Is Your Climbing Gear Safe? How To Inspect It And When To Know to Retire It

Inspecting climbing gear is the best way to ensure that it still works properly and is safe to use. Making gear inspection a regular, ongoing part of your routine is important for your safety and that of your climbing partners, as the consequences of gear failing due to inattention to issues can be fatal. You need the utmost trust in your climbing equipment, and it needs to perform every time it’s used. 

Below are some tips on how to inspect common climbing gear, and what to look for when retiring a piece. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out to your local EMS Climbing School.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

Wires and Cables

Found in protection like nuts, cams, and some hexes. Check the entire length of cable, carefully feeling for frays or damage. Kinks are not necessarily bad, but can interfere with function, making protection harder to place effectively. Check that a kink is not hiding a tear in the cable. Frayed cables indicate a piece ready for retirement, except in very minor cases, but make sure that any tiny frays won’t be hooking on slings or rope. 

Carabiners

Inspect the body of the carabiner, looking and feeling for cracks, burrs, and wear grooves. Check the action of the gate, as well as locking features if your carabiner has any. Any moving parts that become sticky or slow can be cleaned in hot water and lubricated with dry lubricant like what Metolius sells. Once a groove gets deeper than 10 percent of the carabiner’s thickness or develops an edge, it’s time to retire. As for the fabled “microfractures,” extensive break testing has disproved the concept in modern metal pieces, but if you have any doubts, retire the piece. 

Belay Devices

There are so many vastly different belay devices that we will keep it general here. As with carabiners, look over and feel the entire device, and pay special attention to the area(s) of the device that handles the rope. Pay attention to different materials, and actuate any parts that are meant to move. Check with manufacturers’ specifications. If any sharp edges or deep grooves form, then the device should be retired. 

Cams

Check the lobes for cracks or deformation. Inspect the axle(s) and the rest of the cam head, then go down the stem and look for deformation in the plastic casing or in the exposed cables, depending on the device. Check that the trigger still works, and that the trigger wires are intact (slight fraying can be acceptable here) and if not, you can buy replacements for some models. If your cam has a thumb-loop, check the integrity of the casing and shape of the loop. Finally examine the sling for any signs of damage (more on slings below). Actuate the cam plenty of times and observe how each part is working, and look, listen, and feel for anything out of the ordinary. If the action of the cam sticks or feels slow, or if the head is dirty, try cleaning the cam in hot water and lubricating the axles (Metolius lube is best). If cam slings are worn or questionable, you can get them reslung by one of several companies, including Black Diamond, Metolius (both will mend their own cams only), Mountain Tools, and the local Ragged Mountain Equipment (both work on a variety of gear). 

Credit: Sean Coit
Credit: Sean Coit

Rope

Start at one end, and using one hand, pull the rope slowly through a thumb and finger of the other hand (pinched on the rope) to feel for anything out of the ordinary while you are looking for discolored spots, fraying, or the dreaded “core shot.” Feel for lumps, flat spots, and irregular stiffness as you go. If you come across a questionable area, pinch the rope at this point, making a tight bend or bight. A healthy rope when bent will make a tight circular shape, and if you find a sharp bend or pinch, you’ve found a core shot. Core shots generally mean retiring the rope, although if close enough (within a meter or two) to the ends of the rope a core shot can be cut off. If you are cutting your rope remember that any marked midpoint is now inaccurate, and your rope is shorter than you’re used to. Fuzzy ropes are not necessarily done for, but it can be a tricky judgment call to gauge how much fuzz is too much, so pay attention to manufacturers’ lifespan recommendations as well as the performance of the rope. If you are ever unsure about a damage spot or excessive wear, seek qualified opinions as every case is different. 

Slings and Cord

Like the rope inspection, use your fingers to feel as you visually inspect. Check for fraying, tears, melted spots, and discoloration, and feel for stiffness or softness. Be especially wary of certain areas like stitching or bar-tacks where a loop is joined, or sewn ends on a piece of cord, as well as areas that are normally covered or bent in the same place (both are applicable in cams). It is a good idea to untie any knots that you have tied when inspecting softgoods, as melting and wear can occur inside of a knot without being visible. 

Rock Climbing

Helmets

The most important thing to check is the structural integrity of the helmet, by looking and feeling for cracks, dents, or other deformations all over the outside and inside of the protective parts of the helmet. Take any liners out while doing this, and it is worth noting that stickers or decorations on the outside of the helmet can make finding potential issues more difficult. Small dings in the helmet may not be a big deal, but even minor impacts can affect the strength of the helmet over time. Any large deformities or cracks warrant retiring. When checking the harness of the helmet, inspect the webbing as you would any other cord, and test the closure. Check any plastic parts for fatigue or cracks. 

Harness

Inspections for metal and textile parts are the same as above. Check for fraying or blown stitching throughout the harness as well as wear in the tie in points and belay loop. Make sure buckles are free of sharp spots and not deformed. If there is any doubt about the integrity of the harness it should be retired. 

Shoes

Climbing shoes primarily get retired or serviced due to performance concerns, and while not always the case, this  could even affect the safety of the climber. Luckily, you don’t need a new pair of shoes every time one pair is worn out, and can get your shoes resoled for quite a bit less. Once the sole starts to wear through to the rand, it’s time for a resole. If you can see your toe through the rand then you need a new rand as well, but resole shops can mend both the rand and sole. The best local shops are New England reSoul in Newfields, NH and Plattsburgh Shoe Hospital in Peru, NY. 


How to Choose an Ice Axe

Whether you’re a rock climber thinking about giving ice a try, a winter hiker looking to greater heights, or a skier with eyes on deeper backcountry, you’re going to need an ice axe to take it to that next level. They are a critical tool for safety and stability in steep winter terrain and open the floodgates to bigger mountain objectives. While the options out there may seem overwhelming, a little bit of background on the anatomy of an ice axe is all you need to find the right one for your objectives.

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Types of Ice Axes

Broadly speaking, there are three types of ice axes: mountaineering axes, technical ice tools, and a spectrum of semi-technical axes covering everything in-between.

Mountaineering Axe

When most folks think of an ice axe, what they picture is a traditional mountaineering axe: an asymmetric head, with a curved pick on one end and an adze on the other, mounted atop a long, straight shaft that ends with a sharp point. These days, the shafts have gotten shorter and some deploy a bit of a curve, but the intent of their design is the same: During non-technical travel on glaciers and high alpine snowfields, they are incredibly useful as a third point-of-contact, for building anchors, and for self-arresting after a fall. If you’re looking to tackle Mount Washington’s Lion Head Winter Route, a mountaineering axe is what you’re after.

