“If you began in the gym or on sport routes, take everything you have been told about falling and leave it at home. Replace the idea with one fact: DON’T.” Don Mellor, Blue Lines, An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide
Crampons? Check. Ice ax and screws? Check. Harness, ropes, gloves, boots, helmet, insulated layers, and a thermos of coffee? Check. Gut? Check.
Ice climbing is not for the faint of heart or the uninformed weekend warrior. Some of you reading this might think: ‘Ice climbing?…not for me!’ But hold on just a moment. Like everything else Adirondack, ice climbing seems the epitome of ruggedness. Pick a freezing cold day (don’t want the ice to melt), layer on multiple pieces of insulated clothing (you’ll shed or add as the day goes on), grab a thermos of something hot, and go stand at the bottom of a frozen, vertical river of ice for the day. Bring a buddy as immune to the cold as you. Climb.
Ice climbing started in Europe in the 19th century as an off shoot of mountaineering. The first significant development in this sport came in 1908 when Oscar Eckenstein designed a type of claw tooth that attached to the bottom of a boot. This was the first crampon. In 1932 Laurent Grivel attached the two front points that all crampons now have letting climbers kick into the ice for stability and allowed for steeper ice to be climbed.
In 1966, Yvon Chouinard, owner of Patagonia, began experimenting with ice axes and designed what is now the modern day ice ax. Crampons and ice axes make climbing easier and allowed climbers to ascend ice that is even steeper than vertical.
For local history on ice climbing, I turned to Don Mellor who came to teach English at Northwood School in 1977, has been climbing for over thirty years and guiding professionally for twenty-five. I raided my husband’s bookshelf for Don’s title Blue Lines; An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide, for what Don calls the “short local history” on how ice climbing got here. An excerpt follows:
“From the European development of alpenstock and crude crampons, on to the ergonomically bent ice tools and mono-point crampons of today, the sport of ice climbing has undergone quite an evolution. When Jim Goodwin, patriarch of Adirondack rock climbing, made his1927 winter ascent of Gothics, he used a hand axe to chop holds on what is now the cables section of the summit trail. His solo climb caught the attention of Keene Valley summer resident John Case, who was desperate to find a climbing partner. Case had been the first in the area (probably in the United States) to employ the rope and belay in what we would call modern technical climbing.
In 1932 Goodwin roped up with renowned guide Edouard Feuz, Jr. in the Canadian Rockies, learning about European axe and crampon technique. In 1935 he and Ed Stanley put these skills to work, climbing Colden’s Trap Dike, a landmark Adirondack ice climb. The next year Goodwin made what he considers one of his most significant ascents, the big slab at Chapel Pond. The roped team of Goodwin and Bob Notman laboriously chopped their way up the ice without ever being anchored – it was an audacious climb for the usually conservative Goodwin.
The Adirondacks might be a little sleepy in its rock climbing history, but it has been central to the game of ice climbing. In 1969 Californian Yvon Chouinard brought a relatively short ice axe with a drooped, toothed pick to Chapel Pond. At the time Chouinard was one of America’s most influential climbers and gear developers. With new, stiff twelve-point crampons (as opposed to traditional ten-point crampons useful for flat-footing but lacking front points), Chouinard and Gunks (New Paltz’s Shawgunks) legend Jim McCarthy climbed Chapel Pond Slab, front pointing most of the way, not chopping a single step.”
Fast forward to 2012. That climb at Chapel Pond, now known as Chouinard’s Gully, being eternally shaded, forms early in the season and lasts long into the spring. I caught up with Steve Toman, Saratoga Springs resident and avid Adirondack climber who had this to share about Chouinard’s Gully. “The first time I climbed Chouinard’s Gully was around 1997 and I scratched my way up in relatively lean conditions with my wife Heather. We used straight axes that made us bash our knuckles on the ice. We wore bulky fleece and baggy shells that made us sweat like pigs. Our ice screws required a devilish mix of hard work and patience to place. But we were hooked on Adirondack ice and fell in love with Chouinard’s. We’ve probably climbed that route 2-3 times a year since then, and it never gets old. Almost 15 years later our ice tools are curved, which makes placements easier and protects our knuckles. Our clothing is lighter, tighter, and warmer. And our modern ice screws bite the ice hard and then almost launch themselves in with remarkably little effort.”
The Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society just completed a two-year run of its exhibit ICE! which displayed modern ice climbing equipment and photos of ice climbers. The responses from our visitors undulated between incredulity at the equipment needed to engage in ice climbing to utter disbelief that a person would choose to spend a perfectly frigid day hanging from ice instead of in front of a perfectly warm woodstove. A few even sheepishly admitted to climbing on ice themselves. I asked one man about his modest response and why he wasn’t shouting his climbing accomplishments from the rafters. He simply told me “That’s not the way, not the way of climbers to brag or feel the need to tell everyone. I just do it because I can’t imagine not.”
Isn’t that the way of Adirondackers? How many things do we do here, which friends and family from away think are nuts, because “we can’t imagine not?” Before you think ice climbing is something you would never try or understand, think about the other hard things you’ve done, your own history, and maybe the question you ask could be…why not?