When as a teenager I was first expressing an interest in climbing (circa 1963) my mother produced from somewhere a thick tomb on mountaineering technique written in about 1890 by an Englishman named, I think, Geoffrey Young. I don’t remember much about the book except that it had a tan cover, recommended wearing hobnail boots, and inveighed strongly against ever using a foothold on rock or ice unless that hold is bigger than your foot is wide. This principle, of course, made climbing rock of any difficulty at all impossible and mandated the cutting of big steps in snow and ice.
It is amazing how humans can create “rules” that limit their ability to achieve. For many years, the insuperable four-minute-mile barrier held back distance runners.
Rock climbers abandoned the requirement that every foothold be at least 3-4 inches wide early in the 20th century as they began the exploration of the limits of human ability that has given us the 5.15 climbs done by today’s hard kids. But on ice the story was different. The belief in the necessity for cutting nice big steps persisted until almost 1970. Only in the late 1960s did Yvon Chouinard import front point technique into North America from Europe. Jim McCarthy of Gunks rock fame brought that technique East by leading the first front point, no-steps-cut ice ascent of Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington in 1970, the year I graduated from college.
My few adventures into ice climbing in my first climbing life all took place in the 1960s and involved cutting lots of steps with my 3 foot long, wooden shafted ice ax. It was hard work that involved overheating and freezing at virtually the same time. It made rock climbing seem like a paradise. I stayed away from ice as much as possible.
Since I got back into rock climbing two and a half years ago, ice climbing has reared its ugly head from time to time. I see pictures of cool looking routes in glossy mags and the American Alpine Journal. My Gunks partner Carolyn is a devoted ice climber and occasionally has suggested I try it. My brother in law Dan is not a climber but lives in New Hampshire and loves winter sports. He has mentioned giving ice climbing a try. He even owns a pair of ancient axes.
Last winter I barely dodged the bullet. I succumbed to Dan’s entreaties and agreed to schedule a one-day Introduction to Ice Climbing class for the two of us with International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, N.H. Imagine my relief when I called and learned all the classes in our time-window were already full. Another winter without ice climbing, sweet.
This winter, though, something strange happened. Maybe it was Carolyn’s enthusiasm or the pretty pics in the magazines. The idea of trying some ice climbing started making clandestine appearances in my head. I didn’t think I would like it, but felt I should give it a try. They say that a good definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get a different result. But maybe insanity also consists of deciding to try a difficult, potentially dangerous sport because you think you won’t like it.
In any event, I decided to try ice. I bought a book with a bright red cover. A whole chapter is devoted to staying warm in sub zero temperatures by wearing very little insulating clothing. Swell. I told Dan I would schedule two days of lessons for us. I called Carolyn and asked her if she would take me out and show me how it is done. I was insane.
On Sunday, January 4th, as the weather babblers on TV and Radio were heralding the arrival of a record setting cold snap, I packed my cold weather gear and crampons (I had gotten them for my aborted trip to the Tetons) and headed for New Paltz. Next day was bright, blue and cold. With rented ice axes (these days everyone calls them “tools”) I met up with Carolyn and her friend Lee. We headed for an area called the playground. At least the name sounded non-threatening. I was a bit disappointed to learn that Lee had climbed ice half a dozen times before. I had hoped that he was also a beginner.
As we stood under the 30 foot high ice cliff, I realized I was feeling what novices must feel about rock climbing. I was looking up at the smooth, shiny, seemingly steep ice and wondering, “How in the Hell does anyone climb that.” Even more to the point, I was wondering how I would climb it.
Carolyn was great. She talked me through each step of the process from what to wear to when to put on my crampons and how to swing my axes, respecting my ego and tender feelings by casting her advice in the form of “What I [Carolyn] do is X,” so I would not feel she was lecturing to me. Watching her and Lee climb the cliff was a bit encouraging. I began to see how the techniques might work for me. My turn came and I stepped up to the ice and began, just as Carolyn had instructed: reach up and drive the pick of one ax into the ice, test it, step up 6-8” at a time on the front points of my crampons making sure to form a stable triangle with the ax and crampons, step up again until my arm holding ax is in a bent, locked off position, reach up and place the other ax, and repeat the process. After a couple of ax placements, I realized I was actually climbing the ice. Then, I looked up and couldn’t see any good holds above me. Oh, oh! But wait. I don’t need holds. I can make them. So I worked on, soon reaching the anchor at the top. I think I screamed with excitement. I felt like screaming anyway. I had actually climbed a short easy ice cliff!
And you know what? It was fun. I’m not sure what makes it fun, but it is. Maybe it’s the motion itself; swinging the axes and kicking in the front points on the crampons is so different from rock climbing. The sense of climbing something that looks so completely un-climbable is cool. Then there is the beauty: the ice sparkled in the sun and stood out like a jeweled castle against the blue sky. As Lee and I watched Carolyn climbing, it occurred to me that she looked just like those picture in the AAJ of alpinists high on big mountains. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to be at a belay half way up a big climb and watching Carolyn leading the crux so we could follow her to the top.” And I actually meant it. Don’t ask why I thought that would be great, but I did.
So I dropped my thoughts of trying to get back the money I had paid EMS for the ice lessons Dan and I were scheduled to take later in the week and headed Ezzie, the faithful mini-van, to NH. Despite temps hovering around zero F., the lessons were excellent. We stayed remarkably warm; we learned a lot; Dan got hooked. On the second day, we climbed two Grade WI3s called Thresher and Goofer’s. The latter is one pitch about 180 feet long. I was surprised at how long I could stand on my front points without coming apart.
Yesterday I bought axes (I mean “ice tools”) and signed up for three clinics at the North Conway Ice Fest in early February. Tomorrow Dan, my sister Cassie and I are going back to Cathedral to top-rope some ice. I am, most definitely, insane.