Ice Tools

Ice tools main function is climbing steep, technical ice. Aside from being used in pairs, the principal difference between ice tools and other types of ice axes is the aggressive pick and a curved shaft—both designed with steep terrain in mind and more overhead swinging into hard ice than plunging the staff into snow. The head of an ice tool is asymmetrical, and may or may not have an adze or a hammer opposite the pick. The most common set-ups you’ll see in a pair of ice tools are adze/hammer or just picks. For steep ice from Crawford Notch to Stony Clove, a pair of technical ice tools is the way to go.

Everything in Between

The spectrum of options that exists between mountaineering axes and ice tools is difficult to define, but they are invariably designed for utility and efficiency. To that end they will usually take on the qualities of both mountaineering axes and ice tools in incremental degrees. These “hybrid” or “alpine” axes are excellent for long jaunts into the high backcountry where one may encounter anything from snowfields to steep ice.

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Parts of an Ice Axe

The anatomy of an ice axe can be broken down into four main parts: the head, the shaft, the grip, and the spike. The characteristics of these parts, designed with specific use cases in mind, are what differentiate one axe from the next.

Head

The head of an ice axe can be further broken down into three parts: a pick, an adze or a hammer, and a carabiner hole. It’s common for the heads of mountaineering axes to be cast from a single piece of metal, where as ice tools are modular, allowing for a greater degree of customization. All of these, however, are subject to a “B” or a “T” rating. The ratings are given based on tests performed on ice axes assessing their durability against the forces commonly found in mountaineering. Simplified, a “T” rating is stronger, and more reliable when subjected to the punishment of steep ice climbing or dry-tooling on rock. A “B” rating is more than sufficient for most general mountaineering purposes and may be lighter.

Pick

Picks come in two basic styles: classic or reverse curved. Classic curved picks are ubiquitous on the traditional mountaineering axe and are superior for self-arresting after a fall and for plunging into steep snow with the hand on the head of the axe. Reverse curved picks, on the other hand, are far more effective biting into ice when swinging a tool on steep terrain.

Adze/Hammer

Opposite the pick of an ice axe you can expect to find an adze, a hammer, or nothing at all. More often than not, mountaineering axes are adorned with an adze, a sharp, horizontal piece not unlike a spade. This is a very useful tool for digging an anchor, or cutting a platform for a bivy or a tent on an uneven surface. Back before the advent of modern crampons, these were used to cut steps up steep slopes.

Adzes are also found on ice tools—typically on one of the pair—and can be used in the same way, which is handy on longer alpine objectives that may include a mix of low-angle terrain and steep, technical ice.

In those circumstances, the tool opposite the adze will have a hammer. Hammers are great for banging protection into rock, clearing out ice from around fixed gear, and setting snow pickets on steep, snowy routes.

Ice tools intended for shorter outings on single- or multi-pitch waterfall ice often have neither an adze nor a hammer.

Carabiner Hole

Directly above the shaft of an ice axe is a hole cast into the head. This hole can be used to tether a mountaineering axe to its user or to rack an ice tool on a harness. It’s pretty common on the former, and ubiquitous on the latter.

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Shaft

After the head, the shaft of an ice axe is the most important determining factor of the intended use of an ice axe. Shafts are similarly rated as “B” or “T” and can be subcategorized based on two characteristics: their shape and their length.

Curve

The silhouette of an ice axe’s shaft is likely it’s most nuanced and varied characteristic, defined not by an either/or but rather a spectrum of curves and bends dependent on the needs of the user. At one end, the traditional mountaineering axe maintains its straight profile—excellent for use as a cane–while at the other end the shaft of an ice tool has an aggressive curve—which makes penetrating hard ice easier and relieves fatigue while weighting a tool on steep terrain. In between, several mountaineering axes have adopted a curved shaft to keep the user’s hands out of the snow on steeper snow slopes—where gripping the axe mid-shaft and plunging the pick into the snow makes for efficient travel. Similar variety can be found in some ice tools which have a gentler curve, which allows for more utility in more varied terrain.

Length

While ice tools are a bit of a one-size-fits-all thing, the length of a mountaineering axe is largely dependent on the height of a user. When sizing a mountaineering axe, let your arm hang by your side and measure from the base of your thumb to your ankle. That measurement will directly correspond to the size mountaineering axe that you need. Most mountaineering axes come in varying sizes.

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Grip

For technical ice tools, the design of the grip is another important consideration to take. All ice tools have ergonomic rests at the base of the grip, but many also have one at the top: this is there for matching or switching hands on a traverse, or to help pull up and over steep bulges. The big difference in the grips of ice tools though, is whether or not it’s offset. Offset tools are designed for efficient movement on steep terrain, easing fatigue and keeping the user’s hands from bashing the ice. Regular tools are totally usable on steep terrain, but are excellent on long, moderate alpine climbs, where an offset grip may be more hindrance than help, and utility is key.

Spike

Finally, at the very end of it all, is the spike. All mountaineering axes—and many ice tools—are outfitted with a spike at the bottom of the shaft, meant for plunging into snow and for stability while using the axe as a cane. It’s handy even on ice tools, for both the lengthy backcountry expeditions as and the short, steep approaches you may encounter at the local flow.

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Accessories

Your specific objectives as a climber will dictate the axe you ultimately choose. Those objectives will also determine any extras that you may need to effectively and safely use that axe in the field.

Leashes

To use or not use a leash while wielding an ice axe boils down to a simple question: “Am I likely to drop a tool doing this?” If you’re a first-timer climbing steep ice, then it may be a good confidence booster to tether your tools. Even the most hardened of alpinists may leash-up—especially if they’re headed deep into the backcountry, where losing a tool could lead to a dire situation. For vertical ice, a leash that connects to your belay loop rather than your wrist won’t prevent you from switching tools on a traverse. For non-vertical terrain, a wrist leash—which comes stock on many mountaineering axes—will do the trick.

Ice Clippers

Ice clippers are rad little plastic carabiners that, when attached to a compatible harness, are used to rack ice screws. They’re also handy for racking ice tools so your hands are free while rappelling or being lowered down a pitch of steep ice.

Protectors

Protecting your sharps—and everything they may come in contact with, for that matter—is critical, so covering them up should be a no-brainer when your tools aren’t in use.


Catskill Ice: Climbing at Stony Clove

Just a stone’s throw from the big city, the Catskill Mountains have long been a favorite wilderness retreat for the respite-seeking New Yorker. Its densely forested summits, deep, dark cloves, and dramatic overlooks have stoked the imagination of local and visitor alike for centuries.

