How to climb an 85-foot wall of ice and keep your cool
By Phil Brown
More than thirty years ago, Don Mellor was in a plane flying over the High Peaks region, taking photos for his rock-climbing guidebook, when he spotted a large streambed in Chapel Pond Canyon. He returned the next winter with Steve Wisenand, one of his students at Northwood School in Lake Placid.
The streambed was now a huge mass of ice, about eighty-five feet high. With Mellor leading, they climbed the frozen flow with ice axes and strap-on crampons, then the only kind available.
They named the route Positive Reinforcement, an allusion to the behavioral theory of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose utopian novel Mellor had assigned to his English students. The name also is a tip of the helmet to Positive Thinking, a classic ice route on Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain.
Positive Reinforcement was the first ice-climbing route in Chapel Pond Canyon. Since that winter day in 1982, climbers have established nearly twenty additional routes in the canyon, yet Positive Reinforcement remains one of the best and most popular. Though it’s considered only moderate in difficulty, many variations are possible, some harder than others.
In January, I climbed Positive Reinforcement with Sabrina Hague, a graphic artist who lives part time in Keene mostly so she can climb—rock in summer, ice in winter.
I first met Sabrina and her partner, Rhonda McGovern, through R.L. and Karen Stolz, who own Alpine Adventures in Keene. Like Sabrina and Rhonda, as well as many others, I climbed with the Stolzes on a few occasions for their forthcoming book Classic Adirondack Climbs. Climbers served as models while the Stolzes took photos from every possible vantage—from below, beside, and above.
Impressed by the Stolzes’ meticulousness and their results, I asked if they could take photos of Sabrina and me on an ice climb. At first, Sabrina suggested we do Screw and Climaxe, a well-known route on the north side of Pitchoff Mountain. R.L. dissuaded us, warning that the ice on the route is notoriously thin and thus hard to protect. In a word, dangerous.
It proved to be good advice. The day after we did Positive Reinforcement, an ice climber took a terrifying fall on Screw and Climaxe, breaking a leg. Forest rangers and volunteers carried out a difficult rescue in the dark.
Near dawn on a Friday morning, Sabrina and I rendezvoused at the Stolzes’ and then drove with them to Chapel Pond. We parked at a campsite on the pond’s north shore. After putting on ice-climbing boots, we clomped across the frozen pond toward the canyon. We followed a well-trod snow path past a series of ice routes, including a tough one first ascended by Alex Lowe, a celebrated climber who later died in an avalanche in Tibet. Jeff Lowe, another legendary climber, also put up two stout routes in Chapel Pond Canyon. (The two Lowes were not related.)
Because it was still early in the morning, we didn’t see any other climbers during our twenty-minute slog to the base of Positive Reinforcement. The ice towered above us. It was fairly steep, overall, but with plenty of bulges and ledges for resting. Even though I am fairly new to ice climbing (this was only my sixth route and first in two years), I was feeling confident and couldn’t wait to start.
Alas, I had a long wait. Karen and R.L. had come here the day before to prepare for the photo shoot by draping a rope down the cliff. Karen now scrambled up through the woods to the top to take photos from above. R.L., meanwhile, started climbing the rope (using a mechanical ascender) to get in position to take photos from the side. Of course, we also had to go through the preliminaries of putting on harnesses and crampons, sorting our gear, flaking out the climbing rope, and so forth. All this took time.
Did I mention that it was cold (in the low teens)? And that Positive Reinforcement gets no sun (at least, not this early in the morning)?
Finally, Sabrina thwacked the ice with the picks of her ice tools, kicked it with the front points of her crampons, and began climbing. We had been experiencing a cold spell, and the ice was hard and brittle—“tough,” as R.L. put it. Sabrina sometimes had to take several swings with her axes to get them to sink in. After planting the picks, she would move her feet upward, find a stable stance, and then repeat the process.
Ten or fifteen feet above the ground, she paused to place an ice screw. Climbers twist these tubular screws into the ice every so often on a route to protect themselves against a fall. The rope is clipped to the screws, so if the lead climber slips and the belayer keeps the rope taut, the last screw will arrest the fall. If the leader is five feet above the screw, for example, he or she will fall only ten feet (plus some rope stretch).
That’s the theory. I have been told that you can never trust an ice screw to hold in a fall. There’s a good chance it’ll pop out. I also have been told that an ice screw won’t pop out unless the ice is thin or rotten. I’d like to think the second hypothesis is correct, but I wouldn’t want to test it. Nor would Sabrina. “I haven’t fallen on ice, and I don’t plan to,” she told me after our climb.
It’s not only the fall itself that’s dangerous. Bear in mind that ice climbers wear steel spikes on their feet and carry a pair of axes. “There are a lot of pointy objects,” Sabrina noted. “Where am I going to land with my crampons? And my ice tools—what’s going to happen to them?”
The aforementioned Jeff Lowe once took a forty-foot fall in Montana when the ice he was on broke loose. He hit a ledge, and the adze end of his ax carved out a sizable piece of scalp, exposing the skull. His partners taped the scalp back in place and drove him to the hospital, but on the way they stopped for lattes. “It was great,” Lowe recalled in an interview with Outside magazine. “My clothes were saturated with blood. We parked in the handicap spot in front of the coffee shop, marched right in, and then headed for the hospital.”
Fortunately, the ice on Positive Reinforcement was not about to give way. Sabrina continued to twist in screws as she ascended. When she reached a lower-angle section about halfway up the route, she stopped while R.L. moved higher on his rope for a better camera angle.
