Get Your S$%t Together!

Ice Climbing Is More Fun When You Are a Little Bit Obsessive

By Janet Wilkinson

Cannon Cliff, Winter 2008ish. As Freddie took off up the second pitch of Fafnir, he complained for the second or third time about his left foot being cold. He placed a piece, stopped momentarily to swing and shake it out, and I remember thinking it odd, since I am always the one who gets cold. We finished the route and walked down the descent trail to our car. Sitting on the passenger seat, he pulled his cotton-sock-clad foot out of his boot, turned the boot upside down and shook it, and out slid a gray mass of fur. ‘Oh my god’, he said, picking it up for me to see. It was a squashed mouse corpse, and it had just gotten a free ride up, and then down, Cannon Cliff.

Freddie, there's a mouse in your boot!

Freddie, there’s a mouse in your boot!

This is the guy I have been with for 11 years now: He sometimes wears cotton tube socks winter climbing and he hardly notices when a dead mouse is in the bottom of his boot on a hard mixed route. He sharpens his picks only a few times per season and regularly climbs on beat up ropes with no sign of dry treatment left on them, despite being sponsored by a rope company. And he slays the winter climbing.

Granted, that was years ago, when we were living in a tiny cabin and it was hard to be organized, and even harder to keep mice out of things since our climbing gear was kept in a shed. But Freddie’s style has rubbed off on me over the years, encouraged by my relaxed personality. The problem is that I don’t slay the winter climbing like he does. I often have a mind block about the whole ‘not falling’ thing, I get cold, and I generally have to have a lot of things go well to actually have fun.

It turns out other people don’t climb with dead mice in their boots. I have one friend who won’t even let me bring my rope or screws when we climb, preferring to use her own more reliably sharp and dry versions. So I decided last winter that I will start to care more, and because of it I might have more fun more often. A dry treated rope, sharp metal, and good socks are a great starting point. Here are a few other tips to help you look good, feel comfortable, and stay safe out there, so you can concentrate on having more fun:

  1. Do some preseason heel raises. I do them with a 25 lb weight on the edge of a step a few days a week starting in November to get ahead of the long, cold front pointing season.
  2. Keep a list of what you like to pack. I have a list of mountain rescue gear hanging next to my closet so when the call comes and things are hurried, I know what I need. Include an adequate first aid and repair kit. Marc Chauvin’s repair kit for a Mount Washington day is a spare middle bar and bail wire to fix a crampon, and a wrench in case a pick loosens. You might also add a spare pick, some duct tape, and a zip tie or two. A first aid kit ranges from just a roll of cloth tape to the full caboodle.
  3. Ladies, if you are smaller than the average ice climber (most winter climbing gear seems to be built for 175+ lb males), take the time to customize your stuff. I cut a few inches off the middle bar of my crampons, and hot knife a few inches off the straps too, along with cutting extra webbing from belts and back pack straps. If you are just getting into ice climbing, do not, I repeat do NOT let your boyfriend convince you to use his old leashed Cobras and G14s from 1999. Unless of course bashing your knuckles to smithereens while swinging concrete blocks on your feet sounds like fun to you. Ice gear has evolved drastically in the last 10 years, it is worth finding while you learn to climb.
  4. I used to pack a liter of plain water and a liter of hot tea in a thermos for a day out. I almost never drank the water, so now I usually just bring tea, knowing I can add snow to increase volume if I get extra thirsty. I pre-hydrate by limiting coffee and drinking a huge to-go mug of decaf tea en route. Bring food that will still be appetizing if it freezes. Especially NOT appetizing frozen ingredients include egg and apple. Peanut butter and honey sandwiches are a personal favorite.
  5. The clothing system matters. I tuck my base layer top into my base layer pants, then mid layer tucked into my softshell or insulated pants with a shell jacket over it all. The harness carries a lot of weight so keeping those layers smoothly interlaced keeps it from digging in. (Ladies, this will all go to hell if you have to pee with your harness on so pee before you start a climb and/or get one of those handy pee-standing-up devices.) I feel goofy in tight fitting hats, so I wear a looser one for the approach and then have a tighter one for under the helmet. It’s not cool or safe to have the helmet list to the side or when the too-big hat slips down over your eyes. Four pairs of gloves at the minimum: one for the sweaty approach, one for belaying/rappelling, and save the lead gloves for just that: leading. Take the time to find lead gloves that you love, and bring two+ pairs. When you find good lead gloves, treat them like gold (ie don’t rap or belay in them). Put your climbing socks on when you put your boots on. Dry, fresh socks = happy feet. I approach with absurdly loose boots and tighten them up only when I put crampons on. My feet are more comfortable and warm when they are loose in the boot.
  6. Make sure your backpack fits well over your harness and that you are able to look up while climbing with it on. I replace the metal pack frame with a foam pad to help this issue, and it handily doubles as a sleeping/sitting pad or a splint for first aid. Keep gloves and hats in a separate stuff sack in your pack so your gear doesn’t blow/roll away as you unpack. Keep another stuff sack for your belay parka in its pocket so you can hang it from your harness on multipitch climbs.
  7. Know where you are going and how to deal if things go bad. Practice your v-threads, consider how you could repair anything that might break, consider that your phone might freeze or be out of range, know how to escape a belay.
  8. I used to treat the end of an ice climbing day like the end of a rock climbing day and strip off my harness with everything still attached to it and throw it in my pack. After a few dinged up ice screws and a few holes in my pack, I now put the rubber caps back on the screws at the end of the day and put them in their own little vinyl bag. Carefully wrap the crampons with points facing each other if you don’t use a crampon pouch. Do this every time. Same deal when you get home from climbing: Unpack and dry your stuff out the minute you get home. No snuggling your puppy or opening a beer until it’s done. Dry gear is happy gear, and who knows, maybe you’ll go out again tomorrow!
A little more obsessiveness = many more smiles

