Sunday, March 12, 2017

Adirondack Ice Climbing: Laying Siege to the Tower

phil brown crystal ice towerIf you’ve done any rock climbing at Chapel Pond Gully Cliff, you’ve probably passed a steep granite wall on your way to the routes. It’s wet, dark, and manky, nothing you’d want to get on in summer.

In winter, however, the wall is transformed into the beautiful Crystal Ice Tower, one of the oldest and most popular ice-climbing routes in the region.

The tower is just one pitch, about eighty feet long, but it’s possible to keep climbing for three more pitches all the way to the top of Chapel Pond Gully Cliff. The route above Crystal Ice Tower — a mixture of snow and ice — is known as White Line Fever.

“Most parties rappel from the end of the first pitch, but above is a good adventure when the conditions are right,” Don Mellor writes in his guidebook Blue Lines 2: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide.

I’m always up for a good adventure, so I decided to do the climb this winter. Since I’m fairly new to ice climbing, though, I needed someone to lead me.

Enter Sabrina Hague.

Sabrina lives in New Paltz, near the Shawangunk Mountains, but she and her wife own a second home in Keene. They bought it primarily so they could climb in the Adirondacks, whether rock or ice. As a freelance graphic designer, Sabrina often can get away during the week. Thus we found ourselves at the base of Crystal Ice Tower, near the southwest corner of Chapel Pond, on a Friday morning in mid-January.

sabrina hagueGazing upward at bulges of blue ice, I wondered if I possessed the skills to get to the top. It looked steep. However, I had climbed equally hard routes. The New England Ice scale of difficulty generally ranges from 1 to 5, though occasionally an especially tough route will be awarded a 6. Mellor gave Crystal Ice Tower a 4-minus rating in Blue Lines 2 and a solid 4 in an earlier guidebook. The first guidebook to mention Crystal Ice Tower, Adirondack Rock and Ice Climbs, published in 1976 by Tom Rosecrans, did not include numerical ratings; it simply described the ice as “usually good and difficult.”

I’m not fixated on ratings. I mention all this to make the point that Crystal Ice Tower was one of the hardest ice climbs in the Adirondacks when first done in 1970 by Rocky Keeler, Jeff Lea, and Frank Zahar. Since then, ice-climbing gear and techniques have improved, and today Crystal Ice Tower is a moderate route. Even a relative novice like me can do it (as a follower, anyway) with modern ice tools, good crampons, and stiff boots.

After Sabrina and I put on our harnesses and tied in to opposite ends of the climbing rope, she walked up to the tower and swung one of her tools. Warm weather had softened the ice.

“It feels pretty good,” she said. “A little soft. You’re not going to have to whack, whack, whack.”

She started up, sinking the picks of her tools into the ice, stabbing the ice with the front points of her crampons, and then stepping up to sink her picks higher. As she climbed, I let out more rope. Whenever she reached a comfortable stance, she twisted in an ice screw and clipped it to the rope — to protect her in case of a fall.

sabrina hagueOne reason I like climbing with Sabrina is she’s cautious. She placed eight screws in all before scampering up a low-angle ledge to a cedar tree, where she anchored herself and put me on belay.

I did not find the climbing itself overly difficult. Removing the ice screws — now, that was difficult. I made the mistake of wearing thick gloves for warmth. Whenever I needed to open a carabiner, untwist an ice screw, or clip gear to my harness, I was all fumbly fingers. These little tasks seemed to take forever, and the longer I stood in one spot with weight resting on my front points, the more my calves burned. Eventually, I resorted to removing the gloves and working barehanded.

Though steep, Crystal Ice Tower has small ledges where you can stand flat-footed and give your calves a break. So I’d climb a bit of vertical ice to a good stance, rest, climb the next steep bit to another stance, and so on. Reaching the top, I anchored myself to the cedar tree and put Sabrina back on belay for the first pitch of White Line Fever.

White Line Fever differs greatly from Crystal Ice Tower. It consists of snowy gullies with some steep sections of ice. On parts of the route, you ascend by kicking steps in the snow. It’s like mountaineering. Indeed, the whole route has an alpine feel.

white line feverAs a matter of fact, the first party to climb White Line Fever — Tad Welch and Jamie Savage, in 1987 — did so as training for larger mountains.