It’s with a blanket of snow and a healthy cold snap that the Catskills extend their allure to area ice climbers. When the conditions are right, the region is dotted with hero ice—from long multi-pitch moderates like Buttermilk Falls, to playgrounds like the Devil’s Kitchen, to the terrifying and ephemeral jewel that is Kaaterskill Falls, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you’re new to ice climbing in the area, Stony Clove, in the very heart of the Catskills, is probably the best place to start. It’s very popular, and it’s no surprise why: there are dozens of routes, all of varying length, style, and difficulty—and they’re all easily accessible via a short approach. For both the total novice and the hardened old-timer, there’s more than enough in Stony Clove to spend a weekend picking away lap after lap.

The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak
The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak

How to Get There

The climbing at Stony Clove is centered around Notch Lake, on NY-214, at the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. From the Thruway (I-87), take Exit 20 for Saugerties. At the end of the exit, turn onto NY-32 North and continue for 6.0 miles before bearing left onto NY-32A. Keep going for another 1.9 miles into the town of Palenville. At the traffic light, turn left onto NY-23A. Continue on NY-23A, up through Kaaterskill Clove, for another 9.2 miles, before taking a left onto NY-214. Notch Lake and its parking area are just 2.8 more miles down the road, just past the height of land.

Parking is extremely limited and the lot can be a zoo on a weekend when the conditions are good. Do everyone a favor and carpool. There are commuter park-and-ride lots with more-than-enough room just off the Thruway at New Paltz (exit 18), Kingston (19), Saugerties, and Catskill (21).

The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak
The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak

Lay of the Land

The word clove, adapted from the region’s early Dutch settlers, can be roughly translated to notch, ravine, valley, or gorge. In Stony Clove, the soaring flanks of Plateau Mountain to the east and Hunter Mountain to the west certainly fit the bill—in places, the cleft is barely wide enough for the road. All this lends itself to a feeling of isolation and remoteness prevalent despite the area’s popularity.

As such, the climbing in Stony Clove is neatly divided into east and west, between Plateau and Hunter, by NY-214. Because of the aspect and the prominence of the mountains, climbing on either side is a very different experience in the afternoon than it is in the morning. The east side stays out of the sun most of the day and thus stays colder and dryer—until the afternoon when the sun hits and things can get wet. The west side gets the sun early, and can generally be a bit wetter when afternoon rolls around.

One thing you can count on when climbing either side is a strenuous—but short—approach. Getting to and from the climbing requires a very steep ascent over unfriendly terrain. Moreover, in low snow conditions, the exposed rocks and roots can make it a bit spicy—using one tool in cane position isn’t the worst idea. Once at the base of the climb, it’s advisable to fix a line to a tree to clip in any wayward packs—It’s a long way down should anything get dropped.

Generally speaking, all of the routes in Stony Clove are leadable, but it’s not a requirement. Many of the east side areas are accessible for a top rope set-up via a short scramble.

Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak
Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak

The Tick List

Both sides of Stony Clove have a few prime beginners’ routes, but the east side has a greater concentration of easy areas with ample room for multiple top rope set-ups. The Playground, is a wide, heavily trafficked flow that offers a handful of lines ranging from WI2 to WI4—for the true first timer, this is your best bet. It’s popular with the guides though, so it’s likely to be crowded. Castle Grayskull, also on the east side, is a good alternative with four short (but fun) routes in the more moderate WI3 to WI4 range. Across the way, on the west side, Climax (WI2+) is a great, beginner-friendly option for those seeking something a little longer.

The west side also hosts a couple of great, longer, more moderate climbs. The Curtain (WI4) is fun, straightforward, two-pitch route that can oftentimes be a bit thin towards the end. A little ways to the north, tucked away from the sun in a tight, right-facing corner, is Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area classic. Fun moves and reliable ice—it tends to be one of the earliest Stony Clove climbs to come in—make it a must do. Back on the east side, to the right of The Playground, the steep Twin Columns (WI4) offer some fun, vertical lines.

The Mixed-up Amphitheater area, on the east side (just left of The Playground), offers a half-dozen or so mixed routes of varying difficulty. Head Over Heels (M4) climbs an obvious and inviting crack to the far right of the area. If mixed is your game or the ice conditions elsewhere in the clove aren’t cooperating, this is a good place to be.


It Can't Happen Here: 12 Myths About Northeast Avalanches

Many people believe that avalanches are a problem reserved for skiers and climbers recreating “out west.” However, unstable snowpacks and avy-prone slopes can be found throughout the East Coast’s mountain ranges. Read on for why you should be upping your avalanche awareness this winter.

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1. Myth: Avalanches Only Happen in the Presidentials

In 2018, Aaron Rice (the skier who famously climbed and skied 2.5 million vertical feet in 2016), triggered an avalanche in Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch. Just days later, six soldiers in the Vermont National Guard were caught in a slide. In February of that same year, a skier was buried up to their waist in an avalanche on Wright Peak in the Adirondacks. Stories abound about recreationalists getting caught in avalanches in the Northeast, inside and out of the Whites. Here’s one about Trap Dike. And here’s another tidbit about two other avalanches in the ’Daks in February 2019. Just because you’re not in Tuckerman Ravine doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.

2. Myth: East Coast Avalanches Aren’t Fatal

The East Coast makes up only a small percentage of the fatalities caused by avalanches nationwide. With that said, even one death is too many. The past decade has seen two avalanche-caused fatalities in the East: one was a skier descending Raymond Cataract and the other was a climber in Pinnacle Gully. The right terrain (which the East has plenty of), plus the right snow conditions (which we also get), mixed with a lack of education and bad luck can definitely be fatal.

3. Myth: Eastern Avalanches are Only Deadly to Those Out Alone 

Although only solo travelers have been the victims of deadly avalanches on the East Coast in recent years, groups have not escaped fatalities resulting from avalanches. In 1996, two skiers were killed by an avalanche in Mount Washington’s Gulf of Slides. In 2000, one skier was killed and three others buried by an avalanche on Wright Peak in the Adirondacks. Groups are no less likely to cause avalanches, but if the members of a group are well-trained, they have the ability to rescue a buried friend. Soloists have no such luxury.

Credit: Jamie Walter
Credit: Jamie Walter

4. Myth: I’m With A Guide, It’s All Good 

According to the Utah Avalanche Center, avalanche professionals are far less likely to perish in an avalanche when compared to other users—less than 1 percent of all avalanche fatalities involve avalanche professionals. Having said that, a popular saying is that the avalanche does not know you are an expert! Last year, two AIARE certified Level 3s and one AIARE certified Pro 1 were caught in a slide in Oakes Gulf. Everyone makes mistakes and must practice the same good decision making.

