Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest 2009

“Back in the Day” (that would be the 60s for me) climbing was a fringe activity. Only a few, strange, obsessed folks climbed. We proudly accepted the skepticism and even derision of most everyone we knew. We were crazy to climb and proud of it. Most of the best climbers were poverty stricken bums, who sacrificed even a decent place to live for the chance to travel the country by thumb from cliff to mountain. Equipment was hard to get. REI had only one store. It was in a loft in Seattle. I bought most of my gear from Peter Limmer’s boot shop in North Conway, NH, a place I got to only about twice a year. There were very few climbers offering guide services; it was a point of honor never to hire one. We learned from books, our friends and our mistakes. Even so, an astonishing number of us survived.

Nowadays climbing is almost mainstream. There are climbing gyms where six year olds are taken by their adoring, suburban parents for birthday parties, and young singles go to pick up hot bodies. A multitude of outdoor gear companies sponsor “athletes” and advertize in slick, mass circulation climbing mags. The Gunks are crowded on nice weekends; I have even waited in line to get on a climb. Guide services abound and, there are certification programs to assure that guides know whereof they teach. Corporations hire guides to take their employees out for team building weekends. There are stores selling climbing gear in every third strip mall. Being a climber is little if any stranger or crazier than being a skier or golfer.

In short, popularity has ruined climbing. Are you sure?

I just finished three days of clinics at the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest put on by (gasp!) a guide service: International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway. As I sat down to write, I realized how wonderful it is to have events like this one, which didn’t exist back in the day. As a brand new ice climber, I was able, in three days of instruction, to get knowledge and skills it would have taken me at least a season, probably two, to acquire in the old days. I met some great people, both folks I might climb with in the future and some of the pros I read about in the magazines. Events like this one combined with the ready availability of the best gear and the partner-finding potential of the internet make climbing so much more accessible than in the past. I am climbing more, learning faster and having more fun than I did “Back in the Day.”

My first Ice Fest clinic, billed as Introduction to Mixed Climbing, took me out to a little cliff called Trollville near Jackson, NH. As we dropped our packs, our instructor pointed to a couple of steep ice flows and said, “We’ll warm up on these grade 4s and then move around the corner for the real stuff.” The other three students nodded confidently and started putting on their crampons. I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into; I had never climbed anything nearly as steep as these “warmup” climbs. The guide may have noticed the stricken look on my face, for he pointed to a spot a little farther down the cliff and added, “There is a grade 3+ over there if anyone wants to start on it.” I did! Belayed by a doctor who said he was planning an ice climbing trip to Katahdin in a couple of weeks, struggled up the easy route. So far so good.
I entertained the idea of just repeating this same route all day, but could not face the humiliation that plan would entail. So I tried what looked to be the easier of the two steep grade 4s. Despite being hit in the helmet by a chink of ice near the bottom of the climb, I got up it. Cool.

As I was lowered off, I expected the guide to say something like, “Nice work.” Instead he looked over at me and hollered, “Bill, what happened to your head?” That was disconcerting. What had happened to my head? Maybe that chunk of ice? I put my hand up to my forehead and it came away red. Blood, on my hand and on the ice by my feet. I guess that chunk had hit more than my helmet. Once I was back down, the emergency team swung into action. First, and most importantly, my fellow students got several pictures of my bloody head. Then I was surrounded by a guide, the doctor, my friend Carolyn and another student who is an army medic, all wielding first aid kits. Sadly for these ever so prepared first responders, my injury turned out to be nothing more than three small, albeit bloody scrapes on my forehead. They contented themselves with application of a band aid, and we went back to climbing. After I clambered up the other grade 4, we all moved down the cliff to the “real stuff.”

Now the rest of the trouble began. Mixed climbing involves using ice tools (axes and crampons) to climb routes composed of both ice and rock. The “easy” mixed route had a little ice at the start and then a gigantic rock overhang. I immediately scratched that one off the list of possible for Bill. Again taking pity on the newbie (me), our guide set up a top rope on a nearby climb that started with about 80 feet of steep ice followed by some rock foolishness at the top. Although the guide said it was about a grade 5, it was the only climb in this area that looked remotely doable for me. Unless I wanted to stand around and watch the others climb all afternoon, I was going to have to try it.

The Katahdin-bound doctor gave it a try first, getting part way up before lowering off. Not a good sign for me. Nonetheless, being without any alternative, I tied in and began to work my way up. I managed about 45 feet of the ice before my arms gave out and I, too, lowered off. Actually, I felt pretty good about my effort. It was steep and strenuous, but I felt in control (until my arms gave out) and I learned some useful techniques for climbing steep ice. I then spent some time watching the other members of the group climb the mixed stuff. Carolyn made it up the giant overhang on her second try; I was so proud for her. Our guide astonished us all by doing an even harder mixed route, using tiny holds with his axes and crampons. The army medic, a young man from Vermont, got three quarters of the way up the same route. Very impressive.

I tried the steep ice again, this time making it about 70 feet up. Our guide then did it and showed me how I could have gotten a good rest at a lower angle spot two-thirds of the way up. If I had, I think I would have made it all the way. Next time. I didn’t get any mixed climbing practice, but I did learn a bit about steep ice and greatly expanded my view of what I am capable of doing. A good day.

On Friday night I went to the slide show and dry tooling exhibition at the Cranmore Ski Area’s climbing Gym. Kevin Mahoney and Freddie Wilkinson put on a slide show and talk about their trip to Nepal to climb an incredible Himalayan ice route. They named it the New Hampshire Route. Many, many years ago I hoped to become an expedition climber and go to the great ranges. I never made it, but now it is a treat to meet climbers who have.

My next clinic was Snow and Ice Anchors. In the morning we did ice. I learned some fine points of placing ice screws and equalizing two and three point anchors. But, best of all, we made V-threads. I’ve read about this method of drilling two, intersecting holes into the ice and passing a sling or rope through them. But had never before made one or even seen one made. I was very excited to have my holes intersect as planned on my first try. In the afternoon we moved to snow anchors, using our mountaineering ice axes and snow pickets to construct anchors. Then we did snow bollards: large teardrop shaped trenches cut into the snow to make a large, central pillar around which the rope is passed. I have read about bollards but never thought they would work. Wouldn’t the rope just cut through the snow and fall down the slope. Not if the snow is firm enough. The bollard I made held three of us throwing our weight on the rope.

Ice Fest ended for me with another ice climbing clinic, this time a mellower one. Six of us went out with guide Freddie Wilkinson, whose articles I have read and enjoyed in several publications. He took us to the amphitheater at Frankenstein cliff in Crawford Notch where we climbed several grade three routes, including the Blobs and the Cave. The temperatures were relatively warm (30s F.), so the ice was a bit softer than I had previously experienced. The tools went in easily and stuck. Freddie is a great teacher and our group developed a very supportive spirit. It was a great, fun day.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ice Fest and am grateful that events like this one exist. I’m so glad popularity has ruined climbing.

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