“White Line Fever brings back vivid memories of one of a handful of especially memorable ice-climbing days,” Welch told me in an email. “Jamie and I climbed it in late winter when there’s lots of daylight, the temperature is kind, the ice plastic, and the snow is frozen hard into what is called névé on alpine peaks.”

Welch and Savage made the first ascents of three other climbs that day: Tahawas, Forest of Azure, and Cold Warrier. “It was about a thousand feet of roped climbing and just the sort of thing we imagined doing on bigger mountains,” Welch said.

On this day, Sabrina and I harbored no grand ambitions. We had time to climb only the first pitch of White Line Fever. Since it’s a long one, we decided to split it into two. Sabrina would lead the first half. I would then take over for my first experience leading on ice.

The beginning of the pitch was mostly snow. Sabrina did not find enough ice for her first screw until she had climbed maybe thirty feet. She put in one or two others before setting up a belay near a tree. When I reached the first screw, I took off my glove and set it on the snow.

“You need to learn to do everything with your gloves on,” Sabrina admonished.

As I removed the ice screw, I was chagrined to watch my well-insulated glove slide down the slope and over the top of Crystal Ice Tower. I couldn’t see where it landed. Down-climbing to retrieve it wasn’t an option. “Now what?” Sabrina asked. “You can’t climb without a glove.”

Fortunately, I had a pair of thinner gloves in my pack that I usually wear while driving. I continued climbing and went right past Sabrina. I was now on lead.

It was easy going, so I didn’t feel intimidated. I confess that when I arrived at a short, steep wall near the end of the pitch, I didn’t choose the boldest line of ascent. From the top of the pitch, we enjoyed a great view of Chapel Pond far below and of the cliffs on the other side of Route 73.

Eight days later, I was back, this time with Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie, and determined to do the whole route. MudRat has been trekking up icy slides for years. He took up climbing steeper ice just a few years ago, but he already has made a name for himself by helping to establish new routes in Panther Gorge, way back in the wilds between Mount Marcy and Mount Haystack. He regards roadside climbs like Crystal Ice Tower as a way to stay in shape for the backcountry expeditions he loves so much. “I crave solitude, which you can’t get in the front country,” he said.

Proving the point, two guys were already on the tower when we arrived at the base. It would have been unsafe and bad form to climb right on their heels, so we waited a short while until they finished the pitch. We then began our own siege of the tower. As I belayed MudRat, the leader in the party above started up White Line Fever, knocking loose chunks of snow and ice that rained down upon us. Yes, it was annoying and slightly dangerous — but that’s why we wear helmets.

white line feverAfter we finished Crystal Ice Tower, I led the entire first pitch of White Line Fever. I had only three ice screws, so I had to run out the rope a long way between protection points. Because most of the climbing was on low-angle snow and ice, this wasn’t a scary proposition.

From the woods at the top of the second pitch, we saw another snowy gully a short distance away — our next destination. I took the lead again, kicking steps up the snow to a bulge of ice; surmounting this, I anchored myself to a cedar and prepared to belay MudRat. I had used only one screw, but this also was an easy pitch.

MudRat led the final pitch, which was more difficult (but still easier than Crystal Ice Tower). When I followed, I paused partway up to drink in a wonderful view of frozen Chapel Pond. Two climbers, little more than colorful specks, were standing on the ice looking up at me. It put the climb in perspective: so we had come that far!

White Line Fever finishes with a bang: ten feet or so of vertical ice. I pulled myself up, clipped into the belay anchor, and high-fived MudRat. Even he was impressed with what we had done.

“I loved it,” he said later at the Ausable Inn in Keene Valley. “It’s a good mountaineering route. It’s got the technical ice at the start, and the rest of it has an alpine feel.”

Not bad for a front-country route.

Photos from above: Phil Brown nears the top of Crystal Ice Tower; Sabrina Hague clips the rope for protection; Sabrina prepares to drive a pick into the ice, with Chapel Pond in the background (courtesy Mike Lynch); Phil finishes the last pitch of White Line Fever; and Phil Brown on White Line Fever (courtesy Kevin MacKenzie).

A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

One Response

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Phil, how do you find any time to write…

    … it appears all you do is go climbing! Welcome to the deep final stages of the climbing illness!!!

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