Thursday, December 2, 2010

Never Been Ice Climbing? Here’s An All Ages Primer

Weekend warriors from New York City, western New York State, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania often rise at the ungodly dark hour of 4 AM and on a frigid winter morning make the long drive to the Adirondacks. Many come not to ski down our mountains but rather to climb straight-up. What are they doing? Ice Climbing! It is a sport gaining fast in popularity.

Ice climbing can be crazy and dangerous but for the beginner, with qualified instructors and adequate precautions, the risk is minimized. To indulge one’s wild side with a day of ice climbing and a heart-stopping good time, Adirondack residents need only pile on warm clothing, pack lunch and travel a few miles to the nearest wilderness outfitter, a source of instructors. (Do call ahead first.)

These instructors provide boots, crampons, helmets and axes, cinch you tightly into a harness and, upon reaching the ice, clip you to a top-rope, so serious free falling is not an option. They exhibit a world of patience, attentiveness and good humor while at the same time teaching the basics of climbing. Before shivery jitters can take over, you will find yourself, axe in each hand, kicking and chopping your way straight up what just a few minutes earlier seemed an impossibly slippery slope. Age is no excuse.

Last February, ten of us, several well into our sixties, cautiously ascended an ice sheet under the watchful eyes and tutelage of Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service instructors, Bill Seims and Lori Crowningshield. We spent an adrenalin pumping and rousingly fun day finding out why people indulge in this peculiar sport. The reason? – because to climb ice is a whacky challenge, to succeed is a thrill.

What did we learn? – first, that us older folks were just as able to participate and enjoy the crazy adventure as those considerably younger.

If you occasionally hike and are in moderately good shape, you can do this. In fact, because of the necessary “buddy system,” ice climbing can be a perfect cross-generational activity, challenging enough for older children to enjoy with a still active parent. I had the pleasure of doing this with my son, Christopher.

We also discovered several other things: that once on the ice, intense focus on the placement of axe and crampon sends fear of heights skittering away (unless you look down); prongs and ice axes, barely puncturing the surface, easily support a person’s weight; and last, carefully watching and belaying your partner, taking in the rope’s slack as he/she climbs, is as much a challenge as doing the actual climbing itself.

When first confronted with a 65- foot vertical wall of ice, some of us were gripped by an emotion best described as terror. However, top-roped, and with clear directions, each managed to overcome fear and climb, climb again and then, with enthusiasm, climb several more times. With each trip up the ice, understanding of technique grows, less exertion is required and the ascent becomes more fun.

What a way to practice team-building. What a satisfying accomplishment. What a high we experienced at the end of the day. Some got hooked and plan to go back again; for others, just pushing the comfort zone was empowering, a reminder of how we can often do far more than we realize.

After hours of climbing, we declared it a memorable day, one destined to be a highlight in our collection of memories. When looking for adventure, Adirondack residents should think about this great opportunity, one which exists conveniently close to home.

Getting a group together, rather than going by yourself, will lower the price. A day on the ice will cost no more than an evening on the town. For information on how to pick a guide, go to To find instructors, Google “Adirondack ice climbing instruction”.

Saranac Lake resident and freelance writer Caperton Tissot writes a shared weekly “Friends and Neighbors” column in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. She is also the author of two books on her own Snowy Owl Press, History Between The Lines, Women’s Lives and Saranac Lake Customs (2007), and Adirondack Ice, A Cultural and Natural History (2010).

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