Keene’s Frozen Festival

Creating Community Through Ice Climbing

During winter, the mountains of the Adirondacks transform into an ice climber’s dream. Waterfalls and slick rock faces transform into curtains, daggers and pure sheets of ice. The long cold and snowy winters of the Adirondacks provide the perfect environment for ice to flourish. Much of the ice climbing here is easy to access and is available to climb from late November to early April. The people who ice climb in the Adirondacks help create a community that is open and welcoming. 

Ice climbing in the Adirondacks is diverse in its difficulty and its setting. Ice climbing of varying difficulty can be within a ten minutes walk from the road in areas like Chapel Pond and the Cascade Lakes. For those looking for multi-day adventures, Panther Gorge in the High Peaks and more remote areas within the Southern Adirondacks are the perfect playground. 

Photo by Sierra Mcgivney

“I just think we have it all,” says Matt Horner, a local ice climbing guide with Rock & River Guide Service, who has been climbing in the Adirondacks since 1994.  “In terms of access, there’s no better place than here.”

In an effort to showcase the ice climbing potential of the Adirondacks, The Mountaineer, an outdoor sports store in Keene Valley, teamed up with Rock and River Guide Service in January of 1995 to create an event that welcomed climbers from across the world. The result was the Adirondack International Mountaineering Festival, or Mountainfest. 

Now going on its 25th year, Mountainfest takes place over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend drawing in people from all around the world. Clinics for varying skill sets are hosted by professional climbers and run Friday through Monday. Although it is mainly an ice climbing event, other clinics for snowshoeing, backcountry mountaineering and avalanche awareness are offered. In the evenings, guest professional climbers host slideshow presentations to discuss their latest adventures.  

Enrolling in a clinic at Mountainfest has become a hectic process because of the festivals surge in popularity. Enrollment by phone is the only method allowed. Registration begins in November and most clinics fill within a day of registration, with many climbers being put on a wait-list. This is due to clinics having a ten person limit and the growing popularity of ice climbing as a sport.

“Ice climbing is exploding,” says Dustin Ulrich, the event organizer for The Mountaineer. “In the past couple of years at Mountainfest, all of our clinics have sold out, and there have been waiting lists for all of them.” 

Photo courtesy of the Mountaineer

Although participation in clinics is limited, Ulrich says this fits with the main goal of Mountainfest: camaraderie. “It’s not about numbers,” says Ulrich.  “We want to make a connection…. We don’t necessarily want to grow it in numbers, but we do want to grow it in a sense of value.”  

Event organizers have invited big names from the climbing world to help host clinics and slideshows.  Some of the names include alpinists Marko Prezlj, Anne Gilbert-Chase, and Steve House, all of whom are widely recognized in the climbing community as legendary figures. 

More importantly, Mountainfest is a charity event that has donated money raised by slideshows and clinics to local causes. The Keene and Keene Valley Fire Departments, their search and rescue teams, grassroots organizations, local businesses that have been damaged by floods or fires, and injured local climbers who were struggling to afford their medical expenses, have been at the receiving end of the donations.

 “We don’t turn a profit on ourselves. All of that money we make, above covering our costs, just turns around and goes back out to the community,” says Ulrich.

As a result of its surging popularity and exposure, Mountainfest is largely responsible for putting the Adirondacks on the map as an ice climbing destination. Professional climbers from other famous ice climbing areas like the Rocky Mountains, Canada and the Alps have all realized the Adirondacks to be a trove of limitless potential.  

Climbers have been flocking to the ice-choked gullies of the High Peaks since the early twentieth century. Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and Chouinard Equipment, now Black Diamond, first stumbled upon the Adirondacks in 1969. Chouinard and renowned climber Jim McCarthy were touring the East Coast, debuting Chouinard’s redesigned crampons and ice axes, when they walked into Keene Valley. The two effortlessly climbed Chapel Pond Slab, a route that was believed to be the hardest in the country at the time of its first ascent. Locals quickly bought Chouinard’s new equipment and began to test what was possible on the surrounding gullies and rock faces.

Illustration by Mollie Ward

After Chouinard’s visit, the most influential of these outsiders was Jeff Lowe, a world-renowned alpinist and ice climber who first came to the Adirondacks in 1994. Lowe was known for pushing the limits of the sport back in Colorado and viewed the Adirondacks as an untouched playground.  Lowe visited the Adirondacks often and was a guest at Mountainfest in its early days.  His vision certainly rubbed off on the locals, specifically Joe Szot and Tom Yandon. Together Yandon and the late Szot, more or less started building an ice climbing community in the Adirondacks.  

Yandon and Szot, “were the foundation for ice climbing up here,” says Matt Horner, who was mentored by both.  “Tom and Joe were the guys, for sure….They had strong beliefs and strong ethics on how the climbing should be preserved.”  Yandon and Szot often teamed up with the out-of-state professional climbers like Lowe to establish the region’s most difficult climbs.  

Photo courtesy of the Mountaineer

Although Mountainfest is historically where professionals and locals explore the limit of ice climbing in the Adirondacks, it is also where many aspiring ice climbers have started their journey. The community atmosphere welcomes those being introduced to ice climbing, and oftentimes clinic participants become future climbing partners. 

The sport attracts a certain kind of person, someone who is seeking an adventure that will challenge them physically, mentally, and spiritually. The special qualities of Mountainfest and the community of like-minded, adventurous individuals surely make it an unforgettable experience. 

Story by Cal Seely

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