstacle as formidable as the headwall, although there are a few bulges that demand thoughtful placement of picks and points. By the end of the route, I feel like I’m getting the hang of it. I must have loosened the death grip, as my hands are no longer cold when I catch up to Don, who is tethered to a cedar tree.
“Good job,” he says, and that’s praise enough.
Although it’s possible to hike back down, the descent route is a bit long. Instead, Don ties two ropes together and sets up a rappel. It takes us two raps to reach the base of the climb.
When we get to the Ausable Inn, I pepper Don with questions. He started ice climbing decades ago, wearing hiking boots and strap-on crampons. He has since climbed innumerable routes in the Adirondacks and elsewhere, including Newfoundland, which he described as “exotic and big and unexplored—the coolest ice I’ve done.”
Mellor is an English teacher at Northwood School in Lake Placid, but in his spare time, he teaches ice-climbing clinics and works as a guide. He once taught a clinic attended by Jim McCarthy, a legendary climber from the Shawangunks and the very guy who is said to have been on the other end of the rope when Chouinard climbed Chouinard’s Gully. When Don learned that McCarthy, then in his seventies, had signed up for his clinic, he thought to himself: “There’s something wrong with this movie. Jim McCarthy is paying me to get instruction.” He took his pupil up Chouinard’s, but McCarthy did not recall the route.
Despite all the time spent on ice, Mellor prefers rock climbing. “It’s more nuanced, more subtle,” he says. “And it’s safer. With rock climbing it’s: can you do the route? With ice climbing it’s: would you do that route?”
Ice climbers must deal with dangers unique to their sport. Since it’s not always possible to put in an ice screw, climbers often are forced to “run out” the route—that is, ascend far above the last piece of protection.
“A leader has to not fall,” Don says. “Unlike rock climbing, you’re usually a long way from your last protection. Even when you’re trying to be cautious, you face a fatal fall.”
What’s more, there is no guarantee that an ice screw will hold a fall. And sometimes the ice itself fails. Several years ago, a climber died at Poke-O Moonshine Mountain when the ice he was on broke away from the cliff.
The best ice climbers, Don says, tend to be brawny and bold. “They don’t have self-doubt. If something goes wrong, it’s so bad,” he adds.
Although it’s only January, Don says many of the region’s best routes are “pegged out”—pockmarked with holes from crampons and axes. The holes make it easier to follow a route, but of course that means the challenge is diminished. In some cases, Don says, it’s like climbing a ladder. He is already thinking ahead to the rock-climbing season. “I get to springtime, I get to March, it’s like: I made it.”
The ice bible
Don Mellor’s Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide ($25.95) is the standard guidebook for winter climbers. Published in 2005 it includes a foreword by Jeff Lowe, a celebrated climber, and describes 350 routes. Mellor hopes to publish a second edition next year with a foreword by Steve House, another world-class climber. The new book will describe about six hundred routes, many outside the High Peaks region, the traditional destination of ice climbers. It will be published by the Mountaineer, the outdoors shop in Keene Valley.
The book uses the New England Ice system to grade the difficulty of climbs. The ratings are defined in the book as follows:
NEI 1: easy, low-angled, yet still warranting a rope for weak climbers.
NEI 2: harder, low-angled ice, climbable without front-pointed crampons.
NEI 3: some steeper, even vertical sections, but never strenuous on the arms.
NEI 4: steep and fatiguing, with vertical and near vertical sections up to 50 feet. For the leader there’s a big gap here: on 3’s one can sink screws from a comfortable stance. On 4’s one needs to place screws from strenuous positions.
NEI 5: very sustained vertical ice, often several pitches in length.
Note: Some especially hard climbs might be rated NEI 6. “On many of the routes, 5’s can become 6’s (and vice versa) in thin conditions,” Mellor writes.
4 classic ice climbs
Don Mellor’s favorite moderate ice routes include Roaring Brook Falls, the Cascade, Multiplication Gully, and Chapel Pond Slab. After going up Chouinard’s Gully with Don, I climbed the other routes with Dan Plumley, who lives in Keene. Dan led all four routes in the following order:
Roaring Brook Falls, 350 feet, NEI 3+
This is the large waterfall on Giant Mountain visible on the right when you drive down the big hill from Chapel Pond to St. Huberts on Route 73. In summer it’s a fun rock climb, but it’s perhaps better known as an ice climb. Dan and I did it in three pitches, but the second pitch was so easy (mostly a walk) that we didn’t bother to place protection. On the first and third pitches, we climbed straight up the falls, listening to the water cascading behind the ice. For me, the hardest part was near the top of the last pitch where I twisted awkwardly to squeeze through a narrow chute. After finishing, we walked down the hiking trail back to our car.
The Cascade 250 feet, NEI 2
The Cascade in question is the waterfall between the two Cascade Lakes. This is the easiest of the four routes. It’s normally done in two pitches, but Dan and I did just one pitch. Evidently, we stopped a little short of the usual end. Despite the easy rating, several bulges on the route will test the novice climber. At the top we found a rappel anchor: someone drilled two holes in the ice that joined at an angle and then threaded a strand of nylon webbing through the little tunnel. However, we could not have reached the bottom in one rappel with our rope, so we traversed into the woods and rappelled off trees.
Multiplication Gully 225 feet, NEI 3+
This classic route ascends a narrow gash in High Falls Crag in Wilmington Notch (on the south side of Route 86). To get to the base, we followed a packed trail over snow-covered talus. There are two pitches. The first has a few bulges that must be surmounted, but the second is the money pitch, as it’s both longer and harder. At one point, I had to squeeze up a sort of chimney, with my back against the wall. We made things more difficult by getting a late start and finishing in the dark. Dan had climbed Multi Gully in his youth and was so psyched to have done it again that he bought me dinner.
Chapel Pond Slab 700 feet, NEI 2-3
Don’t be fooled by the easy-to-moderate rating: this is a bold and risky climb. A lot can happen in seven hundred feet. Mellor’s book warns of avalanches sloughing off the slab and water spouting from holes made by ice axes. Conditions will vary from winter to winter and week to week. When we did the route (in five pitches), there was a tricky traverse where the thinness of the ice made it difficult to place ice screws. One of the cruxes is a six-foot wall high on the slab. Be prepared for a long descent through the woods once you finish, including some low-angle rappels.