Ice Climbing School

Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) offers a variety of outdoor classes in New Paltz, NY, or the GUNKS.  While I literally have a strong desire to take every single one of them, I figured I’d start with the Ice Climbing Fast Track, consisting of Winter Climbing 101 and Ice Climbing 101. So, I signed up without any real idea of what I was getting into. What follows is literally the coolest, craziest shit I’ve ever done in the 27 years I’ve been alive and I am not exaggerating.

I arrived at the GUNKS on Saturday morning at 8 am with all the warm equipment and food that I figured I would need for a weekend in the winter. Jim, our outdoor instructor, introduced himself and had me fill out the necessary forms while he outfitted me with the equipment I would need: crampons, plastic mountaineering boots, 1 mountaineering ice ax, 2 ice climbing axes, 1 climbing helmet, 1 belay device, 1 carabiner, and 1 climbing harness. I also met the other people in my group: Emily, Hilary and Courtney.

I have all my equipment and am ready to climb!

So, geared up and ready to go, we all piled into my mother’s car (it was supposed to blizzard on Sunday and her car had all wheel drive making it the safest and largest option) and started driving to the ice climbing area in Platte Clove Preserve.  By the time we signed our forms, collected our equipment and actually arrived at a suitable ice climbing spot, it was already noon! Half of the day was already over and we hadn’t done any climbing yet. Honestly, it was a little frustrating.

Finally, Jim started lead climbing to set up the anchor at the top of ice climbing wall.  Up until that point, I had a rough idea of what lead climbing was, but I was still shocked to realize the full scope of the task. Until Jim installed the first ice screw halfway up the wall, he was climbing without any protection! Even with the ice screw, he would still fall twice the distance above the screw.

Courtney and I ice climbing for the first time. 

Once the rope system was set up, Jim took us through the basics of belaying and ice climbing. Then, the fun began. There was nothing else to do but dig in and start working our way up the nearly vertical wall of ice. It was exhilarating and not nearly as physically demanding as I imagined (the ice axes and crampons can do a hell of a lot of work if used properly).  Hilary, Emily, Courtney and I all took turns climbing and belaying for each other (these ladies were a lot of fun). Despite my initial frustration at how late we got started, after just 3 climbs, I was actually pretty beat.

Almost to the top!

On the way back to the EMS shop, the five of us discussed our plans for tomorrow since it was supposed to snow between 8 and 12 inches. We decided to shift our course time from 8:00-4:30 to 6:00-2:30 so we could get out before the roads were too bad. So, I walked into the woods to catch some shut-eye before Sunday’s action packed day.

When we all met the next morning, we realized Courtney decided to drive home due to her apprehension about driving in the snow.  So, the four of us drove back to Platte Clove and started hiking to a waterfall that was “in”.  Apparently, “in” meant the waterfall was prime for ice climbing.  The snow had started to fall well before we reached Platte Clove. Even the hike in was crazy – it took almost an hour to go half a mile between belaying each other down steep precipices and feeling for holes in the ice before each step with our axes.

Then, we rounded a corner – lo and behold a half frozen waterfall dominating the small cirque hollowed out in the cliffs. The realization that we would be climbing said HALF FROZEN, 60 foot waterfall was an adrenaline rush in and of itself.  Basically, the water flowed freely down the center of the cirque and had a climbable section on either side.  The left was the more challenging, vertical section while the right was the easier, sloped section.

Here I am climbing the steeper side of the waterfall. I’m being pelted with snow and spray from the waterfall. 

Jim wanted me to start on the more challenging section first after the ladies took turns on the easier side. So, with wind blowing snow and spray from the waterfall at me, I stalked up to the ice and dug my axes into the frozen pillars. Step by step, I worked my way up what felt like a living monstrosity.  My nerves caused me to unconsciously grip the axes with unnecessary force and I nearly lost my footing when I realized water was flowing directly behind the ice I was climbing.  I was just a few feet from the top when a small piece of ice broke away and I fell about 10 feet before Jim caught me on belay. It may have been because I was so exhilarated and caught in the moment, but the fall didn’t rattle me at all. I swung right back into the wall and continued climbing. I triumphantly tagged the top and signaled to Jim that I was ready to come down.

Another shot of me climbing the half frozen waterfall. 

I ended up attempting the climb two more times, but fell both times before reaching the top. As the thick snow continued to build up, Jim decided it was time to get back to the car. Of course, the quickest way to do that was to climb the easier side of the waterfall and walk up the adjacent hill. Jim made his way to the top and set up another anchor with the rope used to climb the steeper section. Then, I followed and belayed Hilary, Courtney and Emily to the top.

A shot of me nearing the top of the steeper side of the 60 foot waterfall.  Yes, that is water flowing freely down to my right. 

As I drove back home, I still couldn’t get a grip on my excitement. The combination of the blizzard, the half frozen waterfall, an awesome outdoor instructor, great company in Hilary, Emily and Courtney and actually ice climbing simply made the weekend incredibly enjoyable and memorable.

If you ever have a chance to ice climb, do it. You will not regret it.  I am a first time addict and you can bet your ass I will be back out there next winter.

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