Ice Climbing as a Substitute for Skiing

Dan Plumley climbs a route at Dipper Brook. Photo by Phil Brown.
Dan Plumley climbs a route at Dipper Brook. Photo by Phil Brown.

I don’t need to remind you how bad the backcountry skiing has been this year. As of this morning, the Adirondack Ski Touring Council wouldn’t even recommend skiing on the Marcy Dam Truck Trail.

But it has been cold this winter, so I figured the ice climbing must be good. Just over a week ago, in fact, there were ice climbers crawling all over Keene and Keene Valley during the Mountaineer’s annual Mountainfest.

Nevertheless, Don Mellor, author of Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide, says the climbing this winter has been only so-so.

“Some good flash freezes hit Poke-O—wet followed by cold (thin-ice specialist Ian Osteyee making hay there), but otherwise, it seems as though groundwater is low; thus most things aren’t flowing,” Mellor wrote me in an email this morning. “The big factor is [shortage of] snow, which both insulates and feeds. Brutal cold locks the hydrology.”

Still, the climbing has been better than the skiing. Given the unreliable snow cover in recent years, I have been thinking that it makes sense for skiers to take up ice climbing as a backup sport.

With that in mind, I went on my first roped ice climbs last weekend. Dan Plumley and I set up top ropes on a small cliff named—erroneously, Mellor says—Dipper Brook. It’s across the road from Chapel Pond Slab in Keene Valley.

The climbs are only thirty or forty feet long and fairly easy. Though steep, the ice is not vertical, and it offers comfortable stances for resting.  One of the climbs did have a vertical section that was more challenging, but since we were on top rope, we weren’t in any danger.

When ascending vertical or near-vertical ice, you stand by kicking in the front points of your crampons. I was surprised by how well these hold if placed well. I had more trouble with my ice-tool placements. A good climber can set the pick of an ice tool with a single whack. I often needed several. Inefficiency can lead to fatigue. By the end of my fifth and last climb, my left arm, not strong to begin with, was spent.

Before this weekend, my ice climbing had been limited to a few slide climbs. These climbs were easier—that is, far from vertical—and done without ropes. Don’t be fooled by easier. This alpine-type adventure still requires technique (not to mention stamina) and carries a great risk in event of a fall.

For a taste of this kind of ice climbing, check out the video below from Kevin “Mud Rat” MacKenzie. On Saturday, he and a friend climbed the New Finger Slide (a rock-climbing route in summer) on the North Face of Gothics. A fall would not have been pretty.

YouTube video

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

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  1. MudRat says

    Glad you had a nice day out top-roping, Phil. The ice never ceases to amaze me…colors, texture and feel underfoot.

    I posted more pics of the Gothics climb here for those who are interested: link

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