I have been asked whether the freeze-thaw cycles ushered in by climate change will improve conditions for ice climbing. The theory is that meltwater from a thaw will refreeze, rejuvenating ice routes that had been poked full of holes by axes.
First, the Republican disclaimer “I’m not a scientist, but …”
Look at the Catskills: shorter, warmer winter means shorter ice season. No question. Yet freeze-thaw does produce ice, as long as the bedrock is cold. Note that a viciously cold night here in autumn does very little. Yet that same night in March makes for some good new routes, like those Ian Osteyee fast-freeze routes at Poke-O. The drips hits cold rock and freezes, same as in the formation of black ice on roads.
Last year was consistently cold/cool, and while the ice lasted well, the human damage it underwent was significant. Had it not been beaten into submission with ice axes, it would have been consistently good all winter. We had no meteorological Zamboni to resurface things.
Ice routes get traffic and become way easier. They become hook ladders. No swinging, just hooking. Find the hole. Insert the pick. Locate the kicked-out step. Repeat. It’s still fun, and it’s still dangerous. It’s just not very hard anymore. So it isn’t nature that wants a freeze-thaw. It’s climbers who NEED a freeze-thaw to undo their damage.
Yes, thaws can heal the ice surface, but that’s not the whole story.
Ice needs groundwater. A deep, prolonged freeze without snow cover locks up that groundwater. The water that comes from freeze-thaw cycles isn’t the main stuff. We’ve had a few dry years at Chapel Pond where once the water shuts off, Power Play, Big Brother, Spike – these won’t come in.
The ideal formula isn’t freeze-thaw. It’s saturated ground insulated and fed by deep, early snow. The exposed rock is cold, so all the juice that drips out of the ground and through bedrock cracks freezes. Other than the ephemeral fast-freeze routes, I think that the season’s legacy is laid down in the early winter. This particular winter looks ominous to me, more from the dry than from the warm.
Back to the original question: I think there’s no denying that a warmer climate here means less ice overall. Maybe it’s like the climate picture globally: the overall picture is gloomy, even though there may be odd pockets of improvement.
Photo: Dan Plumley ice climbing (Phil Brown photo).