Ice Manliness Cometh Climbing New England's frozen jungle gym By David Ferris
IF I WERE EVER to freak out, this would be the time. But I'm too impressed with my newly acquired weaponry--crampons as sharp as killing knives, two serrated axes--to panic as I cling for the first time to a wall of frozen water. As a kid growing up in California, I'd always been fascinated by the translucent complexity of the ice cubes floating in my lemonade. But I'd never engaged them in hand-to-hand combat.
"You really don't need to whale it," my instructor hollers from below.
I really whale it. The pick bounces off the ice as if both were made of rubber. This makes me angry. I strike again, harder this time. Shards splinter off the wall and perform acupuncture on my face, which I assume has taken on a look of pained befuddlement.
"Don't forget the wrist!" the instructor shouts.
I take a deep breath and swing as he'd shown me earlier, adjusting the finesse. The pick enters the ice with an undramatic thwonk. It sticks.
I HAD DRIVEN IN FROM MAINE that morning under blue skies, but when I crossed the New Hampshire border, the sky turned gray and the White Mountains receded as if into a well-shaken snow globe. With spindrift ghosting across the road, I entered the town of North Conway and hurried into Peach's Restaurant. Frigid air bled through the double-paned windows. I laid some extra glugs of fresh maple syrup on my French toast, ate fast, and headed down the road to the International Mountain Climbing School, home base to generations of climbers making assaults on the local ice cliffs.
In the summer these same granite walls offer some of the East Coast's best rock climbing. The two sports beg comparison. A rock climber caresses the rock with rubber-soled shoes and fingertips, light and quiet as a spider. Ice climbing is different: figure-skating-versus-hockey different. At least that's the impression instructor Brad White conveyed as he rose from a seat amid cubbyholes packed with scuffed boots, took my hand in a firm grip, and greeted me in an ebullient voice that I quickly realized lacks a "low" volume setting.
White had been an all-state defensive end at nearby Newport High School, and he likes the head-on muscularity of the ice. "You've got the weather and the elements, which are big question marks," he boomed. "It could be snowy, windy, cold; you get weird ice that's shattering on you, and it's pouring down your neck." He grinned past his blond mustache. "You take out your aggressions," he said.
An hour later we stood at the base of a waterfall-veined cliff called Cathedral Ledge, sheltered by a thicket of maples, poplars, and birches.
THE NORTHEAST HAS MORE ice climbing than such frozen meccas as Colorado or Montana, and the easy access can't be beat. Just five minutes from town, Cathedral Ledge is the local ice climber's jungle gym. Yet as I look up at a beginner climb called Thresher, I don't see a single pock. How can that be?
New Hampshire's ice-scapes, White explains, are shaped by severe, almost maritime weather--one day a heavy, wet snow, the next a thaw followed by a cold snap. This makes for a ready supply of gleaming ice.
It's the fresh, slick surface that initially spurs my anger. But soon White has taught me not to whale and walks me along the base of Cathedral Ledge to Repentance, a 385-foot-high ribbon of frozen water, punctuated by forests of three- to four-foot-high icicles.
Quickly White is climbing, stopping every ten feet or so to twist a six-inch ice screw into the vertical wall. Into each screw he clips a carabiner, then loops in the climbing rope attached to my harness. Finally, he pulls himself onto a ledge 70 feet above.
"On belay?" I shout.
"Belay on," White responds, and I thwack my right ax into the ice. At each screw I pause for a delicate maneuver. I reluctantly release one ax, tip buried in the ice, and use my free hand to back out the screw and clip it onto my harness, keeping the bulk of my down jacket out of the way with my teeth. About 50 feet up, sprawled across the four-foot-wide waterfall, I discover that my manly confidence in axes and crampons is melting like a spring thaw. My biceps burn from clutching the axes and my calves from standing on the crampons. The ice wall is too close to my face. I might just freak out after all. Then, gasping and gritting my teeth, I notice that the waterfall is suffused with tiny cracks and bubbles, and in an instant I recall the lemonade ice cubes of my childhood. I look deeper. The slab, perhaps a foot thick, refracts blues and greens, grays and yellows. Below that I see where the frozen water interdigitates with the underlying granite. I hear water trickling. I cling to ice, and ice clings to rock. How impossible is this?
I take another swing, and a chunk of ice the size of a dinner plate cleaves off and into my jacket. I shiver and look up at the remaining 20 feet, which feel like 200, and wonder how this brittle medium can be so clear and confusing at the same time. When I finally crawl, shaking, onto the ledge, White is sitting serenely in his belay position, admiring Mt. Kearsarge to the west. As I catch my breath, he tells me about the time the weather reformulated Repentance into "hero ice," a surface so plastic and so yielding to the blades that you felt like a hero.
"We went whack! whack! whack!" White yells toward the quiet forest below, his blue eyes lighting up and his nose growing red in the cold.
With knives on my feet, axes in my hands, and several pounds of ice screws dragging down my harness, I look out at the legendary White Mountains and feel like a soldier who just escaped death by stabbing a cold and fickle enemy--one that, happily, had no family or feelings and would be reborn again in the morning, as formidable as ever.
David Ferris, a surfer and trail runner, lives in New York City and blogs about his recent adventures atayearinnewyork.com.