Having lived in Brisbane for most of my life, I used to be well adapted to a sub-tropical climate. However, after a mere 4 years spent largely in the winter climates of Alaska and Chile, I seem to have lost the ability to tolerate heat and humidity. Although I still ostensibly live in Brisbane, I spend part of the summer abroad and the remainder bitching and moaning about the heat.
There were a few options for escape this January, but I decided on an ice climbing trip in the States. This would provide respite from the oppressive temperatures at home, as well as helping to bolster my meagre ice climbing skills. Professional development and all that guff.
I flew from Brisbane to Chicago to meet with Cody Miller, with whom I’d spent 6 weeks on the ice cap in 2014. It was certainly colder than home, but not really cold enough. When we reached the town of Munising, Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior, it became quickly apparent that the ice conditions were rather hit and miss. The mild winter had failed to effectively freeze all of the ice, meaning that only about 50% of the terrain was in good shape.
Munising ice is typically short, vertical and completely picked out in areas of easy access. In the more remote sections of the park, there are several long, intimidating lines that plunge directly into the lake, or onto the ice shelf during fat years. It was not one of those years. Even some of the more modest flows in close proximity were hollow and unbonded. Fucking grim.
As the adage goes, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Undeterred, we began climbing on the frozen curtains that line the road at Sand Point. My first efforts were, as the French say, le shit. My pick placements were marginal, foot placements even worse and I was pumped after 10 short meters from gripping the fuck out of my tools. After cutting a few laps and getting some hot tips from Cody, I was finally able to top rope the 20m pillar of The Dryer Hose clean. It was a start, at least.
A few days later, I led my first pitch of WI3, a short, vertical pitch with a desperate top out. My goal by the end of the trip was to lead at least one WI3, so I’d knocked that out of the park, however I still had a long way to go in getting familiar with ice conditions, footwork and placing protection.
Rock climbing and ice climbing are very different beasts. The old mantra that “the leader must not fall” is still very true for ice climbing, a far cry from the whip-happy pursuit of sport climbing. Especially on steep ice, the muscle use is very different from rock climbing and I found myself pumping out very quickly. That said, spending countless hours on rock had served me well in providing a decent level of endurance and most importantly strengthening the mental acuity necessary for lead climbing. Not having to expend energy concentrating on rope management also helps immensely.
We managed to tap out all the climbs in close proximity and decided to head deeper into the park to chase some of the more substantial lines. After a 12km return journey to a climb we found to be in poor condition, we decided that it was perhaps time to move on to New England. We’d been given a bit of beta on the area and there was “tons of ice” to be climbed. Better yet, the approaches were shorter and that would mean more laps at a time when that is precisely what I needed to improve.
We drove through the night, passing Ottawa and Montreal before stopping at the Vermont for a particularly (and needlessly) stressful border crossing. By the time we reached North Conway, we’d been on the road for 20 hours and I had no problems racking out in a snow bank behind a service station.
New Hampshire certainly had plenty of ice. It also had softer grades, with a 3 in Munising being comparable to a 4 or even a 4+ in New England. The baptism of fire I had been given on the steep Munising climbs set me up well for the moderate slopes of the Frankenstein Cliff. Unfortunately, there were also many more climbers and much warmer temps.
In order to combat these dramas, we started early. Even so, the Standard Route was running with water by the time we started the first pitch and there were several parties waiting to climb by the time we arrived at the first belay. By the time we’d walked down, the route was a veritable bowling alley with large chunks of ice plummeting onto the climbers below. Being first to the crag was a definite coup and we’d never have climbed such a classic without doing so.
Over the next two days we climbed Waterfall (WI3), A Walk in the Forest (WI3) and A Drip in the Woods (WI4+). The following day, we planned on a long moderate classic, Pinnacle Gully on the flanks of Mt Washington. And then it all came crashing down.
We were in state of denial as we drove to the White Mountains for an alpine start, a maelstrom building with each passing mile. The promising forecast had clearly been rather optimistic, and eventually we learned that the unexpected storm was so large that it even had a name. Winter Storm Lexi had effectively shut down our climbing trip. The warm temperatures and increased avalanche danger that followed the storm were the antithesis of ideal conditions.
That’s climbing, I’m afraid. As The Stranger says, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.” You learn to live with it.
Cody returned home to the Midwest, I stayed with Adam in Portsmouth, NH. We hiked a few of the 4000’s, went to see the Boston Bruins get their arse handed to them and drank several craft beers. Making the best of it, in other words.
Everyone lamented the poor conditions, but I regard the trip as an overall success. You never climb as much as you want to, but I was able to competently follow and semi-competently lead water ice by the end of the trip. This is a major stepping stone in my progression to levelling my skills as an all-rounder. I’ve got plenty of areas to work on at home (trad, crack, climbing in boots) which will prove useful in my quest to make myself a passable alpinist. Life goals and such.
Who knows when I’ll be able to hit up more ice. Brisbane has a conspicuous lack of it. But when it happens, I’ll be in a much better place to climb all the things.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.