5. Myth: I’m Experienced, I’ve Planned Well, I’m Safe

John Steinbeck said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This is especially true with avalanches on the East Coast. You can take all the AIARE classes, read the avalanche reports, and have years of experience in avalanche terrain and still get caught just like the Ski The East team did on a trip to the Chic-Chocs. Vigilance is equally important at all experience levels.

6. Myth: Accidents Only Catch Unlucky Skiers and Climbers 

There are a lot of things in life outside of our control, but more often than not getting caught in an avalanche isn’t the result of bad luck. More than 90 percent of avalanche accidents are triggered either by the victim or someone in the victim’s party, and most could have been avoided by better decision making.

7. Myth: The East’s Comparatively Minute Snowpack Makes Avalanches Less Deadly

The East Coast may not have the dense snowpack of the west, but we do have an abundance of trees and rocks. While asphyxia is the primary cause of death of avalanche victims, trauma accounts for about a quarter of avalanche fatalities.

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8. Myth: Mount Washington Is Home to the Only Avalanche Center East of the Rockies

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center is the only US avalanche center east of the Rockies, but it’s not the only avalanche center in the Northeast. As anyone who’s visited the powder playground above the US border knows, Avalanche Quebec provides forecasts for the Chic-Chocs and has the distinction of being the only avalanche center east of the Rockies in Canada. But as we’ve seen, just because someplace like the Adirondacks or Green Mountains doesn’t have an avalanche center, doesn’t mean they are immune to avalanches. It just means you’re going to need to use your own judgement.

9. Myth: “Everything Will Be Fine, We’re On An Established Hiking Trail” 

Trails that seem simple in the summer, can be more complicated in the winter. Even if they don’t cross an avalanche path directly, they may sit below one, or travel in a gully or other terrain trap. Some trails, like the route up Lion Head on Mount Washington, transition to a winter route when the summer route is deemed to be too risky. But if you’re traveling the summer route before the switch is made, make good decisions.

That being said, as one university outing group recently found out the hard way, it’s easy to get off trail in the winter and stumble into avalanche terrain, even on the Lion Head Winter Route. Their adventures are touched on toward the end of these reports (1, 2) from the MWAC.

10. Myth: Avalanches Strike Without Warning 

The vast majority of avalanches provide warning signs well before they slide—cracks forming around your foot or ski as you move through the snow, a “whumping” sound coming from the snowpack, and signs of recent avvy activity all are indicators of avalanche potential (though you may only have seconds warning in some cases). So, too, are recent snowfall and visible plumes of blowing snow (which is a sign that the areas where the snow stops are loading up). Learn to recognize the signs by taking an American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) class.

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11. Myth: Packing an Avalanche Beacon, Probe, and Shovel Makes You Safe

Avalanche tools such as a beacon, probe, and shovel go a long way toward increasing your safety in avalanche terrain; however, a tool is only as good as the person wielding it. Studies show that 93% of avalanche victims are recovered alive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes of burial, but the likelihood of survival diminishes significantly after that. The safest bet is to avoid getting buried, but practicing and familiarizing yourself with your beacon, probe, and shovel can mean the difference between life and death. Again, taking an AIARE class includes education for using these tools.

12. Myth: Ice Climbers are Safe if They’re Not Climbing in the Ravines

Popular ice climbing destinations like Shoestring Gully, Willeys Slide, and Mount Willard’s South Face have all avalanched in the past. So have some of the longer gullies on Mount Webster. Looking for an example? Check out S. Peter Lewis’ and Dave Horowitz’s recounting of one such avalanche on Mount Willard’s Cinema Gully in their classic Selected Climbs in the Northeast. Fortunately for them, everything turned out okay.

 

Hopefully that busts a few East Coast myths for you. When you’re out in the field this winter, keep an eye out for red flags like recent snowfall, signs of snowpack instability (whumping, collapsing, and shooting cracks), rapid warming, wind loading, and signs of recent avalanches. And take an AIARE class from EMS Schools to get you up to speed on safe decision making in avalanche terrain. You may not have realized how much we have in the East.


Three Beginner-Friendly New Hampshire Ice Climbing Destinations

If you haven’t busted your ice tools out yet or you’re a beginner just looking to enter the sport, now is the time to do it. But before you head out, consider exploring one of these three awesome New Hampshire locations as the perfect spot to get in the…swing of things.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Kinsman Notch

Blending a mix of beginner-friendly ice with steep columns and big bulges in a fun, craggy setting, Kinsman Notch is a destination where you can find something for everybody, no matter who’s in your crew. Located just outside Woodstock on Route 112, getting to the ice at Kinsman requires a short-but-steep, 15-20 minute walk uphill on an easy-to-follow path. You’ll know you’re at the ice when you see a short, steep pillar straight ahead and the approach trail begins to level out as it bends left.

Kinsman’s first crag contains two fun climbs: Pot O’ Gold (the WI4 pillar) and Killarney (an easier route up the ramp to the right). Whether you’re leading or top-roping—walk around right for good trees above to build anchors—these climbs are well worth doing.

Just a little ways left of Pot O’Gold are several other popular flows. The first is Shamrock—a long, wide flow that ranges from WI3 to WI4 depending on the conditions and the precise path you take. The next flow is Hanging By The Moment, two steep columns on either side of a large rock; these are among the hardest climbs in the area. The final flow in this area is Leprechaun’s Lament. It has three distinct parts with the left-most flow (WI2+) being the easiest, the middle curtain going at WI3, and the right-most ramp falling in between the two in terms of difficulty. All three climbs allow access to the top ledge, which climbers can use to set up anchors above the WI3 curtain as well as some of the more challenging routes on climber’s right.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

If all these climbs are occupied, climbers can follow the typically beat-in path further left for about 200 yards. Soon you’ll see the Beast (WI4+) and the Ramp Route (WI3-4), two multi-pitch routes with steep first pitches followed by some mellower sections above. If climbing columns is your thing, don’t miss the Beast!

If the multi-pitch routes are already taken as well—which is possible because Kinsman is a popular weekend destination—there’s an additional wide flow another 50 yards left of the Beast. Known as Blarney Stone, this is a great place to get some sticks in while the parties ahead of you get pumped out.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Champney Falls

Champney Falls is an excellent location for beginner and intermediate climbers looking to challenge themselves on steeper ice. Located about 30 minutes outside of North Conway Village, climbers will find parking at the aptly named (and well-signed) Champney Falls Trailhead. From the trailhead, follow the normally well-packed Champney Falls Trail as it climbs gradually for roughly 1.5 miles and take the obvious spur into the gorge. Inside the gorge, there’s a small cave which is perfect for stashing gear in—opposite the cave is a wall of ice ranging between 25 and 40 feet.