All this took time.
Did I mention that it was cold? Standing on the ground, in the shadows, still gripping the rope threaded through my belay device, I looked longingly across the canyon at bare rock cliffs suffused in warm sunlight—the Beer Walls, one of the Adirondacks’ best rock-climbing areas. I heard a flock of chittering chickadees, evidently cheered by the sun. I envied the little birds.
Sabrina stopped again just below the route’s steep final section. R.L. climbed to the top and prepared to take photos with a homemade boom—an aluminum pole with a camera attached to the end. Karen positioned the boom while R.L. shot the photos, using his iPhone to control the camera. The images would appear as if they were taken from midair.
Once she started climbing again, Sabrina reached the top in no time, anchored herself to a large cedar, and prepared to belay me.
As a follower, I did not take nearly as much risk as Sabrina did on lead. While I climbed, she pulled in the slack in the rope. If I slipped, I would have fallen a foot or two at most. Very safe. Yet many climbers prefer the risk of leading: it’s exciting and forces them to focus, to get in a zone.
“Climbing is all about leading,” Sabrina said afterward. “When I’m leading, I tune out everything—work, family, everything.”
Even when following, I fear falling. For one thing, I want to climb a route cleanly, without messing up. Also, rope or no rope, I have an instinctual aversion to peeling off a cliff.
I didn’t fall on Positive Reinforcement, but I messed up a little. The thing about ice screws is they must be removed. That means unclipping them from their slings, twisting them out of the ice, and clipping them to your harness—an operation that can be difficult to manage with one hand while holding an ax with your other hand and trying to balance on your front points. It’s especially difficult if you’re still a novice and wearing thick gloves. Needless to say, I got fumbly fingers, and in my klutzy frustration I somehow dropped an ax. Fortunately, I wasn’t high up, so it was a simple matter to lower me down to retrieve it. When I resumed climbing, R.L. offered some tips on removing screws, and the rest of the ascent went off without a hitch.
Positive Reinforcement has a short second pitch, but most parties don’t bother with it. We had planned to climb it, but by the time I finished the main pitch, everyone had had enough of the cold. We rappelled down, collected our gear, and hiked back to the car. On the way out, we passed climbers at several routes, including Ice Storm, the test piece by Alex Lowe. Looking at the thin smear of ice high on this route, I marveled at how anybody could climb it—or want to.
A week later, Sabrina and I returned to climb Quinn the Eskimo, a fairly easy route farther down the canyon. Beforehand, we ate breakfast at the Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley, where I interviewed her about her life.
Raised in a small town in northern New Jersey, Sabrina loved sports. “I was always a tomboy,” she said. “I loved playing sports. I grew up on baseball, basketball, soccer, riding my bike, jumping rope.”
Her other love was art. After high school, she earned a degree in graphic design and went to work, first in Newark, later in Manhattan. In her last job, she worked ten years in the corporate-communications department of the Associated Press. Four years ago, she quit to work free-lance full time, a move that gave her the freedom to pursue her climbing passion.
A friend had introduced her to climbing at an indoor gym. She liked it so much that eventually she bought a house in New Paltz to be near the Gunks, a world-renowned rock-climbing venue. She climbed there frequently but also visited other places. After meeting Rhonda, a banker who lived in New Jersey, the two of them took a trip to the Adirondacks.
“I wanted to take her to this place; it’s beautiful,” Sabrina recalled. “So I took her up here, and she loved it. It was autumn. The trees were in full bloom.”
A few years ago, Sabrina and Rhonda bought a cabin in Keene and fixed it up. They now come up nearly every weekend, and Sabrina sometimes works from here. “This feels like home to us,” she said. “There’s a warmness up here. The climbing community is great.”
They don’t always climb. They hike up mountains to gorgeous vistas and paddle their stand-up boards on pristine lakes and rivers. “Up here, if you’re only climbing, you’re cheating yourself,” Sabrina remarked.
Climbing, though, remains her passion. She has been climbing rock longer than ice and considers herself better at it. But since she doesn’t backcountry ski—not yet, anyway—she is grateful to have discovered a winter sport. “The ice climbing made me fall in love with the Adirondacks even more,” she said.
Enough talk. We left the Noonmark and hiked to Quinn the Eskimo. On the way, we passed a party of climbers at Positive Reinforcement. They were ascending a different line than the one we had done a week earlier. When Sabrina and I arrived at Quinn, she asked if I wanted to lead. Examining the route, I thought I could manage, but I begged off. I had had only a few hours of sleep the night before and felt less than my normal self.
Then I had an idea. Sabrina would lead the climb and then I would lower her. We would leave the screws in place and pull the rope. Then I would climb, clipping the rope as I went. I’d be leading, but because I wouldn’t have to place the ice screws myself, it’d be much easier. It’d be analogous to climbing a bolted sport route on a rock cliff.
That’s what we did. It gave me a taste of the psychological demands of leading. I knew that if I slipped, I’d fall some distance. But I also had the comfort of knowing that I’d be saved by the ice screw below and that I’d be unlikely to lose my scalp.
Of course, that assumes the screw would have held.
The bible for the region’s ice climbers is Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide by Don Mellor, with a foreword by Jeff Lowe. It describes hundreds of routes throughout the Adirondack Park and includes a history of local ice climbing. The softcover guidebook sells for $25.95. It can be purchased in regional stores or online.