December 9th 2016-
It’s been a while since I’ve been up to the White Mountains on account of baby number 2 coming into the picture in September. Between work obligations and our expanding family it’s been difficult to find “me time”. However, when my friends at Northeast Mountaineering offered an opportunity to tag along on a multi-pitch ice climb in Crawford Notch I could not say no! I had a little vacation time left in my “use it or lose it” bucket so I decided to blow off work and go for it.
I wasn’t totally sure what to expect for the day. I’m not a super experienced ice climber. The extent of my climbing has been pitches on some local ice, and indoor gym climbing. I was stoked to get on a multi pitch climb this early in the season!
What Is Multi Pitch Climbing?
To the non-climber reading this. Multi-pitch climbing is the act of climbing several routes with one or more stops at a belay stations (where anchors are built for protecting from a fall). Each section of climbing between the belay stations is called a “pitch”. A “lead climber” who is experienced will climb ahead and place gear for protection along the way (for ice climbing an ice screw is driven into the ice). A “Follower” will then follow the lead climber and collect or “clean” the route of gear. The leader and follower repeat these steps belaying eachother until they hit the top of the route.
I showed up at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunkhouse near Pinkham Notch on RT16 at 9AM. The Bunkhouse is a small rustic log cabin styled building right in the heart of the mountains. It’s in an amazing location just a few minutes away from hot ice climbing spots and popular trail heads. The bunkhouse serves both as a “boot room” to gear up before a climb, and more importantly an inexpensive option for lodging at just $20 bucks a night!
I was greeted by Corey and Jordan. Two incredibly friendly, insanely knowledgeable guys. I dragged in my 40 Liter winter hiking pack fully equipped for a big mile winter day in the whites. I also brought a plastic tote full of my climbing gear. Corey and Jordan dissected my hiking pack and convert it into an ice climbing pack. I left behind some of the stuff i wouldn’t need like trekking poles, but added the crucial climbing items like my ice tools, harness, helmet, and crampons. They gave me some tips and we packed up all my sharp objects neatly in a manner that would reduce the risk of me killing myself during our approach hike. We hopped in Jordan’s Subaru and began the 30 minute car ride into Crawford Notch.
We parked along the train tracks on Rt. 302 near the Crawford Depot train station. The weather was fairly cold at around 10 degrees Fahrenheit with a stiff breeze coming out of the northwest. Snow was blowing and the higher peaks were socked in all around us. The sun struggled to peek through the clouds that were rushing by through the valley. It’s amazing how Crawford Notch seems to have its own weather system. It’s like an entirely different world here! I took a deep breath as we stepped out of the car and exhaled a cloud of steam. It truly felt like winter now, and my level of excitement got even stronger!
We booted up at the car, I strapped on my Scarpa Phantom 6000 double mountaineering boots and was glad to have the added insulation today. I also added a thin mid-layer under my shell and put on my heavier gloves. I threw on my helmet and put on my harness so I wouldn’t have to carry them in my pack. We began the walk down the train tracks. luckily the train no longer runs in the winter months otherwise this walk would be a lot more interesting! Jordan and Corey walked ahead while I frantically took pictures of everything around me (it’s a real problem I have!). Their ice screws, and carabiners hanging from their gear loops jangled with every step. The walk was short and pleasant. It was a good way to get my feet back into stiff mountaineering boot condition, i’ve been spoiled by my trail running shoes that feel like slippers.
We veered off the tracks to the right and started to follow a stream bed covered in snow. No trail here, this was a bushwhack to the base of the first ice pitch. We stopped for a moment to put on our MicroSpikes for traction and continued on. The hike up the stream bed was steep and interesting. Footing was loose in some spots and water was flowing all around us. I continually used my hands to gain balance against the walls of the small stream cut canyon.
Left Hand Monkey Wrench
A short bushwhack through some brush later we approached the base of the first real ice climb. This route, named “Left Hand Monkey Wrench” is classified as a WI3 ice climb (60-70 degree steepness with occasional vertical steps). Today the ice was thin, and there was a good bit at the top that appeared to be bare rock. Corey and Jordan inspected the ice from the ground for a couple of minutes and then exclaimed “OK! Crampon up!”. That’s when the blood began pumping!
After a quick briefing about following a lead climber, belay technique, and verbal signals used during climbing, Jordan tied in to two ropes and began to make his ascent of the ice wall in front of us. Jordan would be lead climbing today while Corey and myself would be following. He climbed about 10 feet up, placed and ice screw for protection and continued on. I was belaying Jordan as he climbed, letting out rope has he moved further up the wall installing more ice screws. Once Jordan was at the top he yelled “I’m off belay!” letting me know he was safe. He then built an anchor and pulled up the slack until it was tight on my harness. I yelled “That’s Me!”… a few moments later he yelled “You’re on belay!” This let Corey and I know it was time to start climbing.
