On Ice

This morning I got back from my trip up to New Hampshire, where I learned how to ice climb. I’ve never done that before, so this was a really interesting experience for me.

The whole thing started about a year and a half ago. While I was playing through the new Tomb Raider reboot I started feeling this deep longing - I wanted to get out and start exploring. I wanted to go out into the wild places and exert myself to get to someplace new and beautiful, away where people don’t usually go.

When I was in high school I would get out into the Rockies pretty regularly to go hiking and camping, both with my family and with my friends in the local Civil Air Patrol ground search and rescue team. That slowed down when I went to college, because even though I was still in Colorado and had access to vast tracts of wilderness I wasn’t emotionally independent enough to get out and do things on my own. That reluctance carried over with me when I moved to Boston. For the majority of my time here I haven’t really gotten out to explore the area, even though there is a lot of adventure to be had and beautiful places to visit. Of course the desire to get out and see nature never quite left me, and so as I was scampering across the virtual landscape in Tomb Raider I found myself longing to get out and do some of it for real.

One of the major equipment upgrades in the game comes when you get an ice tool which is strong enough to bear your weight. With it Lara can ascend icy walls and dry-tool up pocketed rock faces, and it substantially expands the areas you can explore. Moving up those steep cliffs just looked so adventurous and fun, it resonated with something in me and I knew I wanted to learn how to do it. I had gone out rock climbing with my friends a few times in high school and college and enjoyed it a lot, but I had never tried ice climbing - it’s somewhat of a niche activity. Since I’m mostly on my own here with no established group of knowledgable climbers to go learn with, I decided to look for a course to take.

Eastern Mountain Sports in addition to selling equipment hosts a series of outdoor skills courses which include mountaineering and ice climbing, hosted in two of the North East’s more prominent mountain ranges. Since I live in Massachusetts it seemed like Conway, New Hampshire was the best of the two available location options (the other being Gunks, New York), so I opted for that one.

Having identified the course I should take, I… sat and waited. Until the ice was gone. I had missed my opportunity for 2014 due to sheer procrastination and laziness, the tab sitting open in my browser for the whole season.

As the summer of 2015 swang around, I remembered my failed commitment the previous year and resolved to do better. I signed up for a course in December, expecting that it would be late enough in the season for ice to have formed and climbing to begin, but at the last minute I got a call from the EMS school group there telling me that the course had been canceled due to the weather being too good! I rescheduled into a course for the 13th of February, and continued rock climbing to prepare.

Ice tools strapped to my pack

Gearing up for adventure

Yesterday it finally happened: it was the day of the course, and I had a blast, even if I did have to wake up a bit earlier than usual. We practiced basic motion techniques for steep ice and packed snow, learning various footwork methods for getting the most out of our crampons and practicing some self arrest drills for if we fell while climbing.[1]

Another climbing group

Climbers at the ice-crag

Selfie time!

Nick getting frosty

Once we were comfortable with that, the guides set up some top ropes over a section of ice nearby and we got out the ice tools. We started with one tool at first, focusing on foot placement and balance. Maneuvering on a wall of ice is a little tricky - you need to get a firm kick with your crampon’s front spikes in order to get positive footholds, and a lot of us had trouble with our heels being too high and causing the toes of our boots to hit the ice instead. As we practiced we steadily improved, and we moved up to two tools and more vertical ice.

Going vertical

Getting up the practice run

Picking (literally) the right place for handholds in ice requires a bit of intuition. Placing the pick in the ice and knowing that it will hold your weight is tricky, and I had a few moments where my pick was in a bad position and gave way. Fortunately I was always able to stay on at least 3 points of contact and didn’t fall during the course, but I think I need more practice in getting good pick placements.

The weather that day was pretty chilly - about 5°F. It was enough to expose some weak spots in my gear; in particular, I need some kind of secondary insulation on my lower half during belays and waiting periods. After a few hours of practice, most of the group agreed it was time to do something else and so we moved to another section of ice to practice rappels from the top of a longer slope. I have done quite a few rappels in various scenarios, so I was pretty comfortable with this part; some of my classmates were first timers, forced to overcome that “Oh crap!” moment as you first go horizontal at the top. After we were all safely back to earth, we did a brief introduction to ice screws and v-thread anchors, and then headed back to the store.

Overall, it was a great experience! I really enjoyed getting up on the ice and negotiating terrain that would have been impossible for me to move on previously, and my desire for adventure is as strong as it ever was. While I’m not nearly as nimble as Lara (who has a crazy power-to-weight ratio), playing with the picks and the ice definitely gets me closer to that adventurous spirit, and I intend to keep chasing it out into the wilderness.

  1. Of course, I think I’d need to do a lot more practice before I was comfortable going up on a mountaineering trip for real, which I absolutely want to do.  ↩