Ice climbing heats up following January thaw
NORTH CONWAY, N.H. - Only an ice climber can smile during a torrential winter deluge.
“We’re probably the only people on the planet who look forward to pouring rain in the middle of the winter,’’ says Charlie Townsend, who’s been the director of the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School for 26 years. “That doesn’t make the ski areas happy, but that’s what you need to restore ice.’’
Skiers and snowboarders aren’t rain fans. When the skies open up during a winter thaw, followed by a return to sub-freezing temperatures, the corduroy crowd can usually expect a couple of days of loose and frozen granular conditions until the grooming crew can smooth things out.
To the crampon and ax set, the thaw-freeze cycle means ice climbing routes are being formed on cliffs and in gullies.
Late last month, North Conway ice climber and guide Al Hospers, who operates a climbing website (www.neclimbs.com), wasn’t taking his ax to the many colors and shapes of ice while the temperature rose to the mid-40s. Instead, he was on his bike, cycling by the ledges he usually climbs. Then, on Jan. 25, the rains came - 2 1/2 inches over 12 hours.
“I was thinking to myself this was going to be bad,’’ he said. “But it got cold at night. Whatever we lost only took a couple of days to rebuild.’’
Townsend said there wasn’t time for the rain to do much damage.
“All that water has to go somewhere,’’ he says. “The water drips and freezes and creates the climbs.’’
Some of the most accessible ice climbing in New England is found in New Hampshire and Vermont from late November to mid-April. Mount Washington is not only the highest peak in the Northeast with its ferocious winds, but the 6,288-foot mountain also provides climbing routes in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines.
Crawford Notch is more easily reached, with climbs on Mount Willard and in a nearby area off Route 302 called Frankenstein Cliff, by the popular hiking trail to Arethusa Falls. Climbs there include Dracula and Standard Route. Cannon Cliff in Franconia Notch State Park is home to the classic multi-pitched Black Dike and The Flume, while North Conway’s Cathedral Ledge hosts a myriad of beginners.
The cliffs of Mount Pisgah, towering over Lake Willoughby in northern Vermont, take climbers high above the blue waters on routes such as The Last Gentleman, which goes some 500 feet. Smugglers’ Notch brings climbers to the flanks of Mount Mansfield, with routes such as the three-pitched Ragnarock overlooking Stowe Mountain Resort, and Jeff’s Slide. The Notch was the site of the annual Smuggs Ice Bash in Jeffersonville, Vt., last weekend.
“The Notch is a real Alpine environment,’’ says Bash director and Sunrise Adventure Sports guide Bert Severin. “You can find yourself in some extreme weather pretty quickly. The ice seems to come early and stay late.’’
Severin says last week’s rain helped build routes in the gullies after the freeze.
Dave Kelly, an International Mountain Climbing School guide in North Conway with 20 years experience, says ice forms in various areas across northern New England at different times due to temperature, location, and rainfall.
“Every year in November the ice climbers get together and try to figure out what kind of season it’s going to be,’’ he said. “Someone might say it’s going to be a great season because it snowed in October or something else happened. But whatever you think, it never happens.’’
This weekend, many climbers will head to the White Mountains for the 17th annual Mount Washington Valley Ice Climbing Festival that features ice climbing and mountaineering.
“Right now, the ice in general is probably as good as it gets,’’ says Hospers. “I rate ice from zero to five, with five meaning routes that rarely come in. Now it’s a four.’’
Good enough to keep the bike in the garage.