Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ice Climbing: A Keene Valley Classic

The Keene Valley area is home to dozens of well-known ice climbs. But there are few moderates more classic than Roaring Brook Falls.

There’s certainly no finer way to show off for non-climbers. Roaring Brook, a 300-foot waterfall split into an upper and lower falls, is visible in both directions on Route 73, just east of Keene Valley. There’s a parking lot at the base and a pull-off right on the highway, so anyone who sees those dark spots on the ice can pull over and shiver at the thought of someone actually ascending such a route.

Last weekend I finally had the chance to climb this famous line. And, for the first time, I lead an ice route — meaning I was the first to go up, placing screws into the ice at regular intervals to protect me in case of a fall.

Two weeks ago, Roaring Brook was a brown Niagara, teeming with runoff from the late January thaw. But last Sunday it was in fine condition — fat, blue and begging for an ascent.

We were not the only ones to hear the call. The route was a veritable highway of climbers all day long, with their helmets, ropes, ice tools, stiff boots and crampons.

Best of all, the route was so well frozen over that the usual “window” at the top of the falls was sealed. In leaner times, climbers have to gingerly ascend past this open window, nearly 300 feet up, as gushing water splashes only a few feet away. In fact, Don Mellor’s climbing book Blue Lines warns, “A fall into this would be FATAL.”

The route is rated WI3+, which means it wasn’t quite vertical. Still, the first pitch was a bit dicey, with a series of overhanging bulges that made me glad my partner, Steve Goldstein of Latham, was leading. I volunteered to take the lead for the second pitch, a short climb to a flat, snowy spot below the final 170-foot second tier of the falls.

You can never quite forget that you’re climbing a live waterfall. At the base, there was a clear ice tube, about a half-inch thick, that sealed off a section of running water. It flowed silently below the ice until I chipped a hole and the sound of water had a place to escape. Soon after I started the climb, I ascended past a giant black maw where the ice met the bare rock. Part of the waterfall was visible here too, and the icicles that formed looked like the mouth of a giant beast.

When our team of three arrived at the base of the last pitch, Steve aske me:
“You want to keep leading?”

“Why not,” I said. I had been practicing placing screws and have led rock for years in the summer, but never ice before. With its forgivingly gentle terrain — but a steep gulley in the middle to offer a little challenge — the top of Roaring Brook seemed like a good place to start. I was feeling confident and strong, so I loaded up on ice screws and grabbed my axes.

The ice was perfect — thick, solid and soft enough to get a pick in easily. Near the top, the ice turned to snow, and I had to be more careful that my tools were solid. Again, the sound of flowing water was audible through the ice.

When I reached the top — with just enough rope left to anchor myself to nearby trees — I was sorry to see it end.

Interested in climbing ice for yourself? Several guide services offer climbing classes. While you may not be able to start on Roaring Brook your first time out, it wouldn’t take long to develop the skill. Try:

Adirondack Mountain Guides

Adirondack Rock and River

Alpine Adventures

Cloudspitter Mountain Guides

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2 Responses

  1. Eldred Curwen says:

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