A little more obsessiveness = many more smiles

Ladies, come share your favorite tricks for making winter climbing fun, and learn a few more to add to your mix at an upcoming Ladies Only Winter Climbing Workshop!

(I should acknowledge here that, joking aside, Freddie’s seeming indifference about foot care and his ability to crank with dull tools and crampons is certainly eclipsed by his love of a well organized gear closet and his seemingly innate capacity to deal with just about any situation that arises out there in the cold.)

Conditions: Crawford Notch Jan 1, 2014

The ice in Crawford Notch is coming back around. Here’s the rundown:

At Frankenstein, the Amphitheater looked better than it has all through the early season with high water volume routes (Pegasus, Chia) finally receiving the cold temperatures they need to begin to freeze. Still not in its full glory, but on its way.

The ice left of Smear, above the well protected M5 corner of Scream, looks pretty cool. There is a great WI 3+ ish slab over there called Banshee which receives little traffic. It’s looking good now.

Beware of the top-outs. After a rain the mini-brooks that feed the amphitheater are running hard leaving the tops of these ice climbs often floating over running water. If you want to push your leading grade in the amphitheater area, I would recommend waiting until things have time to freeze further.

No pictures, sorry.

Standard looks good.


From far left (behind the trees) is the top of Standard then Penguin and break in the cliff, then Dropline, Welcome to the Machine, Coffin and Dracula. Hopefully the water continues to flow and they just get fatter!

North of Standard

This is the shadiest of the major areas at Frankenstein and does the best in the early season. If it took a hit in the rains last week it’s hard to tell now. Looks like good early season conditions and very similar to a couple of weeks ago.

Mt Willard

Mt Willard has been the champ this season with the best conditions in the Notch. Sam Bendroth and I took a run up Hitchcock Gully yesterday afternoon and found amenable conditions despite the dry debris pile on the railroad tracks at the base of the gully. The rains flushed all the leaves, etc out of Lower Hitchcock and despite some patches without snow, the whole of this section is mostly climbed on nice hard snow or fresh sticky ice. Some weekend snow will make it look more alpine, but the conditions make for a fairly low exertion outing with good cramponing. Upper Hitchcock looked fine and all the flows along that Upper Eastern Tier look really good.


Number Gullies and Cauliflower above, Mt Webster.




The moon rising over the mini-Canadian Rockies cliff band of Mt Webster.




Not much snow on the South Face of Mt. Willard, but the ice is coming in. There is ice top to bottom on Cinema Gully, but it stills looks thin.




Close up view of the lower cliff band on Mt Willard’s South Face. number Gullies on the left, Cinema on the right.



Willey’s MF Slide. Looking very icey.


Alexa Siegel & The Sisterhood of the Rope


Alexa Siegel (left), with partner-in-crime Hanna Lucy.

Cathedral Mountain Guides is proud to welcome Alexa Siegel to our guiding team this year. One of the most talented and psyched young climbers to arrive in the Mount Washington Valley in recent years, she recently capped her rock climbing season with a redpoint ascent of The Sampler, a stout 5.12d sport climb at Shell Pond.

Like all good New Englanders, Alexa Siegel is a woman who values her independence.

