The Iceman Cometh

Getting a grip on water's frozen form, 50 feet up

Continental Airlines (9/1/2002)

Brion's comments:
'If you're from New England, ice is part of your winter reality. That doesn't mean you can mothball the climbing gear - you just have to adapt to a new medium.'

Feature article:

"Never trust the pictures, especially those impossibly alluring photo spreads found in adventure magazines."

This is my own, time-honored commandment, a skepticism that tempers my "gung-ho" approach to outdoor pursuits. Sitting on the bumper of my sedan in New Hampshire's White Mountains, I realize I've ignored my rule. It's February, with the mercury in single digits. My sinuses bristle with each breath. I'm prying on hiking boots while my fingers fight frostbite. The hills await.

Today's task is ice climbing. And I've been duped by those Madison Avenue ads and enticing tales of enjoying ice on a vertical plane. Being from New England, I'm more comfortable than most on ice. Provided the surface is flat. Put it on an incline, and ice takes on a sinister look. I don't like it under my car tires, or under my skis. So my fascination with ice climbing is tricky to explain.

The root, I suppose, is my recent interest in the sport's fair-weather cousin - rock climbing. My brother Sean got me to try a pull on the rock. And I liked it - being outdoors, the physical exertion, deciphering the routes. Ice climbing seemed a natural progression. So, despite my doubts about ice found outside a hockey rink, Sean and I signed up for a basic mountaineering skills course during the annual Mountain Washington Valley Ice Festival, hosted by the International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS). Arriving the day before, I sampled special, insulated winter boots and bought a copy of "An Ice Climber's Guide to Northern New England" by IMCS's Rick Wilcox. The photos were both scary and intriguing. The introduction was promising, but foreboding.

"Advances in technology had made the sport both more user-friendly, as well as significantly safer," says Wilcox. "Today's limits are defined not by what the equipment is capable of, but rather by what the climber is capable of."

My own untested capabilities left a giant question mark hanging over my weekend. That night didn't calm my nerves. Despite comfy accommodations at the Spirited Journey Bed & Breakfast in North Conway, an arctic blast from Canada brought howling winds that rattled the windows, pulling me out of a fitful sleep. The next morning, our group gathered at International Mountain Equipment, home of IMCS. When guides Quentin Lauradunn and Michelle Jenkins asked if anyone had ice climbed, only Jamie Houtz, a boat designer from Maine, raised his hand. "It was a long time ago," he said. "And all I remember was that it was cold, and fun."

Cold is a given. Fun? I wasn't optimistic. We'd be climbing Frankenstein Cliff in Crawford Notch, home to such routes as Widow's Walk, FANG, The Coffin, and Dracula. I imagined hanging over a huge ice flow that resembled Boris Karloff's monstrous brow from the horror movie classic. Perfect. But misinformed. The area was named after a German landscape painter, Godfrey Frankenstein, who first visited the White Mountains in 1847. Frankenstein was inspired by the region's raw natural beauty, and did some of his best work here. I wondered if my best efforts would measure up.

Jenkins explained our gear, including ice ax, mountaineering ax, and crampons, stressing the importance of dressing in layers, and drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration. "Rock climbing is 80 percent climbing, and 20 percent environment - staying hydrated, the conditions, the weather, what clothes you have on," she says. "In ice climbing, it's more like 60 percent climbing, 40 percent the environment, maybe even the other way around. Staying warm is going to be a big thing today."

Outside, we're met by cloudless blue skies, except atop Mount Washington, the Northeast's highest peak and a magnet for some of the nastiest weather found anywhere. The temperature hit a balmy 7 degrees by the time we arrived at the trailhead. After getting my boots on, I join our band, hiking through the snow on a seasonal railroad line. A mile in, we strap crampons to our boots, and begin side-stepping up a steep, heavily forested trail, using our mountaineering axes to create a stable tripod on the slippery slope. Soon we're staring at a wall of ice called Lost in the Woods, a frozen face that looks like a huge block of flowing Corian.

I'm struck by the elemental oddity of ice climbing - namely, the temporal nature of the medium. "When winter comes, we're scurrying around like little woods nymphs to see how the ice is coming in," says Maury McKinney of IMCS. "This past winter, we had ice that we hadn't seen in almost 15 years. It not only changes year to year, but during the season, it changes month to month, week to week, day to day. It can even change hour to hour, minute to minute."

Today the frigid temperatures have left the ice brittle - dinner plate ice - that can shatter on impact. As Jenkins sets up our ropes, Lauradunn provides a lesson in "self-arrest," or the art of using your ice ax to prevent sliding down a mountainside after a misstep. It's a sobering reminder - mountaineering is a hazardous pastime, and commands undivided attention.

Jenkins and Lauradunn have mine as we begin our climbing lessons in earnest. The ice ax, resembling some primeval weapon, is actually a very technologically advanced tool. A quick flick of the wrist and a firm grip can establish solid purchase, much like a hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter. My crampons have four steel points jutting from the front of each foot. I inspect them closely, suspiciously - they must support most of my 200 pounds on the ice. We also learn to "belay" our partners with ropes, and hunker down under our helmets when we hear shouts of "Ice," the universal warning when a block dislodges above.

Jenkins gives us an illustration as she scampers up the wall. Like most accomplished athletes, she makes it look almost effortless. Our turn. I'm teamed with Houtz and Daniel Grube, a 31-year-old Internet security consultant from Chicago. Within minutes, the wall looks like a construction site, with climbers sending shards of ice like sparks from a welder's torch into the midday sun. While Grube and I belay, Houtz ascends the ice face with admirable style and dexterity, despite hitting a vein of fresh water that douses him. Grube follows, and also nails the route. I'm next.

My first several ax strikes are discouraging - my aim and swing are erratic, and the tip deflects off the rock-hard ice. Patience pays off, and I slowly get the hang of burying the ax head. I also grasp a key difference between this sport and rock climbing. With the latter, the holds don't change - you just need to find them. In ice climbing, you make the route. I kick in the points of my crampons, praying they hold. I try to heed Lauradunn's advice, and keep my heels lowered to ensure all four points make solid contact. But the temptation to stay high on my toes is overwhelming, even as my legs start to shake from the strain. Lactic acid pours into my forearms and calves at a startling rate.

At this moment, the effort is all-consuming. I'm not worried about deadlines, family squabbles, financial concerns, the long drive home. My focus is complete, almost Zen-like. I take a few deep breaths to clear my head and steady my muscles, and recall Lauradunn telling us "just keep moving, even if it means baby steps." So I inch upwards, slowly starting to trust my gear and my holds, finding my rhythm. Moments later, I step onto level ground, and enjoy the warm endorphin rush and encouragement of my partners.

Truth is, I feel on top of the world. I have company. Grube admits to getting "addicted to the 'thunk!' of a solid ice ax placement." Houtz discovers that "my passions from younger days never left, they just got stored in the cupboard." In our excitement, and exertion, we even manage to forget the bitter cold.

Heading back along the railroad tracks, I'm skipping, the adrenaline still coursing through my limbs. That's when the light goes on - all those "too good to be true" pictures weren't so far-fetched after all.

For details on the Mount Washington Ice Festival, contact the International Mountain Climbing School at (603)356-7064, or visit

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