OUTDOOR ADVENTURE Ice climbing brings unexpected rewards
Adirondack International Mountainfest hosts clinics for beginners and experts.
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
KEENE VALLEY, N.Y. -- Sixty feet up the wall, you could hear water tinkling behind chandelier ice, running behind the hundreds of glistening icicles. It was like standing in a crystal fountain, decorated with the occasional cedar growing sideways from cracks in the rock.
"There's no more rope," Don DeKay shouted from the ground, where his 20-year-old son was on belay, holding the climbing rope that kept me from falling. Matt DeKay had about 10 feet left. The rope passed through anchor slings at the top of the 100-foot cliff, tied at the other end to the harness around my hips.
Standing on the narrow ice ledge, gripping it with spiked soles of steel crampons, unable to go higher, I turned to drink in the view of Chapel Pond Canyon -- an unexpected reward from learning to ice climb.
There were nine of us -- intermediates and beginners -- in the climbing clinic at the mid-January Adirondack International Mountainfest. Already popular with rock climbers, upstate New York's storied mountain range is growing in stature as an ice-climbing destination.
Forest surrounded the frozen pond nearby. The two-lane highway to Lake Placid wound past on the far side, a mountain rising beyond that.
British mountaineer Simon Yates perched on another north-facing ice route, removing its top rope as the day wound down. "It's going to be a bit watery today," the instructor had said in the morning, following a thaw two days earlier. But now it was back down below freezing.
And after warning the belayer, and making sure both ice axes were still leashed, I pushed off into space. Matt DeKay lowered me slowly with the rope.
The DeKays began rock climbing seven years before and recently branched into ice. Don DeKay said after hiking in the Adirondacks it seemed like the next step. Now, the executive from the Syracuse area saw it as a way to get together with his son, a Siena College student.
Kate Pebworth took a last climb in late afternoon. A beginner, she struggled at times, kicking the front-points of her crampons and driving the tips of her axes into the vertical ice wall, only to have one or another pull out again.
"Pick your left leg up. Brilliant! Now you're in balance," Yates coached on an earlier try. Then her left crampon slipped from the ice, then her right, then her axes, and she hung from the rope.
On her last attempt, she ascended nearly 60 feet, using her legs more, staying centered and generally keeping three contact points while advancing the fourth, as we'd been taught. The 22-year-old personal trainer, whose only previous experience was in Manhattan climbing gyms, called down for somebody to grab her camera.
"I got the movement down," Pebworth said afterward. "I'm hooked."
Bill Dodd, a teacher and climbing guide who came to these mountains 20 years ago, kept advising the beginners to get better angles with their crampons, rest their weight on straight legs, and reach higher when swinging the ax in each hand.
"The whole idea of climbing -- to climb safely -- is to use the least amount of energy," he said.
After I easily went up a 30-foot hump of ice twice in the morning, another beginner jokingly threatened to kick me out of the group.
Immediately I slipped and flailed, driving the front-point of one crampon through the opposite trouser leg, then was told I'd put the harness on twisted, and later took a spill simply walking around at the bottom.
"You can climb quickly," Dodd said. "You can't climb in a hurry."
The ninth annual mountaineering festival in Keene Valley, 105 miles north of Albany, was organized by a local outfitter, The Mountaineer, and by Adirondack Rock and River, the guide service and lodge in nearby Keene.
There were 17 clinics over two days. They cost $125, taught by both longtime Adirondack guides and world-renowned climbers. More beginning ice courses are scheduled for late February and early March, but call ahead to determine availability.