There are two options for setting up top ropes at Champney Falls. For those uncomfortable leading, it’s possible to scramble through the woods to the top of the cliff. This is a popular destination and you’re likely to have a packed-snow path to follow. If not, a rusty wire fence leads to the top, providing a guide to the clifftop. The other option is to lead the ramp in the back of the gorge—depending on the season, this ramp can range from running water to  snow to a big fat flow. Either way, pack a reasonably long static line for building anchors; the sturdiest trees are quite far back from the edge.

The routes at Champney are all fairly vertical. With the exception of the snow ramp/ice flow, the routes in the back of the canyon are the longest and steepest (WI5). As the routes move toward the front of the gorge, they lessen in both height and difficulty with a normally yellow-ish ice section in the middle going at WI4 and giving way to shorter and bulgier ice in the WI3 range. Some short-ish mixed lines that are fun to play on also form at the mouth of the canyon from time to time. Champney Falls is a popular destination and can accommodate only a few parties, so if you’re heading there on a weekend in prime ice season, you’ll want to get an early start.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The North End of Cathedral

There’s good reason the North End of Cathedral is one of the busiest single-pitch ice crags in New Hampshire—the approach is only about five minutes. Located on Cathedral Ledge Road just after the winter gate, the North End is the most accessible ice in the North Conway area. It sports several large flows offering everything from mellow slabs to steep ice.

The three most popular flows at the North End are Thresher, the North End Slab, and the North End Pillars. In good conditions, the latter two are wide flows that can accommodate multiple parties at once.

Of the three flows, the easiest is the North End Slab (WI2). It is also the longest climb in the North End, climbing a moderately angled ramp that is fantastic for first timers. For climbers planning on top roping the route, be aware that a 60m rope will be too short; climbers can instead build an anchor partway up the climb and top rope from there.

Thresher Slab | Credit: Tim Peck
Thresher Slab | Credit: Tim Peck

The North End Pillars (WI3-4) are located just to the right of North End Slab. A very wide flow, there’s often room for multiple parties on these easily accessible steep columns and they are a great place to practice climbing vertical ice. Climbers interested in top roping can access the good tree anchors at the top via an approach trail on climber’s right.

The final flow at the North End—Thresher (WI3)—begins a bit left of the North End Slab. It starts with a few sporting moves up a chimney, then ascends a slab and bulges toward the trees. One note of caution—you’ll need more than a single 60m rope to rap back to the ground. Of course, there’s an easy solution, enjoy this stellar route as a party of three.

Now that you have the beta on these three awesome areas, it’s time (if you haven’t already) to bust out the tools and get climbing. Make sure to tell us in the comments how you fared!


Northeast Mountaineering Climbs for All Abilities

Each year, the onset of winter transforms the mountains of the northeast. With the shorter days and plummeting temperatures comes a brand new world of icy, wind-scoured summits and long, snowy approaches. The hiking trails and climbing routes of New York and New England, easily accessed in summer, become entirely different challenges, rife with logistical considerations and objective hazards. Meanwhile, terrain that is beyond reach in the summer opens up—the gullies fill with snow, the waterfalls freeze, and beautiful, blue ribbons of ice adorn the cracks and corners of cliff faces from the Catskills to Québec. Come wintertime, the mountains of the Northeast are a playground for those bold enough to brave the cold.

For the vertically-inclined, it’s winter that makes the Northeast an excellent, low-elevation training ground—what the high peaks of the Adirondacks and the Whites may lack in height, they more than make up for in heinous weather, high-quality routes, and a long history of daring ascents. This is the place to be for mountaineers of all abilities—from those who are just starting out, to more experienced alpinists seeking grander objectives, to the west or overseas.

Should you be among those looking to test their mettle in the east, the following five mountains—and these all-time classic routes—will most certainly oblige.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Easy Snow: Franconia Ridge

High and exposed, the Franconia Ridge—including two summits above 5,000 feet—stands at an important place in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Its western slopes plummet into Franconia Notch, a hub of hiking and climbing in all seasons, while to the east, its flanks drop into the Pemigewasset Wilderness accounting for a sizable chunk of the Pemigewasset Loop, a top-notch classic backpacking trip. By many accounts, Franconia Ridge is the finest high route in the Whites.

While it doesn’t have as many noteworthy technical routes as, say, Cannon Cliff, its neighbor across the notch, it does have a few worthwhile moderate endeavours like Lincoln’s Throat (WI3) and Shining Rock (WI2). It’s Franconia Ridge’s merits as a winter hiking destination, however, that make it an ideal introduction to traveling the mountains of the Northeast in winter. A hike linking the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, and Old Bridle Path trails makes for a long, fun day in the mountains. As the trail breaks the treeline and gains the ridge, the exposure and weather combine to create an excellent, non-technical environment to try out some of the tools and techniques required of a true mountaineering objective.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

WI2/Easy Snow: Mount Colden’s Trap Dike 

At 4,714 feet, Mount Colden is the eleventh highest peak in the Adirondacks, a bonafide 46’er, and may appear as a somewhat diminutive selection for a catalogue of classic, Northeastern mountaineering routes. But for one striking feature, however, does Colden draw attention year round: the Trap Dike, a heavy cleft in its northwestern face.

In summer, the Trap Dike is one of the Adirondacks’ main attractions, bringing hikers from far and wide to its base at Avalanche Lake. The lengthy approach is made worth it by the steep, class 4 climbing, and the thrilling exposure of the upper slabs. At times, even in the best conditions, climbing Colden via the Trap Dike can feel like splitting the difference between a hike and a climb.

In winter, the combination of weather, shorter days, and frigid temperatures take hold, and the water that flows in the dike freezes, introducing in turn a new feature to negotiate: waterfall ice. The Trap Dike (WI2, Easy Snow) opens with two pitches of ice climbing, interspersed with some easy snow, before the route opens onto the exposed upper slabs. While not steep, the slabs are extremely exposed, and be downright terrifying in thin conditions. Easier options for descent abound, though none are short—a frozen Mount Colden is a day-long affair, at least, and a stout challenge for newer mountaineers.

WI2/Easy Snow: The North Face of Gothics

The Great Range, in the heart of the Adirondacks, is one of the most spectacular places in the Northeast. Rugged, remote, and wild, a full traverse covering its eight high peaks—over 20-plus miles—is an all-timer, and arguably one of the hardest hiking objectives in New York State.

At its midpoint, miles from the nearest road, rises Gothics, a steep, dramatic mountain recognizable from afar by its steep, bare north face. Though it’s summit only measures 4,734 feet above sea level, Gothics punches above its weight—even the normal hiking routes are aided by fixed cables on the slabby upper reaches. From any direction, at any time of year, Gothics is a tall task.

