Trip Report: Adirondacks, 2/23/02


I've been lurking on for a bit trying to pick up techniques,
suggestions for gear and good ice climbing stories. But, this past weekend, I
finally took off to try ice (my palms are sweating just thinking about it). We
headed to the Northface of Pitchoff outfitted in borrowed tools, ski pants and
rental boots. I'd never put on crampons or played in the snow (for that
matter) too much before this trip. Luckily, I was with a good rock friend who
was very, very patient and supportive. I mean, I had absolutely no idea how to
hike up a steep snow slope with crampons on. I was tentative because all of
the sharp points around me and knew it could be hazardous in a fall. And I
knew from reading that a fall in crampons on a steep slope could cause a
broken ankle or leg. Not a pleasant prospect considering there was a mild hike
out to the truck down the road. The stiff fingers as we suited up at the truck
were the worst. Getting that harness on and all the layers around me was !
sheer torture when I couldn't feel my fingers. They were so cold that they
were stinging. I was already contemplating why we had gotten up at 4am to
drive up there. Was I crazy? Well, yes, that's always a given. But, why move
to ice from rock? Wasn't I satisfied with training for rock routes and getting
back to leading trad this year?

We hiked up to the base of Tendonitis on the Northface of Pitchoff wall before
anyone else was there. I kept losing the crampon on my left foot on the hike
up. I had no idea how to move in them up this slope: Sideways, straight up?
Using a tool? After figuring that out, I joined the other two at the base of
the route. I plopped my stuff down so I could fix my crampon finally and
tighten my boots (which were a little too big and could have used another pair
of socks -- ahhh, experience is the best teacher). Having read and heard about
ice and safety from lots of people, I took out my helmet and set it down on
the snow. As soon as my helmet left my hand, I knew I'd made a gumby mistake.
It hit the snow and slid the entire way back down the slope...egads!
ARggghhhhh! What a simple mistake! Another friend retrieved it (thankfully...I
owe her a 6-pack) while I fixed my crampons. We laughed about it, but I
thought it didn't bode well for my first experience as an ice climber. I've n!
ever dropped anything while on rock, why would I completely space out and
think ice climbing was any different? Ok, so I became more focused on what was
happening around me and the fact that snow was a completely different element
for me to deal with.

Rob led Tendonitis in good style regardless of it being a bit wet. When he
came back down from his grunt-fest. We switched off belayers so I could warm
up. I watched Samantha take off for her second day on ice. I was trying to
observe how she used her crampons and her tools. For awhile, this kept my mind
off the cold. Then, it hit me. Like a ton of bricks. I was cold! My fingers
were frozen and aching. Rob glanced over to me after Sam was halfway up. He
said he was waiting for me to proclaim that I wasn't going to do this type of
psycho climbing and that I wanted to go home. Well....I have to admit, I was
thinking it! But, there was no way I was gonna give up. I watched Sam finish
up and then began stamping around to warm up my feet and hands. But, how the
hell was I going to climb with wooden feet and hands? (Oh, I hate when my
fingers are cold on rock!) I kept looking at all the sharp points and thinking
that I was going to impale myself some how. Strange, though. I wasn't s!
cared at all like I get when I first get up on rock (even on toprope). There
was so much to remember about technique and tools and focusing that I didn't
give it a second thought about climbing this route. It was cool when my
crampons started to stick in the ice and I could stand on them. And when that
pick sunk in with a good placement, I knew I was in good order. I couldn't
hear anything around me. Occasionally Rob called up with some advice, but I
would just mutter "uh-huh...thanks." I was completely right there and
absolutely nothing else was going to enter my mind except getting that next
tool placement and whacking the shit out of the ice with my crampons.

thwack...thwack...thwack...kick...kick...kick...kick....step up.

Here's a snip-it of the dialogue in my head: Hang in the leashes when tired.
Don't overgrip. Swing from the elbows. Aim for over a bulge or at a natural
indentation. Trust the crampons and stand on them. Heels down. Ok, ok, getting
to the steep part. Hey, I can use rock technique here! Stem a bit. Stand on
that crampon hard! Rhythm. That's what it's all about. Ice! Ice! Get the pick
unstuck. Re-grip.

