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For women, risk equals exhilaration

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Greenberg
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2003

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. -- It's not everybody's idea of a good time: an ax in each hand and crampons -- the equivalent of six knives -- on each foot, all for the sole purpose of climbing up a wall of ice. Which also means it's cold. Really cold.

But for some of us, ice climbing is as good as it gets. This, we believe, is living. Who cares if there's no apres ski chalet with cocoa and microbrews? So what if it might be many miles through knee-deep snow just to get to the cliff?

If you think winter is mainly about waiting out the dark months until spring, you might just need to get out more. And if you want an activity that will undoubtedly impress your friends and cause your family to fear for your life, try this way of embracing the cold.

Sure, you might end up with some level of frostbite, among other discomforts. Ice climbing is not for those who are faint of heart, prefer to view winter from a safe distance, or don't like dealing with gear. But if it sounds appealing, and you're a woman, an ice-climbing program called Chicks With Picks can help you hone your skills, with the help of a roster of guides that can't be beat.

Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam probably won't be your instructors if you go to a golf clinic, but since professional climbers don't rake in the bucks, you can often improve your skills with the best in the business. And while ice climbing is a sport dominated by men, they aren't at a physical advantage. Flexibility, dexterity, and lightness of foot and hand, beyond brute strength, are great gifts in climbing, so women excel.

Started by world-class ice climber Kim Reynolds four years ago, Chicks With Picks offers workshops ranging from 2 1/2 to 5 1/2 days in North Conway, one of the country's best ice-climbing venues, and Ouray, Colo., home of the world's first park devoted exclusively to the sport. Reynolds has been guiding for 24 years, and has traveled and climbed across the globe, from Antarctica to Nepal. Other guides include alpinist Kitty Calhoun, one of the world's premier climbers; Kim Csizmazia, three-time gold-medal winner at the X Games; and Angela Hawes, peripatetic alpinist and trained EMT.

Until I signed on with Chicks, I had only climbed ice with men. But then I read the Chicks' website: "Tired of those whiny, naggy, girly chicks back at the office? Brace yourselves, gals, you're going to break more than one fingernail at this get-together." Sign me up.

For the record, they ain't kidding about the nails. But it's not all rough and tumble. These chicks are tough, and so is the climbing, but soft beds await at the end of the day at the Cranmore Inn, conveniently located in the heart of North Conway. After a full breakfast, it's out the door at 7:30 a.m., into the snow and ice, separated into groups designated by skill level. Then off to Frankenstein Cliffs, the Flume, or maybe Arethusa Falls, all spots that are lovely and verdant during the summer, frozen solid in winter.

I was in the intermediate group, with Calhoun and Hawes as guides. We were outside until 5 p.m. improving our "monkey hangs" and wrist snaps, climbing with only one ax to work on balance, climbing with no axes to improve footwork, learning more about anchors and rope management, cheering one another on, and just trying to stay warm.

Reynolds started Chicks to provide an opportunity for women to learn ice climbing from other women in a supportive environment.

And supportive it was. We trusted our guides implicitly, and trusted one another. We stayed for seven hours a day in snow and below-freezing temperatures eating trail mix and peanut-butter-filled pretzels and keeping one another safe on the ends of ropes. We finessed and slammed those ice axes and crampons into frozen waterfalls, we laughed, and we were all better climbers when we went home. Hanging out (literally) with these women for a couple of days only cemented my dedication to ice climbing. And it gave me some new ammunition the next time anyone should question my decision to make my way up a frozen waterfall that might give way any moment. Now, I can proudly shout from my perch the motto of Chicks With Picks: "Kiss my ax!" Beth Greenberg is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

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