A critical factor in getting outdoors is having something to do, and for most people, they go through a rotation as the year goes round and temperatures and conditions rise and fall. For me, summer and fall mean rock climbing, and winter and spring mean skiing. But I’ve become more and more interested in adding a few new winter sports to the mix, and the one I’ve had my eye on the most is ice climbing.
If you want the technical definition of ice climbing, I don’t know it. But a layman’s definition might be something like trying to get up cold vertical stuff using axes and crampons and an assortment of other tools, just like climbing makes use of your hands and feet to get up not-that-cold vertical stuff. The gist of it is you swing these ice axes up over your head, sinking them into an ice sheet deep enough for you to support yourself on, and kicking spikes on your feet into that same ice sheet to stand on. Climbing is a motion somewhat like climbing a ladder: Hang on left arm, place right foot, stand on right foot, place right arm, hang on right arm, place left foot, remove left arm, remove right foot, stand on left foot, place left arm, and repeat. (If that’s not how you climb a ladder….well I don’t know what to tell you. But that’s what it look like to me.)
The nuts part comes due to the fact that your covered in sharp objects in the freezing cold, trying to manage your temperature, and that ice is not just ice the world around. What you’re looking for is “plastic” ice. The sort of stuff that’s just the right mix so that your tools sink in without breaking the stuff, but it’s not so soft that they pop out. But as temperatures change, and layers of ice build up, sometimes the good stuff is buried beneath a layer of “rotten” ice, which is really brittle and doesn’t like to be hit with the sharp point of an axe (hey, can’t blame it. I don’t either).
So how do you tell the difference? You can’t really. It’s a lot of feel and intuition, so you take a swing and sometimes it sinks in, other times it sends ice chunks sailing into your face, or onto your belayer(more on that in a second). And to add to the confusion, it changes from day to day and even through the course of the day. And sometimes even solid swings in plastic ice have a tendency to “pop” off. Just the nature of it.
You may wonder how on earth someone is supposed to do something productive with so many unknown variables (I call this “engineers cripple: (n) the illusion of inability to proceed or decide without more data to resolve uncertainty”). Well you just do, and it doesn’t seem to bother ice climbers very much. But there’s ample reason to suspect anyone who’s willing and in fact seeking out the opportunity to venture out into the bitter cold to place themselves on sheer vertical surfaces for fun may in fact be insane.
Luckily, there are a surprising number of insane people at MIT, and a subset of them are of the ice climbing variety, so opportunity knocked and I answered with my pack and boots. We left Saturday evening to get to the MITOC cabin (Camelot) up in NH for the night, so that we could get an early start the next morning. When we got to the cabin, it was a balmy 0F outside, and by early morning I’ve been told it dropped as low as -8F. Looked like we were going to be in for quite a bit colder than the forecasted low of 18. But thankfully by the time we hiked up to the crag in Rumney, being in the sun warmed us up, and it turned out to be a nice day. I managed to put together this video of the place we were climbing, and some of my first ascents in ice. Hope you enjoy it! (take a close look at 3:47, when I knock off a sizable chunk of ice that hits my belayer square in the head. That’s why you wear a helmet!)