Learning to ice climb: "pick"ing away at fears one swing at a time

In Climbing, Trip Report, Winter by JaneBozsikLeave a Comment

Crack. The sound of ice splintering and the dusting of small bits of cold frost greeted me as I swung my pick into the frozen wall. Sticking my butt out, I looked down for a good spot to place my right foot but couldn’t see any clear indentations. Deciding to guess blindly, I shoved my spiked boots, one at a time, into spots a little higher up on the frozen waterfall. My arms were aching as I searched for the next spot to swing my right hand pick. With adrenaline pumping and energy waning, two thoughts coursed through my mind: “Why are you so weak?” and “Why on Earth did you decide to do this?

Rewind back two months. On a rainy Wednesday evening near the end of November, the Penn Outdoors Club (UPOC) huddled together at one of their usual meetings, mugs clad in hands. Towards the end of the meeting, a member mentioned that sign-ups were now open for “VICE Fest,” a weekend event hosted by Tufts University, where both beginners and experienced climbers pay to spend a weekend climbing and hanging out with other outdoors-loving people. Initially, I completely waived off the idea. For some reason, however, it stayed on my mind. About a week after that meeting, I called my parents and asked for probably the most peculiar Christmas present I’ve ever requested: the registration cost for an ice climbing trip.

After about nine hours (which included an emergency stop to buy waterproof pants) of being squished in the car like the bunch of excited sardines that we were, me and some fellow UPOCers arrived at the lodge. We got in at around 1:11 am, and next thing I knew, I was awoken by the sounds of “Ice Ice Baby” playing on loudspeakers. As we geared up for the day, I quickly got over my tiredness, because the energy in the lodge was magnetic – everyone was clearly pumped for the day ahead. Before heading to the falls, we made a stop at a local outdoors store to gather some name-brand gear that sponsors had generously offered to lend us.

When we arrived at the Champney Falls parking lot, we had about a mile hike through beautiful snow-covered forest and tall green pines. All the nervousness I had was lost during our walk. Breathing in the fresh, crisp air and seeing the sun sparkle on top of the snow, I knew that being here was the right decision.

Journey to Champney Falls, on Mount Chocorua

We arrived at Champney Falls and set our packs down. Then ensued the mayhem of trying to figure out how on Earth to put on the gear that I’d been equipped with – including, but not limited to, confusing metal spikes (for the bottom of your shoes), miniature axes (although even I could figure out what we would use those for), a harness with multiple loops for unknown body parts, etc. Fortunately, VICE-Fest supplied numerous extremely helpful and experienced guides and climbers who happily helped me with the confusing jumble of what I later learned to be: crampons, picks, and a harness (no special code name for that one).

Arrival at Champney Falls

Next came the really fun part: learning how to ice climb. Our guide explained to us that the goal is to keep the body in a triangular position with the arms closer together and the feet widespread. As for actually moving up the wall, he titled the two positions as “peeing” – when you are reaching your hands up to find the next spot to pick with your mini ax, your hips should be towards the wall and your body should be vertical, and “pooping” – when your hands are placed and secure, you should bend your butt back and look down for a good spot to shove your spiked boots into the wall.

When I tested out the technique on a small stretch of wall, I was doubtful that I would be able to cover any ground on my non-practice rounds. However, after watching a couple people give it a try, I was eager to try for myself. On my first attempt, I got up a few feet before realizing that my boots were way too loose, so I came back down and put on an extra pair of wool socks.

On my second attempt, I got past the spot I’d stopped at the first time, and then paused, breathing heavily. Though I’d done little work, my arms were heavy, and there weren’t as many giveaway spots higher up as there had been below. Nevertheless, I was determined to go higher. “Come on, girl, you can do this,” I whispered to myself, and swung my pick into the ice. The higher I climbed, the more excited I felt. And while I’m not one who gets excited about heights – not at all – I realized that with all my focus being on the next place to stab the wall, I completely forgot about how high off of the ground I was.

Ice climbers making their way up Champney Falls. The blue with the pink hood is me.

While going up was a laborious but not a frightening process, coming down was somewhat more daunting. Climbers make it look easy, but trusting the person holding the other end of the rope (called the “belayer”) to lower you down slowly as you lean back and try to enjoy the ride is not easy. I kept running into the wall (I have some rather nasty bruises to show for it) because I couldn’t bring myself to put my feet flat against the wall and let them do the work like they told me. I was pretty freaked out. On my left, however, was a guy who was a lot stronger and just generally better at this than I was. Seeing my struggle, he climbed towards me and calmly gave me some encouragement, as well as telling me to hand him one of my picks so that I didn’t have to carry them both down. Gaining nerve from his encouragement, I handed him the pick and made the rest of my way down successfully.

Myself attempting the larger waterfall

It was a great afternoon. Just watching some of the more experienced climbers was mesmerizing. There was such a positive attitude of encouragement. And I am proud to say that by the end, I could take off my own crampons, harness, and helmet, unaided.

It was exciting to see other climbers skillfully ascend the falls.

Upon arrival at the lodge, we were greeted with the inviting smells of warm chili, and, after changing into warm clothes, everyone grabbed a bowl and relaxed. In addition, we also had the opportunity to hear from an experienced climber – who had just gotten back from Patagonia, Chile – about his adventures there and other places. It was extremely inspiring and encouraging to hear about his and his partners’ dedication and perseverance. He encouraged all of us to set goals and continue challenging ourselves in whatever outdoor activity impassioned us.

Before we left New Hampshire the next morning, in true UPOC tradition, we made a stop at a local diner for a sumptuous breakfast.

We stopped for some delicious pancakes at a local diner.

Overall, a fantastic trip. Everything about the weekend was amazing, and although I went into the trip really nervous about not knowing anything about climbing, with all the encouragement from the guides and other climbers, it turned out to be an extremely do-able and exhilarating experience.

Final thoughts/advice for any first time climbers: One, definitely give it a try. Two, your arms will feel like you’ve been pulling a train when you wake up the next morning. Be prepared. Three, know that everyone, at some point, has been a newbie climber, so don’t feel embarrassed to ask for help whenever you need it. Explore on.

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