Corey went ahead and climbed and I followed below him. Left hand Monkey Wrench started out pretty tame but got steeper mid way up the wall. A large bulge in the middle made for some steep vertical ice which was a little more difficult to get over. I approached the first ice screw which I quickly un-clipped, unscrewed, and attached to my harness.
My calf muscles weren’t used to supporting my weight for so long on my toes and began to tremble a bit. I continually had kicked steps out and took a few breaks as we moved up the wall. My hands were getting cold from gripping the aluminum shafts of the ice tools. Corey reminded me to take a break and shake my hands out to get the blood flowing back into the extremities again to warm them up.
Now nearing the top of the pitch the ice got thinner exposing a lot of bare wet rock, to the right were large icicle pillars that seemed a little sketchy. This was the hard part. Instead of swinging the tools into the ice it was more of a gentle tool placement on the hard rock. Some placements wouldn’t hold and let go. This is the thrill of mixed climbing!
Eventually I found my way through the sketchy wet rock section. Corey looked over and said “That added a bit of spice to your day huh?” I couldn’t argue!
Now at the top of the first ice pitch we coiled up the ropes, and had a snack. We began to hike through the thick brush again on a climbers path that had been crudely broken out before us. This bushwhack led us to a wide open boulder field on the side of Mount Willard. The view from here was awesome! Footing on the boulder field was sketchy, snow bridges covered large holes like trap doors and all 3 of us tripped once or twice as we made our way across.
After a few minutes of walking we popped out on another climbers path that ascended another stream bed and led up to a very large slot cut in the rock. This “slot” was the home of our next climb. Dubbed “The Cleft” this 2 pitch climb is about 210′ tall and rated a WI2+ (60-70 degrees steepness). Two climbers were ahead of us already mid route. We hung around and drank some water, had a snack while they finished up.
Now with the route clear, Jordan roped up yet again and began his lead climb of The Cleft. Corey joked with me while belaying Jordan “Just wait until you see the Chockstone, you pretty much have to do a belly flop to get over it!” I didn’t know what he was talking about… but I’d soon find out! We went through our verbal signals again and Jordan yelled out “You’re on belay” indicating I could climb. This time I climbed ahead of Corey.
I signaled that I was climbing and started my ascent of the first pitch. This pitch of ice was pretty tame, and really fun. Full swings with the ice tools and good sticks. I felt confident here and was having a great time. It was starting to feel natural. Corey climbed closely behind me.
Now over the first pitch the dreaded Chockstone Corey had mentioned before came into view. The chockstone is a large boulder that became wedged within the slot canyon of the Cleft. The boulder stands about 5 feet tall, this is about neck height for me. The boulder had NO ice on it, and even worse… the walls surrounding the boulder were free of any climbable features. Corey instructed me to place my axes on top of the chock stone use my arms to pull my body up while grabbing whatever I can with my feet to help. I placed my picks in the mushy icey dirt on top of the stone, they quickly slid out. It took me 3 solid pushes to get myself up on the Chockstone… it wasn’t pretty, but I did it! Corey followed, and of course made it look easy!
The chockstone was the final hurtle of the second pitch of ice. Now with it behind us the ice climbing was done for the day. We removed our crampons, organized the ropes, and packed up. Now it was time to bushwhack up to the “Mount Willard Trail”. The bushwhack up was short but dense. The herd path that had been formed from other climbers lead us into a dead end a couple of times. Eventually we popped out onto the Mount Willard Trail.
The Mount Willard Trail
Now on the Mount Willard trail all we had to do was hike. The Mount Willard Trail is a 1.6 mile trail that leads from Rt. 302 to the summit of Mount Willard. This trail is incredibly tame and a breeze to walk on. There’s very little obstacles and the footing is excellent. Even in my clunky mountaineering boots I had no problem carrying a brisk pace down the mountain. We walked and made conversation all the way back down the trail to the road. It was a good opportunity to get to know these guys a little better.
We popped out at the trailhead in what seemed like a few minutes and began the short walk down Rt. 302 back to the car.
Today was amazing. The climb was a huge success and I had a great time hanging out and learning from the guys from Northeast Mountaineering. Corey and Jordan were fun to climb with and made the whole day stress free and relaxed. I never felt like a “newbie” or intimidated. In fact, it boosted my confidence in my ice climbing capabilities. I can’t wait to get out again to hone my skills further on another multi-pitch climb!
I shot some footage with my GoPro and my phone during the day. You can find a compilation of that footage here: