Sub-Zero Highs

Coming Face to Face with Ice
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The very stable 98.6 degrees of the human body are suited for a depressingly small window of temperatures. Meant for stomping naked say, on the plains of Africa or an island in Southeast Asia, we are rather ill-equipped at spending much time in ice-ridden, freezing temperatures or waist deep snow. Maybe that's why since childhood, it has always felt so good to layer up and head out into the face of a heinous blizzard or sweeping wind. Conquering untamed elements and going one-on-one against the laws of nature is always tempting and satisfying. The joy of trespassing is sweet indeed.

It didn't seem so sweet the morning I was to challenge MY temperature threshold. It seemed cold. Very cold—ideal conditions for stabbing the brittle flesh of a sheer vertical ice cliff.

As I sat on my bed listening and watching the powerful wind and snow pound my window and the mountains, I contemplated if I was really going to attempt face-to-face confrontation with a frozen waterfall. The day before was cold, yet sunny. Spending most of this sunless day out in such battering elements didn't seem like a smart alternative to the toasty reality of my down cocoon.

For sure the snow miser had gone postal on this day.

I felt like a child sitting Indian style on my pillow, forehead pressed against the frosty windows, waiting to hear that school's been cancelled. "Due to weather not suited for man or beast, this year's Mountainfest will be cancelled." Not a chance. After all, this was the reason I, my coworker, and about 200 cohorts were there. Nestled in the heart of the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, Keene Valley hosts the annual Mountainfest. Patrons of such suicidal elements congregate each year to test the latest winter gear, learn avalanche rescue, and, as I was about to do, learn to stab and claw, like Captain Hook, up one extra-large icicle.

For such an enemy of the warm state, I had to arm myself with ammunition.

A trip to the Mountaineer was my first stop. In waging war against the elements, whether it be heat, height, cold, or wet, this local outfitter is the arsenal. It has been canonized by the Northeast climbing tribe and other outdoor enthusiasts in the area as the one-stop shop for gear, information, and contacts.

Allies came from all four corners offering advice on gear, techniques to remember, and stories—some frightening and others encouraging. I felt accepted, looked after. These strangers were on my side, and whether it was the extreme temperatures that shattered pretention and inhibition and pulled these people together like a pack trying to survive on the wild prairie, or an overall love and support of the pursuit of ice, or both, I felt 100 percent, unequivocally supported.

All my concern about looking like a handicapped frog against the ice, or not being strong enough, or not having the right gear, seemed so silly once I met the faces of this frozen water fun. I felt reassured that I would have fun and would do ok.

As I was toured through the aisles of apparel and gear by my new-found army of supporters, my intent was to replicate, as much as possible, my down cocoon that I stripped myself from. After receiving a thorough education on the effectiveness and importance of wicking systems in much of the apparel, I stood like an outdoor commando.

Gore-Tex, down, and fleece layers were my armor, and hanging from each hip loop on my bib, were the weapons of all weapons—my pick axes. I was cool. Or should I say hot. Mission accomplished.

"I can promise you two things," our guide, Nick Yardly said as our group of eight first assembled. "Your hands will be cold and your arms will ache."

The first hour of instruction consisted of learning the proper technique for walking safely on feet with teeth—the all-important crampon. Swing legs in a crossover maneuver when going uphill, and when going downhill, hands on your hips, bend legs, spread them out and squat a little—like John Wayne about to draw his gun. The rest of the ice pilgrims and I, concentrating on our walking technique, slowly made our way uphill to the North Face of Pitchoff, the route we would soon be scaling. The central pillar of this route was indeed fat, as I overheard climbers refer to it at the Mountaineer. A grand cathedral of ice. The tougher climb was uphill—the Screw and Climax route. As tempting as that route sounded, I opted to stay right where I was.

We flung and flung until we were fluent in the proper fling, and understood what a good pick stick felt like and sounded like. We learned to rely on our "bones" the strap wrapped around our wrists rather than grip the axes too tightly when lifting ourselves. This would lead to fatigue, cramping, and ultimate freeze. We learned to kick with our crampons so not to stab our legs, and finally learned that there isn't much to it—just try to be efficient as possible and find rest stops wherever you can.

Now it was time to practice what was preached. And I was getting cold feet—literally.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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