Climbing gym

New ice climbing guide provides solid insight for beginners and experienced adventurers

By Phil Brown
Winter came a little late this year, but it’s here, and people are climbing the ice again in the Keene Valley and elsewhere in the region.

Many people don’t see the appeal of going up frozen waterfalls with sharp crampons and sharp tools. When I finally tried (at age 59), I quite enjoyed it, although I hadn’t played the sport seriously yet. In anticipation of climbing more this winter, I read a new guide, How to Ice Climb! (Falcon, 2021), by Sean Isaac and Tim Banfield, two Canadian experts.

How to Ice Climb! (Falcon, 2021), by Sean Isaac and Tim Banfield

Now reading a book is not the way to learn how to ice climb. For this, you need to hire a guide or find a competent mentor. However, climbers of all skill levels will find great value in this excellent manual. The authors cover all aspects of the sport – equipment, expedition planning, climbing techniques, riding, belaying, anchor building, safety precautions – in clear and simple English . The instructions are illustrated with dozens of color photographs.

As a bonus, famed mountaineer Steve House wrote a chapter on training (it’s not just about pull-ups). Conrad Anker, another world class climber, wrote a short foreword.

I found the chapter entitled “Ice Movement” particularly useful. It explains and illustrates the correct sequence of body movements and positions when vertical ice climbing and outlines six exercises you can practice at your local crag. One way to improve footwork and balance, for example, is to climb relatively easy ice on the top rope with just one ice axe.

Everyone should read the “Leading Ice” chapter. Even if you’re not a lead climber, it helps to understand your partner’s demands as well as the rope work being used to protect both of you. Also, some of the information about belaying is directed at the follower. The authors recommend that the belayer position themselves to the side rather than directly under the lead climber to avoid falling ice.
Leaders protect themselves by attaching the rope to the ice screws as they climb.

The “Technical Systems” chapter explains how to prepare ice for a screw, how to twist a screw and where to place the screws during climbing and when building an anchor at the end of a pitch. If you’re wondering if an ice screw will really withstand a drop, you’re in luck. In two appendices, the book offers scientific studies on the holding power of ice screws and ice anchors (lots of math and graphics). Protection works if done right, but many factors influence the reliability of ice screws and anchors. It is wise to adhere to the adage “The leader must not fall”.

Goulet de Chouinard
Chouinard’s Gully is named after ice climber Yvon Chouinard. Photo by Sierra McGivney

The Adirondacks are mentioned in the “Destinations” chapter, which briefly describes eleven ice climbing locations in North America. The paragraph on the Adirondacks identifies four climbs by name: Chouinard’s Gully, Chapel Pond Slab, Power Play and Positive Thinking. “If you’re looking for more of a backcountry experience, try visiting the Lake Avalanche area,” the authors advise. They also give a shout to the Adirondack International Mountainfestsponsored by Mountaineer.

Chouinard’s Gully, named after the legendary Yvon Chouinard, is one of the most popular multi-terrain courses in the Adirondacks. During my first ice climbing, I went up to Chouinard with Don Mellor, the author of Blue Lines: A Guide to Ice Climbing in the Adirondacks, and wrote about the Adirondack Explorer experience.

cascading pass
Jacob Furr swings his ice ax as he leads Buster over Cascade Pass. Photo of the Sierra McGivney

You could spend your life climbing all the ice in the Adirondacks, but if you’re looking to travel, you might find three other destinations mentioned in the book that are within a day’s drive of our area: Willoughby Lake in the Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and cliffs along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.

If you’re an ice climbing addict, you might want to consider embarking on Steve House’s ambitious training program. It involves pull-ups, incline pull-ups, sit-ups, side planks, hanging leg raises, dips, toe raises, burpees, turkish holds and much more. He acknowledges that “if you’re over 25,” you might need an extra day to recover from such workouts. What if you are over 65?

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