And the top was just in sight!

With my palms sweating as I sit here re-living the experience, I know that I'm
hooked. That was one of the best experiences of my life! I can't believe I
haven't tried it before! If I could hoot and holler on here, I would!

I came down reinvigorated, focused, elated and ready to do more. So, we hiked
across the valley to the Practice Area and jumped on that beautiful blue
pillar of ice. It was incredibly fat despite being in the sun. The ice texture
was completely different -- harder, steeper. Rob again led up in good style
and dropped down a toprope as we baked in the sunlight getting warm and gooey.

I hopped onto the face of the pillar and had a blast on something that was
steep. I felt the burn in my arms as I tried to swing my left arm and felt
jello. The tool was all wobbly as I tried to grip it and every hit on the ice
was less and less strong. My fingers were completely numb and my forearms were
screaming at me. I listened to the dialogue in my head again (compliments of
my friend Alex) about relaxing my grip and resting in the leashes and using
roof-technique that the Gunks has taught me so well. I wasn't about to give
up! Stemming did the trick. Hitting my tool placement with the first thrust
was imperative. Spending time kicking in a very secure foot wasn't necessary.
Just go! I came down from that one not just "in like" any more....I was in
love! That first flush that's so incredibly awesome and fulfilling. I swear my
grin pushed into my helmet on either side of my face. If I could have run up
and down the area in my crampons, I would have. I felt all ticklish in!
side....and warm....and excited.

The day began to dwindle away as 4pm approached. We lost the sun in the
Practice Area and began to feel that cold again. We swapped topropes with the
dudes right next to us (some fellow Gunkies). Brian called up some really
great advice on technique and how to avoid whacking my knuckles. We talked
about the sad Poko accident, which drove home the fact that this is a serious
sport that we all pursue and that I should respect this "hobby" and climb with
experienced people before I go off the deep end. I have to say, those guys
were absolutely fantastic to talk to and learn from. The rock community isn't
that large and the ice community is even smaller. The same people at the same
places. In fact, one of these guys is a lurker. Go figure! I watched
as one (Brian) soloed a route to the far right and was amazed at his technique
and precision. It was beautiful! He placed his tools and made 2-3 foot moves
before moving his tools again. He did laps on the pillar I had just f!
inished. Amazing! I don't know if it's because we were outside of New York
City or because of the people, but everyone we met was personable, pleasant,
happy, talkative and having fun. No one was uptight or closed off. A great
community from what I saw. And one I'd like to see more of.

I don't think I've ever been so free and focused and clear on rock as I was
while doing ice. Like skiing, the rhythm draws you into the pursuit of the
activity. I'm in deeply! Today, my shin bruises (from the boots),
shoulder tendonitis (throbbing like crazy), bashed knuckle and tweaked (good)
knee just don't matter. When do we go again? Is ice season really over? Can we
head to other places that I've heard of? Like Smuggler's Notch, The Kitchen,
Cannon, Mt. Washington? Can I start to do mountaineering/alpine next year?
What about multi-pitch? Can I buy all the used gear that frustrated ice
climbers will sell this year? Where can I move for easier access to more ice
and rock combined after I finish this dissertation?

I listened to tales from a friend this past summer about the glory of ice
climbing but didn't believe him. I focused only on the cold and the gear and
the inevitable pain. I knew I wanted to try. It was the same curiosity that
drew me to the base of Tendonitis to shiver there and re-evaluate my desire to
climb ice. I'm glad I didn't leave without trying it. Now, I'm a believer.
Nothing else matters.

When we walked to the Practice Area, I looked back at what we had just
climbed. It was an incredible sight. Almost as if I couldn't believe I had
just climbed that sloping wall of ice. It felt like it took only about 10
minutes to climb. I can remember everything about that climb. Every single
step, every single tool placement, every thought that went through my mind.
It's all drifting around in my dreams.

When can I go again?