The one thing I miss about being a student is the discounted adventure opportunities. The University of Connecticut Outdoors Center hosted various weekend outings, such as cross-country skiing, rock climbing, paddleboarding, and hiking. Throughout our time in grad school, Pat and I participated in many of these activities.
And though I enjoyed them all, my absolute favorite was ice climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire!
Almost everyone I talked to thought I was crazy for wanting to ice climb. It’s cold, they’d say. And isn’t it dangerous? What if the ice breaks? And what about all the sharp objects involved?
They might’ve had a point on that last one. I came home with torn pants and a bruise on my knee from accidentally kicking myself with the crampons. But that was a small price to pay for this adventure.
I’m a decent rock climber. My dad taught me the basics when I was a kid. I know how to put on a harness and tie the appropriate knots and belay. I’ve climbed 5.6s and 5.7s before. Turns out that doesn’t much matter with ice climbing. The harness and the knots and the belaying were the same. Everything else was different.
First of all, you have to wear a whole lot more gear for ice climbing than for rock climbing. It’s cold, especially when you’re just standing there belaying or waiting your turn. It was about 37°F (3°C) and partly sunny the day we climbed, and even so I was wearing multiple layers.
I soaked completely through 3 pairs of waterproof gloves – partially because it was warm enough that the ice was melting a bit, but also because the ropes just get really wet.
Our trip fee covered gear rental, including mountaineering boots, which felt somewhat like downhill ski boots. Walking to the climbing site in those boots with gear strapped to our backs wasn’t easy. My calves were actually the sorest part of me the following day, thanks to the boots.
Just when I’d gotten the hang of trudging through deep snow in mountaineering boots, it was time to put on the crampons. They made it easier to find footing in the snow, but I had to pay extra attention to my feet to avoid stepping on myself or snagging my pants with the sharp spikes (I failed at both).
And then there’s the ice axe. You’d think it would be simple. You just swing the axe into the ice, right?
Not so much.
I mean, that is what you do. But there’s quite a bit of skill involved.
First, you have to find an appropriate place for the axe. If the ice is too thin, it will shatter. If it’s convex, the piece of ice will break off. Existing indentations are the best bet.
Second, you have to swing the axe at the right angle and with enough force to really get it into the ice, but not so hard that you prematurely tire out your arms. Our guides could swing their axes just once to get a good hold. It took me probably 3-4 tries each time. Needless to say, my arms were very tired by the end of the day.
But what was probably the most challenging part for me was step three: remove axe from ice. I spent more time awkwardly struggling with this, especially once I’d climbed up a bit and the axe was below me. The blade is curved, meaning it has to be pulled out at the same angle it went in. Not so easy when your arms are now at a different angle than they were when you originally swung the axe.
My other struggle was with coming down – not because I’m afraid of heights or of sitting back and letting the rope hold me – negative on both counts, in fact. My actual problem was that it’s surprisingly difficult to keep your balance and traction on ice, even with crampons. One time I had to go out and around a boulder at an odd angle and I missed my foot hold. The second time, I was coming down over a ledge and put my foot right through a hole in the ice that I couldn’t see.
I had some bruises as a souvenir.
But despite our struggles, Pat and I had a fantastic time! We each climbed 5 different pitches at Cathedral Ledge and also got quite a bit of experience with belaying. One of the guides showed us how to put screws into the ice, and in general they gave us a ton of ice climbing tips throughout the day.
In the end, we were sore, bruised, exhausted, and exhilarated from a wonderfully challenging weekend.
Bucket list adventure: check!