Come winter, the North Face (WI2, East Snow) route up Gothics is one of the Adirondack’s premier mountaineering challenges—when it’s in. More often than not though, the season conspires to create sub-optimal conditions, ranging from verglass to bare rock, that can seriously have you questioning the validity of its WI2 grade.

When it’s right though the North Face is a thrilling, exposed climb up a sheer 1200-foot wall. The wide flow offers numerous lines of ascent, with varied difficulty and opportunity to place protection, so experience reading ice and snow is critical. Between that, the scenery, and the approach—a true haul—Gothics’ North Face is a legitimate, must-do objective.

Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns
Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns

WI3: Pinnacle Gully

Simply put, Mount Washington is the centerpiece of mountaineering in the Northeast, a hulking mass around which all other objectives in the region orbit. At 6,288 feet, it rises, literally, above everything around it for a thousand miles, and its remarkable features—from the deep ravines and soaring buttresses of its eastern slopes to its rugged summit cone—are host to some of the most spectacular hiking, climbing, and skiing to be found anywhere.

However, it’s Mount Washington’s “character and hostility,” as legendary climber and author Fred Beckey once put it, for which the mountain is probably best known. The unique topography of the White Mountains, and Mount Washington’s location at the confluence of two, ever-churning weather patterns can result in some famously horrendous conditions. Dangerously cold temperatures, heavy snow and high wind—with gusts reaching hurricane-force—are a regular occurrence in winter. As a direct impact, Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range have a very low treeline (around 4,500 feet) and a ton of exposed, alpine terrain, over which many outstanding winter climbs can be found. One line up “the rockpile” stands out, however, making “best-of” lists left and right: it’s the über-classic ice climb, Pinnacle Gully (WI3).

Ice begins to form early in the north-facing gap between Pinnacle and Central Buttresses in Huntington Ravine. The flow it creates—three pitches of incredible, aesthetic, ice climbing over 600 feet—is about as good as it gets. At WI3 the grade is relatively moderate, making Pinnacle Gully an accessible and popular route in an alpine environment that is unique in this part of the country.

A day on Mount Washington should never be taken lightly, though—the weather is always a factor and even on a bluebird day, high traffic can mean a shower of falling ice. Bring a helmet and enjoy the best of what the northeast has to offer.

WI4: The Cilley-Barber Route on Katahdin

Rising some 4,288 feet from the forest floor, unchallenged, the Katahdin massif dominates the landscape of Baxter State Park, its bulk of rock and ice without rival against the backdrop of Maine’s Great North Woods. Katahdin is wild, remote, and unforgiving at any time of year but it is doubly so in winter, when an ascent by any means is a serious challenge—one that is perhaps unequaled in New England, including Mount Washington.

Already removed from the population hubs of the Northeast, Katahdin becomes significantly more remote come winter, when the seasonal closures of Baxter State Park’s access roads makes for a rigorous, committing, 16-mile approach. Further complicating matters—and adding to that expedition-like vibe—access to Baxter State Park is subject to strict regulations, and winter climbers must apply for permits. Factor in the extreme cold and harsh weather that you’re bound to encounter at some point on a trip to Katahdin, and you have a real-deal, multi-day, winter adventure. It’s fitting then, that its name comes from the Penobscot word for “the greatest mountain.”

The steep headwall of Katahdin’s South Basin, scarred over with dramatic, icy gullies, is the frozen jewel in the crown of New England mountaineering. Classic, technical climbs, have been put up here in all seasons since the early twentieth century. The routes are long and committing and objective hazards—like avalanches and icefall—are very real dangers, and moving fast is absolutely critical. This is as alpine as it gets in the Northeast.

Among these coveted lines is the Cilley–Barber (WI4), a dramatic, ice-and-snow-packed cleft in headwall that soars some 2,000 feet from the bottom of the cirque to the top of the Knife Edge arête. It is a long, sustained, and difficult ice climb—one that is often recognized as one of the best of its kind in the east. The approach, permitting, and weather may lend themselves to the feeling of an expedition, but they also thin the crowds out a bit, and cultivate a wild feel—one unique to the Northeast, that should have a place on everyone’s tick list.


A Laborer We Love: The Black Diamond Dirt Bag Glove 

Mark Twain famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” This feels particularly true in winter, when a day of snow is just as likely to be followed by a day of the dreaded “wintry mix” as it is by one well below freezing. While winter weather in the northeast is consistently inconsistent, one thing you can count on is finding us wearing the Black Diamond Dirt Bag Glove on any given adventure. Here are five reasons why the Dirt Bag Glove is a proven performer and ready to go to work for you or your loved ones this winter.

801861_NTRL_Natural_DirtBag

1. They’re a Great Ski Partner 

A ski-specific upgrade to the classic work glove found at your local hardware store, the Dirt Bag has proven to be an ace partner over the course of numerous winters, equally at home in mid-winter skin tracks on Mount Moosilauke as it is bashing through slushy spring snow in Tucks. Black Diamond designed the Dirt Bag Glove “with the needs of skiers in mind,” which is something we can attest to—from ripping skins and gripping ski poles to cracking après beers in the parking lot, these gloves are remarkably adept. This is because, unlike most ski gloves (which are cut to grip a pole), the Dirt Bag is shaped to fit an open or closed hand.

2. They Play Nice on Ice

Although the Dirt Bag Glove was built for skiers, we find many of the qualities that make it such a valuable companion on the slopes also help it excel in numerous other winter sports. For example, the glove’s dexterity combined with its fleecy lining make it a natural for ice climbing something like Trap Dike or Shoestring Gully—offering just enough warmth to keep the screaming barfies at bay while providing the range of motion necessary for the mechanics of climbing such as swinging tools, placing screws, building anchors, and managing the belay station. As an added bonus, the stretchy fabric cuffs keep snow and ice from sneaking into the gloves while sealing out cold air.

Credit: TIm Peck
Credit: TIm Peck

3. They’re Comfy on Hikes

The Dirt Bag glove provides the perfect amount of warmth for winter hiking in the White Mountains, especially below treeline. From packing in the parking lot to pulling on microspikes, the Dirtbag Glove is a workhorse piece of our hiking kit. We especially love the low profile for holding onto trekking poles and their robust leather construction when gripping trees and boulders while navigating particularly treacherous sections of trail, such as on portions of the Lion Head Winter Route or Franconia Ridge in the winter.