Even as a freckled seventh grade girl in Wilmington, Massachusetts, Alexa knew climbing was her calling. “The Boston Rock Gym was ten minutes away from home, and my brother went there first, for a birthday party,” she recalls. “I was jealous.” Soon after, she took a lesson with another brother, and started spending her Friday nights at the gym in their Youth Clinic program. Although she went on to compete in indoor climbing in high-school, Alexa refused to join a climbing team, registering for meets independently, “just for fun”. She even made Nationals one year – but the competition was all the way across the country, in Portland, Oregon, and Siegel didn’t attend. “I guess I found I liked outdoor climbing a lot more,” she says now.


Siegel went on to attend UNH, graduating with a degree in environmental conservation (she also earned an associates degree as an occupational therapy assistant), and then moved up the road to North Conway, New Hampshire. The White Mountains’ splitter granite, frosty winters, and lack of climbing gyms helped to broaden Alexa’s repetoire of climbing skills and deepen her love of vertical adventure. Recently, some of her most rewarding adventures have come when she’s partnered with other women.  With local climber and Atlantic Climbing School guide Hanna Lucy, Alexa went on a tear in Yosemite Valley last spring, a trip that culminated in the two making an ascent of the Regular Route on Half Dome in a single day.

As an aspiring guide and climbing instructor, Alexa’s excited to share her love for climbing movement and the mountains.

FW: Ice and mixed climbing are sort of the polar opposite of gym climbing — you’re in gnarly uncontrolled conditions instead of being indoors — so how did you grow from a suburban gym upstart to winter monkey?

AS: I guess it was moving here [to the Mount Washington Valley].  I love being active, and so I was like, what I’m going to do? My friend Eric took me out for my first ice climb up Hitchcock Gully on Mt. Willard. I didn’t even know how to clean an ice screw, my boots were way too big… I think the most progress started when Hannah and I started going climbing. I had a breakthrough when Bayard Russell gave me a tutorial on climbing steep ice. He said ‘hips in when you swing; hips out when you kick’, and after that everything started to click.


Styling the M9 drytooling on The Unemployment Line.

FW: What was your favorite day ice climbing?

AS: Absolutely, the first time I lead Standard Route on Frankenstein. It was with Hanna, we’d been trying to figure it out, and that was our whole goal for the season. We picked a day, and walking towards the tracks, feeling a little intimidated — then this guy jumps in front of us and starts telling us how he had seen an epic on standard route the day before, and it was more challenging and dangerous then we thought [tk].  We just raced up to the base but when we started climbing it was easy, no problem. We got pretty psyched after that.”

FW: Talk about “The Unemployment Line”. [The Unemployment Line is an M9 mixed climb at the Tokho Crag in Madison, New Hampshire.]

“AH! I have to go back for that one. I did the rock section last year but the ice hadn’t formed so I never got to do a full ascent. Tohko was where I started to love mixed climbing. I come from a sport climbing background, so the sport mixed climbing came pretty naturally.

FW: How did your road trip with Hanna to Red Rocks and Yosemite go this spring?

AS: Hanna and I lived together at a chalet at the base of Cathedral, and that’s where the idea hatched – to try Half Dome in a day.  We applied for an American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant, and I don’t think either of us thought we’d actually get it, and then we found out we got it. We started in Red Rocks and got benighted at the top of Epinephrine. We had a shiver bivy, and after that we were like ‘oh man, we have a ton of work to do’. We went to Yosemite, and spent three weeks there climbing lots of 5.8s and 5.9s. Soon we had only one week left, and we knew it was time to go for it.


Alexa and Hanna in Red Rocks.


All smiles during the unplanned bivy on top of Epinephrine.

Alexa leading the Zig-Zags on Half Dome.

Alexa leading the Zig-Zags on Half Dome.

A few pitches below the top, the sun set and we had to climb in the dark, by headlamp. My aid climbing experience is pretty limited, but somehow I found myself standing on this thin hook between two bolts ladders… I reached a little too far over to try to clip a bolt and took a little sideways whipper. Hanna couldn’t see me, she had no idea what was going on. Then Hanna found some tat above us, and eventually we made it through. It was either that or spend the night shivering at the belay!

FW: What’s special about the Cathedral Mountain Guides Ladies Only series you are helping to organize this winter?

AS: I think I’ve always been psyched about getting out and climbing with my female partners. I love that feeling of being independent, of making our own decisions in the mountain. I’m really psyched to be able to give other ladies a taste of the same adventure.


Warming up on the classic The Great Escape at Shagg Crag.