Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Don Mellor On Climate Change And Ice Climbing

Dan-Plumley-ice-climbing2I 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).

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Don Mellor is a climber, teacher, writer, and guide who has spent most of his forty-plus years of climbing here in the Adirondacks. His resume ranges from multi-day ascents of the biggest rock walls in Yosemite to first ascents of ice routes in Newfoundland. Locally, he’s done more than a hundred first ascents, including Big Brother (NEI 5), Airie on Moss Cliff (5.12) and the first free ascent of Mental Blocks (5.12) on the big backcountry cliff of Wallface.

Among his books are four rock and ice guides to the Adirondacks, the instructional Rock Climbing: A Trailside Guide, American Rock, and Alpine Americas. Don also serves as a volunteer for the high-angle rescue team, the peregrine falcon restoration project, and the steering committee of the Lake Placid Outing Club.

But fundamentally he is a teacher, serving as school counselor at Northwood School, volunteering for a local children’s climbing program, and guiding professionally for more than thirty years. These days, he gets more of a kick seeing the light go on in the eyes of a newcomer than in any climbs he gets to do on his own.

3 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    So what Don is saying is that you should be prepared for a longer rock climbing season, and get used to hiking up chopped up ice routes…

  2. NoTrace says:

    Time to put all those ice tools up for sale on Craigslist!