All photos/art by Matt Shove
Crampons. Check. Helmet. Ice picks. Backpack. Climbing harness. Check. All geared up, Matt Shove–my ice-climbing guide from Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) Climbing School–and I hiked into the woods. “It’s a short walk,” Matt told me.
And three minutes later, I was facing the frozen waterfall at Connecticut’s Thomaston Ice Quarry–the same slab of ice that in a few short hours I would climb.
West Hartford, where EMS’s southernmost New England climbing school is located, seemed to me to be the unlikeliest place to start an ice-climbing expedition. I was amazed to be tackling this kind of outdoor adventure within 25 minutes of the State House in Hartford.
First, Matt led me through the “baby steps” of ice climbing–literally. With 1-1/2-inch crampon spikes strapped to the bottoms of my boots, I practiced walking on a flat slab of ice. Then I progressed to walking on an angled surface. (Imagine picking your way to your mailbox across a sheet of ice in your driveway.) Nearby, a huge wall of icicles cascaded from above–and climbing it would be my final task.
But before I could tackle that, I had to learn to use my tools. After graduating from my lesson in walking with crampons, I experimented with the correct technique for applying my ice axes, one in each hand. With a flick of the wrist, I made contact with the face of the frozen wall. Its nooks and crevices, like cavities in teeth, were the sweet spots, where the pick (the axe’s pointed tip) sank in and bit. Practicing this while standing on the ground was simple–but of course, I needed to go up … and up.
At the top of the waterfall, Matt anchored a fixed rope and dropped the ends below. On each climb, one end of the rope would attach to my harness through a belay device as a safety, with Matt on the ground keeping the other end taut in case I fell or needed to rest–both of which eventually happened, more than once.
After performing the ritual “On belay?” and “Belay on!” safety check, ensuring that Matt was ready for me to climb, I kicked the toe of my crampon into the ice and tapped the axe in my right hand into an inviting crevice. Then I stepped with my left foot, kicked my toe into the ice, and secured my other axe.
My body was heating up, and my muscles were tense. My eyes searched for the next crevice. Little by little, I climbed to the top of the ice.
Ice climbing, like most outdoor adventure sports, is best learned from a certified instructor. I don’t think I’ll be Matt’s most memorable student, though. That award goes to the 73-year-old man who decided it’s never too late to learn a new sport–and proved it by climbing his own slab of ice with Matt all winter long.
For more information
Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School