Chilling out on Vermont's cold-weather climbs
A thin shard of sunlight illuminates the place where I'm standing -- no, shaking -- in front of a wall of frozen water that's shades of Colgate white and AquaFresh blue. My quaking knees and rat-a-tat teeth have less to do with fear than with the fact that it's 10 degrees below zero here at Smugglers' Notch, and my toes, jammed into soggy boots outfitted with metal crampons, went numb about two hours ago.
Somehow, I uncurl my fingers to grip an ice tool, or axe, handed to me by Petra Cliffs climbing instructor Dennis Campbell. I manage to stand still long enough for him to clip my harness into the rope that he's anchored toward the top of the ice. "Belay on," says Campbell, using the climbing terminology he taught me and fellow students Ken and Krista earlier this morning.
"Climbing," I announce optimistically. When Campbell responds, "Climb on," I start swinging my ice tool and kicking my crampon-clad boots against the frozen waterfall. Ice chips fly around my head and my goggles fog up. I can't see a thing, which means the adze, or curved, flat end of the axe, could knock me in the forehead at any moment, requiring a long slog back to the car… and hospital.
But below, Dennis, Ken and Krista are cheering me on, so I figure I must be doing pretty well up here. Whack, kick, whack, kick -- I really am climbing. When I finally pause to check out the view from my lofty perch, I discover I've barely moved -- my feet almost graze Campbell's head -- and I'm exhausted.
"Good job," Campbell says encouragingly as he watches me rappel the short distance down to the nest we've established at the foot of the waterfall.
Nature calls, but I'd have to wade through waist-deep snow and unpeel three layers of long johns to pee in private. I decide to hold it. With shaking, blue fingers, I attempt to unwrap the meager and solidly frozen supply of cheese and pepperoni I've brought for my first ice-climbing lesson. Campbell is careful to check for signs of frostbite, but for now, I'm hypothermia-free. My once-piping-hot thermos of cocoa, however, has become lukewarm sludge.
I conclude: Rock climbing hurts, but ice climbing is excruciating. Embracing an icicle is not only crazy -- it's cold. The constant, aerobic motion of arms and legs produces some heat, but not enough.
Once a task relegated to mountaineers bound for snowy summits, ice climbing has be-come a sport in its own right, with guides, competitions and specialized equipment pioneered in the 1960s by Patagonia owner Yvon Chouinard. The sport now belongs to both genders, thanks to the debut of ESPN's Winter X Games in 1997, which showed Roberta "Bird" Lew flying up an ice wall to win two gold medals. In 2003, ice-climbing activity among women increased 200 percent, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
Technology is another factor fueling the growth of ice climbing. When the sport started catching on in the 1970s, athletes weren't always able to assess the reliability of their sites. Now, assorted websites dedicated to ice conditions allow climbers to instantly learn the beta, or information, on nearby routes. The spikes and screws that grip the ice are more effective than ever, which makes the sport less intimidating from a safety perspective. At the same time, experts are exploring new frontiers of crystallized cliffs and crags, and they're not all tucked into the Rocky Mountains.
"New England is the best climbing in the lower 48," says Williston's Nick Yardley, who's ascended heights from Peru and Nepal to North Conway, New Hampshire, where he guided for the renowned International Mountain Climbing School. Turns out there's an up-side to below-zero. "It's miserably cold, so the conditions are pretty set, which makes the ice climbing more consistent than other places," Yardley says.
Among the Green Mountain Meccas are Smugglers' Notch, closed to winter traffic but open to climbers who hike up to such routes as "Origin of Intelligence in Children," "Dave's Snotsicle" and "Prenuptial Agreement" on the East Side, or "Terror-tory," and "California Dreamin'" on the West Side. The Lake Willoughby and Mount Pisgah area, meanwhile, has repeatedly been called one of the best ice-climbing spots on the continent for long, steep routes, including "Who's Who in Outer Space," "Reign of Terror" and the aptly named "Twenty Below Zero Gully."
A local climbers' coalition recently added another option to Vermont's list of frozen fun sites. Nearly a snowball's throw from Burlington and Interstate 89, Bolton Quarry is 30 acres of ideal ice pillars. "The quarry has no easy routes, but they are still very accessible and not as intimidating as the truly difficult routes around," says Climb High's Dave Furman, "So it's a good place where people can practice for the steeper ice and more difficult routes they aspire to, without getting in over their heads."
For years, access to the Bolton Quarry was complicated by the landowner. "It was a private individual; he allowed climbing there but was very skittish," says Heather Furman, Dave's spouse and president of Climbing Resource Access Group of Vermont, or CRAG-VT. "It was open some years, closed some years."
CRAG-VT is part of a unique movement in U.S. recreational rights: active individuals who pool together time, effort and money to preserve outdoor areas, maintain public access, and educate on liability issues. And of 45 similar groups in the country, according to Heather Furman, CRAG-VT is one of only three to have purchased property exclusively for climbing. In May 2003, a 10-acre donation allowed CRAG-VT to begin managing the rock routes at an area known as Lower West Bolton. And last month, after a year of gathering funds through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, a Vermont Recreational Trails grant, the nationwide Access Fund, Climb High, and some 150 members, CRAG-VT bought the Bolton Quarry parcel.
"Of the local climber organizations that are out there, we're the only ones that are operating much like a land trust or conservation organization, protecting land for the recreational resources," says Heather Furman, who's seen use of the Quarry increase "exponentially" since it opened last month. "The biggest challenge today is that we don't have adequate parking. We really want to emphasize that people be respectful about where they park and are not trespassing."
While CRAG-VT works to create more space for cars, ice climbers are advised to heed parking regulations, carpool and keep the chatter to, well, chattering teeth along Green Mountain Drive. "While the Quarry will no longer be closed to climbing, that doesn't relieve us of our responsibility to respect the folks living in close proximity," says climber Derek Doucet of Jerusalem. He heads up to the Quarry for a workout on the solid grade 4 routes -- the rating system ranges from easy, low-angled grade 1 ice to extremely technical grade 7. "It's the closest truly steep ice to Burlington," Doucet says. "While most routes in Smuggs have a distinctly serious and alpine feeling to them, the Quarry feels much more like low-stress cragging. No complicated technical descents. No avalanche hazard. Less severe weather."
Meanwhile, despite the polar grip on my ice-climbing lesson back at Smugglers' Notch, the weather is cooperating. After creating a vent for my goggles, I can actually see where I'm going. On my next foray up the waterfall, I start to move my crampons and ice tool more efficiently and go a little higher than before. My heart races just fast enough to let me forget about the cold for a moment and, during my next break, Krista forks over some trail mix, which has held up in the cold better than my cheese and hot chocolate.
We watch Ken clamber up, whooping, and suddenly I can't wait to go again, to feel my feet grip the ice, and listen to the axe's satisfying thwack. Beyond these sounds, and the occasional cheer from Campbell or holler from a distant backcountry snowboarder, we're surrounded by the pristine silence of winter.