Ice Climbing in the Adirondacks

I’ve been wanting to go ice climbing for the past two years, ever since I saw my climbing gym, Earth Treks, offers a trip. This year, I wasn’t going to miss out. I booked a room at the ADK Trail Inn, packed up all the gear I had (which wasn’t much, after traveling in Africa for the past two months), and headed up to New York to the Adirondacks; a formation of mountains practically in Canada they’re so far north, featuring spectacular lakes and pristine wilderness. And ice climbing. Lots of it.

I arrived at the Inn after a long 8 hour drive, the temperature being -14° F outside. The ADK Trail Inn is a cozy place to stay— the breakfast room is filled with over-sized sofas and and christmas lights, all with a log cabin-type atmosphere. Micro brews line the walls, and the large windows surrounding the room are filled with the snowdrifts and trees just outside. But the best part of all is the game room, featuring a pool and ping pong table, and a sofa in front of a wood-burning stove. It was here evenings were spent after a day of ice climbing (me sitting directly in front of the fireplace hogging the heat) drinking whiskey and hearing creepy New Orleans ghost stories told by Adil, one of the climbers on the trip.

Upon arrival, the instructors (Mike, Chris, and Mark) fitted me for boots and crampons and, with my limited cold weather gear, stocked me up with borrowed socks, a balaclava, snickers, and hand warmers. (I did not return the snickers. I ate them.) The next morning, we all met for breakfast and I got to meet the 5 others climbers. Three were an awesome group of guys who were always telling jokes (usually inside ones involving South Park I didn’t get) and sharing their supply of alcohol. The other two were friends from the DC area, a Russian who promptly told me when I introduced myself he was a sexist (who was really a softie and gave me extra hand warmers), and the other a really friendly engineer for the navy with an awesome, sarcastic sense of humor. Funny enough, they were both named Greg.

We headed out all geared up, crampons in bag, hand warmers in gloves and boots, and nalgenes in insulated bags (or they would freeze sitting outside in our packs as we climbed).

This is a nalgene— in case you did not know.

When we arrived at the first site, there was a steep path winding its way to the top so we had to put on our crampons at the bottom. Crampons are awesome. They are attachments of awesomeness in the form of spikes on the bottoms of your boots. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of all the crazy things I could do with them on (kicking someone in the face, using them as a giant throwing star, creating a new towel hook in the bathroom…). Sadly, they are also counter-intuitive, and walking up the steep trail in them over large chunks of ice was unsettling, and I fearfully tested every step before shifting my weight from foot to foot.

When we got to the top, we received a basic demonstration on how to ice climb; how to dig in the crampons for footholds, and how to use the ice picks. Unlike rock climbing, instead of finding a foothold in the rock face, you have to use the spikes on the front of your crampon to kick straight into the ice, and shift your weight back on your heels to engage the spikes on the sides of your crampons to ensure a solid foothold. Then, flicking your wrist, embed the ice pick into a concave section of ice to get a solid handhold. You could also utilize sections of ice with pockets for the ice pick, instead of making your own. Swinging the pick was exhausting until you got the hang of it, so utilizing the natural formation of the ice was really useful. (The second day I climbed a run without the ice picks, a suggestion by Chris, to get used to the crampons and learn to trust the footholds.)

Detailed, technical crampon diagram
Climbing on Day 2 without ice picks

While climbing my first run, because it was 0° F outside (yes, 0°), my fingers throbbed so painfully while resting them I couldn’t hold the ice pick for a few minutes. But after getting the hang of not gripping the ice picks too tightly and utilizing the footholds for balance, it was fine. Add in some big arm circles after climbing and belaying, it was nice and toasty warm. (That is a lie.)

One of the exciting things about ice climbing is the anticipation of falling ice. When you knock off a chunk of ice, you call “ICE!” to warn anyone below who might fall victim to a particularly large chunk of falling frozen matter. I kept hoping giant chunks of ice would come raining down from the sky and entertained myself imagining I would sidekick them with my crampons.

Climbing Day 3. The ice chunks littering the ground were the size of small cars— I was expecting at least one of us to be crushed.

Sadly, I found at the end of the day the boot warmers didn’t work as well as the hand warmers. We speculated it has something to do with needing oxygen to activate them.

After 3 days of climbing in the insane cold, spending evenings in homey pubs around the area, and drinking whiskey by the fire, it was time to head back. Mark, Chris, and Mike were insanely knowledgeable, encouraging, and most importantly had great senses of humor and were awesome climbers (putting us to shame climbing giant icicles and in general being climbing machines). The trip was awesome, and I’d totally do it again. Best money I’ve ever spent.

*Thanks to Mike from Earth Treks Timonium for the photos.