Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker….
I became aware of these two individuals as I initiated my deep dive into the world of mountain sports almost twenty years ago. I was a newbie rock climber at the time and they were already legends in the game of alpinism. The pages of Rock & Ice magazine was where I first spotted them climbing peaks in distant lands on routes that were simply mind fucks to me. These guys were the super heroes of the mountains and their bold accomplishments would stay etched in my memory for years to come….
I fancied the idea of becoming the Puerto Rican version of Alex Lowe but on a much, much smaller scale. That being said, watching him, Conrad, and other climbers testing their abilities on frozen waterfalls and alpine routes always left me in a motivated state but, with a feeling inside that these pursuits were also quite irrational and flat-out insane….
Fast forward to last week and there I was trying on my boots and crampons in the back of a climbing shop in preparation for my first attempt at ice climbing. I still felt, along with many other rock climbers, that bashing your way up ice with sharp points on four appendages was unequivocally sketchy. But the opportunity presented itself and I’d been dying to try this shit for many a winter since the time I first saw it being done on the covers of climbing publications long ago….
My guide Simon and I drove off in separate vehicles after fitting myself with the appropriate gear and high tailing it out of the store. Destination? Stony Clove Notch in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It was the perfect day and we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Bluebird skies, no wind, and cold but not frigid temps….
We arrived at the Notch Lake parking lot. This place is spectacular. The notch is a natural cleft that runs north and south between Hunter and Plateau mountain. On each side, steep and rugged slopes soar skyward and one gets a taste of why this region contains so many place names that begin with DEVIL. I was a bit nervous as we began to suit up and prepare our packs for the day. I stared up at the ice formations on the west side of the notch with a sense of satisfaction. FUCK YEAH! After all these years, I was going to have my shot….
Simon did a great job of keeping the mood light and informing me of the game plan. We practiced walking in our crampons up the steep approach to the climbs and even paused for a bit to practice self-arresting in the event of a fall. I felt like an alpinist. I felt like I was walking through a portal. A portal into a world of future experiences in the mountains that would take me to new heights, no pun intended, and build on my existing foundation of mountaineering skills…..
At the base of the first climb, I was treated to a lovely view of the notch below made all the more pleasurable by the beaming, morning sunlight. I belayed Simon up the first ice formation and kept my focus on his technique and line up the climb. Damn! His movement was very efficient and precise. By this point, I was aching to be on his end of the rope.
Now let me take a moment to talk about one of the scariest elements of ice climbing. FALLING ICE. Yes. If you hadn’t already thought about it, every time you take a swing and your axe and crampons hit their target, you open yourself and your partner below to a potential shower of ice fragments in the form of shards, icicles, small blocks, and sometimes even massive chunks. With delicacy and good technique one can substantially mitigate this risk but still, unlike rock climbing, you are essentially destroying the very medium you’re ascending with every placement of your axe….
I lowered Simon back down to the snowy base of the climb and prepped myself for game time. I tied into the rope and Simon gave me a smile of encouragement. A couple of deep breaths and I was off. The second the first swing of the axe ended in that satisfying THUNK sound, I was all smiles. Foot by foot I made my way up the formation attempting to put Simon’s advice into motion. Feet low, not too close to each other, bend at the elbow, snap, follow through, repeat. Talk about challenging. Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker made it all seem so easy but I’ll be the first to tell you that this is no cake walk….
As a rock climber, my brain was telling my feet to try to smear or find places where I could high step but in boots and crampons, this doesn’t cut it. You have to kick into the ice with your crampon points oriented upward and then drop your heels a bit so you can rest your calves. But there are many similarities between the to like the importance of finding strategic places on the climb to rest and shake out your limbs. I kept on but by the middle of the climb, my arms were PUMPED. On top of that, I kept thinking about Simon’s safety below as I watched pieces of ice careen towards him as a result of my newbie technique. The last thing I wanted to do was knock him over the head with the remnants of a shattered icicle or worse, and much more embarrassing, a dropped ice axe.
MAN. Their were points on those climbs in which my arms and hands would turn to jelly and I would barely muster the strength to make a decent axe placement before the fucken thing slipped out of my grasp. It didn’t, but it came close to happening. If you haven’t figured it out yet, ice climbing isn’t for the faint of heart. After regaining my strength and the feeling in my appendages, I set off for the final push towards the anchors. Oh, that’s another thing. Ice climbing is a game of HOT & FREEZING. While you’re moving, your hands and feet are sweating and your body is nice and warm but the minute you stop, the blood flow says bye-bye to the ole feet and hands. So the key is to minimize the length of your rests and to shake your hands and feet out when you feel them getting too cold. The re-warming phase results in the phenomena of the “screaming barfies” for some climbers. The pain of hands flooded with warm blood literally leads to vomiting. I was quite far from that extreme and gratefully so….
I made it to the anchors and let out a nice, satisfying yell. Simon yelled out a few words of praise and began to lower me. On the way down I would catch glimpses of the other ice formations, of the notch behind me, of the bare hardwoods patiently anticipating Spring’s arrival, and of the general grandeur of the experience as a whole. I gave Simon a pound and untied from the rope. We spent the rest of the day like this. Setting up new climbs, discussing technique and our love for the mountains. Warmth, cold, warmth, cold. Sun and then shade. Excitement and fear. What a way to spend an early March day. Feeling in motion, feeling alive, feeling so close to that invisible edge….
Will I ice climb again? Sure. While it scared the shit out of me on more than one occasion, like so many of the other mountain sports I adore, It has that addictive quality to it. I felt like a total BAD ASS on that ice. Swinging and kicking my way up frozen water, confronting my fears and doubts while still managing to enjoy it all. It offered a new perspective from which to view and enjoy the mountains. I made a new friend and I made it back down to the car with my face intact and my limbs in one piece….
Back at the car, we unpacked and changed into comfy shoes. What a divine feeling after wearing mountaineering boots and crampons all day. Simon and I talked a bit more, I thanked him for his leadership, and we ended our session with a quick hug. He was off and I was left behind alone to enjoy my accomplishment by the shores of Notch Lake….
One more experience for the books. One more to share with the little ones…..