Step Into Winter's Vertical Freezer: A Beginner's Guide to Ice Climbing

Ice can be nice. Not the cubes chilling a spicy Bloody Mary or the treacherous layer coating a city sidewalk. This ice comes in forms like cauliflower, pillars, chandeliers, mushrooms and bulges of vertical blue.

Take an ice axe, crampons, ice screws, ropes and layers of clothing, and you can play a slippery game in winter's freezer.

Try an ominous-sounding frozen climb like Dracula on Frankenstein Cliff in northern New Hampshire's Crawford Notch, or scale a sea of blue on the flanks of Mount Pisgah in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom above the gleam of Lake Willoughby.

At one time, climbers in New England would hang up their ropes when winter rolled around. No more. A tidal wave of technology has improved equipment so that the region's frozen waterfalls, gullies and slides can be climbed from early December until mid-April.

Still, ice is not a hot part of winter to many. While it may morph into many forms, it's still cold. What is the appeal of clinging to a 200-foot slab of angulated ice on a sub-zero day, trusting one's total being to a few screws and carabiners?

Ice is ephemeral in nature; structure, color, shapes and size can change on a daily basis, so the sport has to be efficient, technical and precise. An appreciation for tools helps, and each piece of equipment has an exact purpose.

Climbers use basic belaying and rope handling, but the sport is also a bit like playing "Beat the Clock." Sudden changes in wind, temperature and visibility can turn a pleasant climb into a life-and-death situation. Melting ice alters a route. Fear can freeze climbers like, well, ice. Climbers also have a limited amount of energy for each climb, thus each placement of the ice tool should be precise.

"That is always a difficult one to answer," says Andy Orsini, a financial consultant and ice climber for over a decade. He recently moved from Newton, massachusetts, to New Hampshire's Mount Washington Valley.

"You hear about people trying to conquer nature in sports like climbing, sailing, cycling and kayaking. You can never conquer nature, but you can do your best within the parameters nature has to offer. That is what I like about ice climbing."

"I think a lot of folks are looking to do something totally different, whether it be ice climbing or rock climbing," says George Gardner, a Vermont college professor and guide. "People are just able to get into a foreign environment that is different from their daily life and step out into some unknown areas."

Safety is at the forefront of a climber's mind. The sharp tools themselves can turn into lethal weapons. One misplaced crampon can cause a fall, extreme cold and inexperience can team up for disaster, falling ice and avalanches can be deadly. Better climbers are faster on the ice and treat the sport like a chess match, looking ahead to various moves.

Novices tend to have the most trouble, but the yearly Washington Valley Ice Festival, held around Valentine's Day in North Conway, New Hampshire, gives everyone a chance to try the sport out in a safe and knowledgeable environment.

All types of climbers are attracted to the festival. Beginners try their luck in the basic class while more advanced ice jockeys learn to hone their vertical ice and mountaineering skills.

In the basic class, 10 would-be ice climbers begin the morning approach to Lost in the Woods along the snow-covered train tracks from the Arethusa Falls trailhead in Crawford Notch. Crossing a trestle, guides stop to point to a natural amphitheater where dots called climbers scale the vertical blue routes like Chia and Smear.

Just before heading up a steep 40 percent pitch to the base of the ice, the guides give a lesson on putting on gear like harnesses, crampons and helmets. Then it's up to the ice and a lesson on proper uses of crampons, ice axes, ropes and the belay system.

There is a social element to the lessons, and confidence is key. Beginners not only have to learn to use the unfamiliar equipment but trust it. Small groups and a handful of instructors are ideal for lots of hands-on demonstrations. The only downer is the cold. In the shade, in the heart of February, stomping in place seems to be the only way to get warm.

For information on this season's Mount Washington Valley Ice Climbing Festival call International Mountain Climbing School at (603) 356-7064 or check out the Mount Washington Ice Climbing Festival Web site at

Marty Basch lives in the White Mountains and is the author of several books, including Winter Trails Vermont and New Hampshire and Winter Trails Maine (Globe Pequot Press).

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