By Phil Brown
Winter came a little late this year, but it’s here, and people are once again climbing ice in Keene Valley and elsewhere in the region.
Many folks fail to see the allure of clawing up frozen waterfalls with spiky crampons and pointy tools. When I finally gave it a whirl (at age 59), I rather enjoyed it, though I have yet to pursue the sport in earnest. In anticipation of climbing more this winter, I read a new guidebook, How to Ice Climb! (Falcon, 2021),by Sean Isaac and Tim Banfield, two Canadian experts.
Now, reading a book is not the way to learn how to ice climb. For that, you should hire a guide or find a competent mentor. However, climbers of all skill levels will find much of value in this excellent manual. The authors cover all aspects of the sport–the equipment, expedition planning, climbing techniques, leading, belaying, anchor building, safety measures–in clear and plain English. The instructions are illustrated by dozens of color photographs.
As a bonus, the celebrated alpinist Steve House contributed a chapter on training (it’s not all about pull-ups). Conrad Anker, another world-class climber, wrote a short foreword.
I found the chapter titled “Ice Movement” especially useful. It explains and illustrates the proper sequence of moves and body positions when climbing vertical ice and describes six drills that you can practice at your local crag. One way to improve footwork and balance, for example, is to climb relatively easy ice on top rope with just one ice tool.
Everyone should read the “Leading Ice” chapter. Even if you’re not a lead climber, it pays to understand the demands on your partner as well as the rope work used to protect you both. Also, some of the information on belaying is directed at the follower. The authors recommend that the belayer stand off to the side rather than directly under the lead climber to avoid falling ice.
Leaders protect themselves by clipping the rope to ice screws as they climb.
The “Technical Systems” chapter explains how to prepare the ice for a screw, how to twist in a screw, and where to place screws while climbing and when building an anchor at the end of a pitch. If you’re wondering whether an ice screw will really hold a fall, you’re in luck. In two appendices, the book provides scientific studies on the holding power of ice screws and ice anchors (lots of math and charts). Protection works if done right, but many factors influence the reliability of ice screws and anchors. It’s wise to adhere to the adage “The leader must not fall.”
The Adirondacks gets a mention in the “Destinations” chapter, which briefly describes eleven ice-climbing venues in North America. The paragraph on the Adirondacks identifies four climbs by name: Chouinard’s Gully, Chapel Pond Slab, Power Play and Positive Thinking. “If you’re looking for more of a backcountry experience, try checking out the Avalanche Lake area,” the authors advise. They also give a shout out to the Adirondack International Mountainfest, sponsored by the Mountaineer.
Chouinard’s Gully–named for the legendary Yvon Chouinard–is one of the most popular multi-pitch routes in the Adirondacks. In my first ice climb, I went up Chouinard’s with Don Mellor, the author of Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide, and wrote about the experience for the Adirondack Explorer.
You could spend a lifetime climbing all the ice in the Adirondacks, but if you’re looking to travel, you might check out three other destinations mentioned in the book that lie within a day’s drive of our region: Lake Willoughby in Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the cliffs along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.
If you get hooked on ice climbing, you might consider embarking on Steve House’s ambitious training regimen. It involves pull-ups, incline pull-ups, sit-ups, side planks, hanging leg raises, dips, toe raises, burpees, Turkish get-ups, and much more. He acknowledges that “if you’re over 25” you may need an extra day to recover from such workouts. And if you’re over 65?