4. They Make Short Work of Chores 

The Dirt Bag Glove was built for the guys and girls bumping lifts, handling sleds, and clearing snow who want one glove to do it all, but aren’t looking to cut into their beer budget by buying new gloves every few weeks. We love that the Dirt Bag glove seamlessly transitions from our skiing/climbing/hiking kit to digging out the driveway for powder days in a GBA Glade and hauling snow-covered logs in for drying out our gear by the fireplace.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

5. They’re Heavy Duty But Light on the Wallet 

Money is better spent on adventures and après than replacing gloves. Made with super-durable goat leather and treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) finish, the Black Diamond Dirt Bag Glove has stood up to years of abuse. In fact, unlike much of our ski gear, even our oldest pairs of Dirt Bag gloves have escaped the dreaded duct tape. The best part is that they cost under $50, putting them within reach of even the most diehard patrollers, lifties, dishwashers, and dirtbags living their ski and outdoor dreams.


Video: How to Catch a Fall

Step one: “The belayer keeps me from hitting the ground.”


5 Big Projects That Could Improve Northeast Climbing

The Northeast is home to some of the best trad and sport climbing in the country, and the options continue to grow with new areas being developed. With this great privilege comes great responsibility, for all climbers, as our love for the sport can actually play a role in bringing about its demise. As the sport increases in popularity, it is becoming more likely that crags will face access issues due to landowner concerns or environmental deterioration. Luckily, there are dedicated organizations working to maintain our beloved crags, fighting to re-open long-lost places, and educate new climbers about how to climb in a sustainable way so we can all enjoy the rock for years to come. Here are some of the biggest projects improving Northeast climbing right now:

Credit: Anne Skidmore Photography
Credit: Anne Skidmore Photography

A Cooperative Climbing Gym in the Mount Washington Valley

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley community has grumbled about the lack of a climbing gym in the area for years. During rainy days or over the long winter months, a local indoor climbing spot is a way to stay in shape and connected with friends. Instead, resident climbers have resigned themselves to driving 1.5 hours (and cussing all the way, one might imagine) to the nearest facility.

Eventually, Chelsea Kendrick and Jimmy Baxendell-Young had enough, and they’re now organizing their own cooperative gym in North Conway—the Mount Washington Valley Climbers’ Cooperative, or MWVCC. The local market is too small for a typical commercial operation, with a cumulative population of 20,000 people between the eight towns of Conway, Bartlett, Jackson, Madison, Eaton, Ossipee, Tamworth, and Fryeburg. They decided to engage the climbing community in creating a coop, to great success; The yet-to-exist gym already has over 75 paying members, well on its way to covering the cost of operations once it opens. The 2,000 square feet will provide bouldering and training, as well as a community gathering space. And because it is a cooperative, all members have a say into the direction of the project. If, say, enough people want to offer dry-tooling, it is in the cards for the future.

If you frequent the MWV for ice climbing or skiing in the winter, or hiking in the summer, and want to support the effort, consider becoming a member, donating, or joining their upcoming fundraising event on May 21.

Courtesy: Jeremy Gilchrist
Courtesy: Jeremy Gilchrist

Reopening Vermont’s Hardest Crag

Bolton Dome, just 30 minutes from Burlington, was once one of the most popular cliffs in Vermont, until it was closed in 1990 due to concerns from the private landowner. For decades, access was closed off to dozens of high-quality crack and sport climbs, including the region’s only 5.13 trad route and the state’s highest concentration of 5.12-s. Through it all, the Climbing Resource Access Group of Vermont (CRAG-VT) maintained good standing with the land owners, and early last year the organization was able to purchase the area with help from the Access Fund, in what constitutes Access Fund’s largest Climbing Conservation Loan to date. There is plenty of work to be done: The loan must be paid back, a parking lot needs to be built, and various legal fees to be covered.

CRAG-VT had previously secured 5 other crags in Bolton, making the Dome the newest and most significant addition. Overall, the organization works to protect Vermont’s vulnerable climbing areas, build long-term relationships with landowners, and develop the areas with responsible stewardship. Now that Bolton is protected, there is a cornucopia of potential for new routes for climbers to enjoy for generations. You can support their effort by becoming a member, donating, or joining the Bolton Dome Launch Party! on May 18.

Courtesy: Brad Wenskoski
Courtesy: Brad Wenskoski

A Sport Crag for New York’s Capital Region

Opened in July of 2017, the Helderberg Escarpment at New York’s John Boyd Thacher State Park is the newest sport climbing haven in the Northeast, and only the third New York State Park to allow climbing (Minnewaska and Harriman being the others). Located 20 minutes from Albany, Thacher sits between the ‘Gunks, 75 miles south, and the Adirondacks, 120 miles north, and is much closer than Rumney, New Hampshire, for New Yorkers. The area services the massive population in New York’s Capital Region who were once stuck with long drives in many directions in order to climb.. There are currently about 65 routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.12a, and they will appeal to gym enthusiasts as most climbs are roughly 50 feet high, with none longer than 90′.

What makes the Thatcher Climbing Coalition’s approach special is that they spent 5 years negotiating a climbing management plan with the state in order to demonstrate commitment to success and long-term cooperation. So far, it’s been a rousing success and may serve as a model for partnerships between climbers and parks around New York, and the country. If you want to help make the Helderberg Escarpment into a premiere rock and ice climbing destination in the Northeast, you can become a member, buy a t-shirt, or volunteer to help establish new trails.

Credit: Robbie Shade
Credit: Robbie Shade

Keep the Northeast’s Premier Crag Pristine

Rumney’s wild popularity is also a cause of environmental damage, a common narrative for highly-trafficked climbing areas. The Rumney Climbers’ Association aims to prevent the high usage from diminishing the experience of the 38 cliffs by getting ahead of the issues, which include soil erosion, deteriorating infrastructure, and unsafe climbing conditions. “We are tackling the problem before it’s too big, because there is a tipping point [in these situations],” says Travis Rubury, a board member with the organization. This year, RCA and the Access Fund are performing stewardship projects at three of the most popular areas: Orange Crush, Meadows Crag, and the uber-accessible Parking Lot Wall. They will construct retaining walls, install stairs, and further secure the trails to assure they are sustainable for the long term.

Rumney has become an international draw, attracting the likes of Alex Megos in 2017 when he remarkably sent Jaws II in only three attempts. The route is one of only four 5.15s in the U.S., and the only one of its grade east of the Rocky Mountains. This world class area came about through a lot of hard work, much of it performed by the RCA since the early 90s. If you’d like to support their efforts, you can become a member, donate to the restoration efforts, volunteer, or join the American Alpine Club Rumney’ Craggin’ Classic later this year.

