Climbing the Ice

Follow the journey to the top as a beginner climbs up the side of an icy mountain.

(DoNorth/Alex Ayala)

I face the intimidating wall of ice, harnesses strapped tightly around my waist, spikes secured to my massive climbing boots and axes ready to swing into the frozen mass before me. The spiked boots are heavy as hell and the axes make me feel like a badass — I’m going to destroy this ice.

As I make my way up the wall, lifelessness and exhaustion slowly creep into my hands. Each swing of my axes is heavier than the last. I stop to circle my arms, to get the blood flowing and to avoid “the screaming barfies,” a sharp and nauseating pain that comes with quick constricting and expanding of blood vessels in the upper body.

Even though ice climbing is done in freezing temperatures, I don’t have to worry about staying warm on the wall. I feel neither hot nor cold, just empty as if my body temperature ceased to exist. Wrestling in high school wasn’t even as exhausting as today’s ice climbing. Halfway up the wall, I have to stop and rest — I could fall asleep right there hanging 30 feet. above the thick snow.

I’ve never gone ice climbing, but despite the hardships, I know I’m in the right place for my first climb.

The North Country of New York, renowned for its skiing and hiking, is also home to some of the best ice climbing spots not only the country but the world has to offer.

Jerry Issak, chair of expeditionary studies at Plattsburgh State says the reason the North Country draws ice climbers from all over the world is the concentration and consistent conditions. Basically, we have ice and a lot of it.

Popular spots such as Poke-O-Moonshine, Cascade Pass and the Chapel Pond Area are all within a short drive of each other, and they each offer routes ranging from beginner to expert. “There are options for everybody,” Isaak says. Plus, the ice in the North Country is safe for climbing three to four months out of the year.

The ice isn’t too hard, either. I barely have to use my strength to dig into the wall. Sometimes there are even little holes in the ice in which to gently place my axe. This saves a lot of time and energy.

Another reason ice climbers migrate to the North Country is accessibility. Isaak says places out west like Colorado and Utah have good ice climbing, but you might have to hike an hour and a half to reach the climb. In New York, you can sometimes see the ice right from the road and need only walk a few seconds before you’re ready to climb.

I walked for only about 15 minutes before I got to the ice wall — just enough time for my body to limber up.

“The Adirondacks are a world class venue,” Isaak says, “and even people who’ve been climbing around here their entire adult lives still love it.”

Ice climbing is not just for people who grew up doing it. The area offers a good training ground for anybody who would like to try.

An avid outdoorsman and beginner ice climber, Steve Larson, says he enjoys ice climbing because it’s in the same environment as other outdoor activities he likes, but it’s different in that you need to put all your trust into your tools, the ice and a belayer, who maintains your safety rope, which can be scary for first timers. “It’s interesting trusting the ice,” Larson says. “You’re poking these little axes into ice that shatters around you on a vertical wall, and so learning to trust that is a pretty neat feeling”

Still, I’m not used to trusting gear. When I go climbing in a rock gym, I contort my body in all these stupid looking positions, but it all feels natural. Trying to recreate those positions on an ice wall doesn’t work. I claw at the ice from all angles and spread my legs a ridiculous length apart and I don’t get any closer to my goal. I adjust by making my body rigid and climb the ice in a more organize manner. I slow down my movement and put my faith in my axes and spikes. I get the hang of it now.

Ice climbing is different but does not deter me. The numbness has taken just about my entire body but does not make me quit. Down below, I hear the faint cries of my belayer. “You got this, Griffin.” As I fight up the last bit of ice, I see the anchor, and I know I’m at the top. The ice put up a pretty good fight, but I won this day.

Issue 6: Winter/Spring

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