Compared to rock climbing, which requires finesse and flexibility, ice climbing can appear downright medieval.
“People tend to assume it must be very dangerous,” said Eli Simon, owner of Atlantic Climbing School, a company that leads rock climbing and ice climbing expeditions in Maine.
“You go out there with metal spikes on your feet, wielding an ice ax, and you hack away at the surface,” he said. “It looks like an extreme sport.”
Looks can be deceiving. While there are some sports where the amount of effort is, when done correctly, nearly invisible (think of a ballerina’s hard-won grace, or a swimmer’s perfectly executed butterfly stroke), ice climbing is a showy activity. It makes noise: As you climb the glassy blue surface of the frozen cliff face, crunching, shattering, and hacking sounds emanate from your feet and your swinging ax. It requires a good deal of gear: crampons attached to your boots, ropes to keep you tethered to an anchor at the top of the cliff, and axes to carve handholds. But according to Simon, anyone can try ice climbing, from “a 70-year-old man who has never climbed anything in his life to a 6-year-old girl who wants to get outside.”
“If you can hike or climb a ladder, you can ice climb,” Simon said. “It’s a really fun and rewarding sport.”
The Atlantic Climbing School provides all necessary gear for climbers, as well as full instruction. While the school’s summer rock climbing classes can run from four hours to eight, ice climbing is more involved, so the school only offers full-day courses. The school takes clients out on top rope tours, during which you’re strapped into a harness that is connected to a sturdy tree at the top of the slope. As you ascend, the instructor takes up the slack, so even if you slip and fall, you never plunge more than a foot or two (at most). You make your way up the ice by using the spikes on your feet (crampons) to create footholds and the ax in your hand to create handholds.
“Contrary to what people might think, you’re not really pulling yourself up with your arms, but pushing yourself up with your legs,” Simon said. “You get into a rhythm of kick, kick, kick, swing, push. It’s very rhythmic.”
Simon and his guides take visitors to several different locations, depending on the conditions of the ice, which guides scout beforehand.
“You’re looking for thick blue ice,” he said. “It certainly depends on the route, but if I see two-foot-thick blue ice all the way to the top, then that’s ideal.”
Sometimes, the Atlantic Climbing School goes to Camden Hills State Park to climb, where there are an abundance of ice climbs accessible to all skill levels — and where you’re surrounded by views of blue mountains and deciduous forests. Sometimes, classes go out to Acadia National Park, where climbers repel down frozen cliffs to a ledge above the ocean water, and climb back up while the waves crash below.
“The scenery is unbelievable,” Simon said. “There are very few places on the planet where you can climb blue ice on the ocean.”
But really, he added, “it’s stunningly beautiful no matter what.”