Courtesy: Western Massachusetts Climbers' Coalition
Courtesy: Western Massachusetts Climbers’ Coalition

Fixing the Parking Situation in Western Massachusetts

Farley Ledge has experienced its share of contestations over the decades, from being closed four times in the early 2000s to notorious bolt chopping. The situation remains precarious as most of the routes are on private land. “Climbing is unique in that it is resource-dependent. We need this cliff, we can’t [easily] have another. Not a lot of sports are so tied to topography,” notes Wayne Burleson, President of WMCC. While tensions have been soothed over the years, access is not assured. These days, the primary challenge is parking (be warned: Do not park on Route 2). The Western Massachusetts Climbers’ Coalition purchased roadside land (with the help of Access Fund) in 2008 and opened a 20-space parking lot. They are exploring options for additional parking areas.

Farley has a certain mystique for two reasons: One, trad and sport routes are delightfully interspersed on the cliffs as the original developers maintained an ethic to not bolt what could be climbed traditionally. And two, you won’t find any information about the routes (and no guidebook, of course), the result of a policy agreement set up with landowners back in 2007. While this offers intrigue, it also makes it harder for the WMCC to educate climbers about local ethics and share the history, while eliminating a potential revenue stream to help fund future efforts. The coalition has been hard at work since 2000 and is one of the few areas where you don’t have to pay for access. If you want to support this important crag, become a member, donate, volunteer, and definitely don’t park on Route 2.


3 Beginner-Friendly Ice Climbs in Crawford Notch

There’s no denying the great ice climbing found in the Northeast. The entire region is home to fantastic flows, even in the most unexpected places. However, one ice climbing destination stands out among the rest: Crawford Notch. With numerous test-piece climbs at Frankenstein Cliffs, a multitude of multi-pitch routes on Mount Willard, and the uber-classic Shoestring Gully on Mount Webster, it’s no wonder why this winter wonderland attracts ice aficionados from across the country. However, it’s not just ice climbing experts flocking to Crawford Notch—the area is also home to some of the best moderate ice climbs in the Northeast. Below are a few great destinations for newer ice climbers looking to gain experience on ice in Crawford Notch.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Willey’s Slide

With an easy approach and an abundance of low-angle ice (between four and six pitches of ice graded no harder than WI2), it’s no wonder why so many Northeast ice climbers have kicked their first steps on Willey’s Slide.

Willey’s Slide is the large slab on the side of Mount Willey. It is easily spotted above the aptly named Willey House while driving Route 302 as it winds through Crawford Notch, allowing climbers to get a sense of ice conditions before making the 15-minute approach. Parking for the slide is in the plowed pull-off just after the Willey House if coming from Conway (or before it, if heading south from the Highland Center). Leaving the parking lot, climbers will typically find a well-traveled path leading up the hill and eventually crossing the railroad tracks before depositing them at the base of the climb. Don’t over-layer in the parking lot or you’ll be roasting by the time you reach the slide.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Willey’s Slide is great for newer ice climbers as it offers numerous opportunities to increase or decrease the difficulty of the climbing. Climbers looking to challenge themselves will find the steepest climbing in the center of the slab, while the slab’s sides offer lower-angle, less-challenging climbing. Even better, climbers tackling the climber’s left side of the route can bail into the woods and onto the descent trail at almost any point if the climbing becomes uncomfortable. Speaking of the descent, there’s no need to rappel or make tricky v-threads to descend the climb; at the top, climbers can simply follow a normally well-packed trail through the woods to the base.

Two warnings about climbing at Willey’s Slide: First, it can get busy, as it is a popular destination for many of the area’s climbing schools, our EMS Climbing School included. Second, the slide has avalanched, so use caution after any heavy snow.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Silver Cascade

A short drive north on Route 302 is Silver Cascade, a gold-star route for those with aspirations of climbing the Northeast’s classic gullies. And, unlike Willey’s Slide, encountering hordes of fellow ice climbers here is a rarity.

Much like Willey’s Slide, Silver Cascade is easily viewable from the road making conditions easy to ascertain. In fact, the route begins at the intersection of the cascade and Route 302. Parking for the route is located at the top of the notch in a small lot just before the AMC’s Highland Center (if coming from North Conway). There’s also a lot directly across from Silver Cascade for summer tourists, but it is not always plowed and folks regularly get stuck.

Once on the route, ice climbers are treated to a wide variety of ice and conditions as they ascend the climb’s four to five pitches. Silver Cascade offers an ample amount of low-angle terrain with the most challenging sections rated no harder than an intermediate-ice-climber-friendly WI2+. After the initial steep, almost all the most challenging sections of Silver Cascade can be avoided, if less-experienced climbers don’t feel up to the challenge. Also, if anchors prove challenging, the climbing is taking longer than expected, or climbers feel like they are in over their head, bailing off the route is as easy as moving into the woods on climber’s right. After four to five pitches, the ice peters out and most climbers descend via a well-trod trail through the woods on the climber’s right side of the climb—once again negating the need to rappel.

One trick to having the best experience on Silver Cascade is to climb it before the snow begins stacking up or in low snow years—climbing Silver Cascade when there is lots of snow is still possible, it’s just more steep snow climbing and a little less fun.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Flume Cascade

Sharing the same parking lot as Silver Cascade is another moderately-graded frozen flow that is sure to please: Flume Cascade.

Similar in character to its neighbor, Flume Cascade delivers a wide variety of climbing, with steep curtains of ice, graded up to WI2+/WI3, interspersed with long sections of snow. Continuing for four to five pitches, the varied terrain on Flume Cascade (very easy initially, followed by several bulgy sections) makes for an engaging outing and is great training for tackling longer, more challenging adventures in Crawford Notch. Like the aforementioned climbs, the most challenging sections of Flume Cascade can be avoided by taking less-steep variations, and the woods on climber’s right (also the descent trail) provide a reliable bail-out option for almost the entire climb—although, you’ll want to try to make it to the top, as Flume Cascade concludes in a very cool cave-like feature.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Although Silver and Flume Cascade are rarely super busy, the variety of climbing options allow ample opportunity for more experienced climbers to pass novice parties—a luxury not found on all of Crawford Notch’s classic ice climbs. Additionally, the proximity of Flume Cascade to Silver Cascade along with the easy walk-offs for both climbs mean that many climbers can tick both routes—and between eight and ten pitches of climbing—in a day.

One word of caution for both Silver and Flume Cascades: these are active streams that are often running during even the coldest spells. Their volume tends to increase significantly (and quickly) if it rains, so be sure to head for the woods if liquid starts falling from the sky.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Do you have a favorite ice climb in Crawford Notch? Whether it’s a super-steep single-pitch line or a more moderate multi-pitch route, we want to hear about it—so tell us about it in the comments below.