Adirondacks known for ‘fat sticky ice’
By Sierra McGivney
To some people, ice climbing sounds insane. You walk up to a steep sheet of ice, strap on sharp daggers to mountaineering boots, tightly hold on to two serrated foreign objects and go up. For those who ice climb, it’s the perfect mix of winter, skill and challenge. The thrill of swinging an axe into sticky ice and pulling yourself up, then finding that perfect spot your crampon fits into the ice formation is euphoric.
Much like the appeal for rock climbing, ice offers a nice rhythm and challenge. Climbers can’t help but complete a climb with a smile frozen on their face. The shouts of companions offer a warm community of climbers who love the cold. Whether your looking to try ice climbing for the first time or you go every weekend, the Adirondacks is the place to be.
Why the Adirondacks
Ice sheets engulf the bare Adirondack rock. Raging waterfalls become still chandeliers of ice as sunny fall days turn frosty and pale. Adirondack ice climbers wait all summer for the fat sticky ice to form over waterfalls and cliffs. From December until early to mid-March, locals and climbers from all over the world flock to this ice climbing mecca.
Steve House, a professional alpinist and climber, wrote the foreward for the Adirondack ice climbing guidebook, “Blue Lines 2.” by Don Mellor. Here’s what he says: “Perhaps the magic of the Adirondacks is best summed up like this. Every time I’ve left, I leave hoping that I’ll come back soon.”
The Adirondacks have close to 600 routes to ice climb when conditions are good. Fat ice forms over Pitchoff Mountain and the surrounding Chapel Pond area, creating an ice climbers heaven. The Mountaineer even hosts Mountainfest, an entire festival celebrating ice climbing and other winter activities. (Note: this event didn’t take place this year due to COVID.)
All about that gear
An overview of what you need to get started
Types of ice, ratings
There are four main types of ice climbing, alpine ice, water ice, mixed climbing and man made ice. Alpine ice is ice formed from aged snow like the ice found on glaciers. Water ice is created just as you would expect when water freezes and melts a bit again and then freezes some more, sometimes over rock and sometimes over waterfalls. Mixed climbing is a mix of ice climbing and drying tooling on rock and ice. Man made is just how it sounds, these structures are used for climbing competitions or climbing clubs with no natural ice.
Water ice and mixed ice are the most common types of climbing in the Adirondacks. Water ice climbs are rated from WI1 to WI8. Three factors go into determining a route’s rating: steepness, quality of ice and availability of protection.
WI1 generally means low-angle ice with no tools required, while WI7 is a full rope length of 90 degree-angled thin ice or overhanging poorly adhered columns of ice. In the Adirondacks, ice climbers can find a multitude of climbs from WI1 to WI6, leaving room for both beginners and experts.
More about climbing grades
Some climbers use the New England Ice Climbing System,
which former Explorer editor Phil Brown explains in a past article.
Avoid the ‘Screaming Barfies’
Constantly keeping your hands above you in freezing temperatures restricts blood flow to your hands. At first your fingertips become a bit tingly and cold. You stop in a secure spot and shake them out. THAWK, the ice tool lands perfectly in the ice. Soon you’re in a rhythm and you barely even notice the cold creeping into your hands, until they are practically numb. By now you’re five feet from the top, only a couple more minutes and yes, you’ve made it. A smile is frozen into place.
Until blood rushes back to your hands and you move them around trying to get a feeling back in them. That’s when the pain starts. An indescribable pain… well almost. The pain makes you scream or barf, the screaming barfies.
Taking breaks often to shake out your arms and hands can help prevent the screaming barfies but if you do end up falling victim I suggest yelling over barfing.
Not the most appealing tactic to get people interested in ice climbing, but ice climbing is gritty and cold so you’ll need to be up for a challenge. If you’ve never been ice climbing at all it’s highly recommended going with a guided group or one on one guide.
Unlike rock climbing there is no local ice climbing gym to try out ice climbing but in the Adirondacks there are many experienced guides and classes, both for beginners and those who have already taken basic classes. Outfitters will provide you with the correct gear and advice to get you started.
Find a guide
Here’s a short list of Adirondack outfitters and guides
that specialize in ice climbing