Alexa Siegel & The Sisterhood of the Rope

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Alexa and Hanna in Red Rocks.

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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.

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

In The Early Season

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What happens when the ice runs out: scratching around on Cathedral Ledge, December 2014.

I never know quite how to approach the early season. One year I started it off with a mellow romp up an area classic – Shoestring Gully – with good friend Elliot Gaddy. Thinking that got me dialed in, I then flung myself at some hard mixed pitch. Whoooa. That kinda backfired. Since then I have tried to take the same tack that I like for climbing trips – hurl myself at something challenging just to get the shakes out. I don’t like having something hanging over my head, best to just deal with it.

With winter climbing there is the added push of the fickle conditions. For our first pitch of this season, Sam Bendroth and I scrapped our way up Karen’s Variation on Cathedral Ledge to get up to some cool looking ice above the Blueberry Terrace. This was Peter Doucette and Ray Rice’s route, Cryo-Kinesis, which they pioneered a few years ago.  Water was moving pretty heavily up there, so, in an act of unprecedented restraint, we decided to come back the next day after it had a chance to build a bit.

Bayard channelling his inner Jedi on the thin-ice start to Cryo-Kinesis.

Bayard channelling his inner Jedi on the thin-ice start to Cryo-Kinesis.

Overnight was too cold for optimal building conditions, but the ice had sured up some. After a morning of work we took the fast track up, hiking to the top of the cliff and then rappelling in. I clipped a nut I had placed the afternoon before, right off the ledge, and started up some thin little ice bubbles. It was…scary, but I managed to find gear and keep myself on the wall – for a while. Lots of awesome climbing culminated in a less-than-shoulder-width-pillar.

Everything went pretty well until I was about to launch into some pumpy, gently overhanging dry-tooling above the pillar. While placing a Camalot, my tool shifted and I went flying – fall #1. Once back in location at the top of the pillar, I tried a straight up version, which resulted in fall #2. Finally, now fully pumped, I saw the obvious line of holds out left. Ahhh.. that was the way, but i was pooped.

Stellar line Ray and Peter! The top out – swinging into sticky yellow overhanging ice – would have made a true send so sweet.

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Fall #2. Cathedral’s flawless granite often provides good rock protection, making falls an acceptable risk on high-end terrain.

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Alas, the finishing moves are longer and pumper than one would have hoped.

Words by Bayard Russell, images by Freddie Wilkinson, copyright 2014.

Tips for the Early Season Ice Climber

Getting back into the swing of it every year can be hard. The best thing to do is not think about the swing much at all, but instead, the kick.

The fastest way to feel gripped in the early season is to not trust your crampons, and the most common reason to not trust them is they just aren’t in the ice securely.

You ever hear somebody yell, “heels down!”. What does that mean? Try it out, put your “heel down” right now. What are you actually doing? Probably, simply raising your toes by bending at the ankle. Here on the couch, my heel doesn’t do much more than pivot. When I teach ice climbing I always mention that you need to raise your toes before you kick so you feel the muscle in your shin flexing. (It’s about half way up and a bit to the outside, the same place I get shin splints when I have to walk around a city.)

Toes up!

This is why. Crampons have front points that are down turned so they have a positive bite. The result is, if you kick your foot at ice the same way you take a step, your crampons will glance downwards off your target. To accommodate their angle, we have to pick up our toes by bending at the ankle so the front points are facing out, or forward, like a little aggressive pod of weaponry. (I actually lift up my toes inside my boot as well.) You know you are doing it right when you are able to engage all points, including the secondary points, in vertical ice. Especially for those who climb in monopoints, doing this as often as possible will allow you to take full advantage of your crampons. That lone point frees you to take advantage of placements where two won’t fit, but without the added stability of the secondary points you’ll be wobbling around burning up your calves. Get those secondary points to make contact, the resulting tripod is super stable.

Don’t move your ankle!

When you set your crampon correctly and it bites nicely, leave it. The contact points should remain stable while the rest of your body moves around them. This might take some practice, or really, just plain old calf strength.

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Stable, bent ankles on pitch 2 of Astroturf, Lake Willoughby, VT. Nick Bullock photo.

 

Kick from the knee down!

Don’t kick from the hip. When you kick with your thigh it is almost impossible to get your toes up enough to engage your front points correctly. Instead, bring your knee up as if you were taking a step on a staircase, and then, kick from the knee down (while flexing that shin muscle, all 3 or 4 front points aimed like little spears at your target).

If you do this, you will find that you don’t have to kick as hard. When done correctly you should hear the sound of metal rattling, not the hollow thud of your boot. I’ve watched many people kick this way, thumping their boot at the ice and not getting any purchase. The logical reaction is to kick harder, but keeping your toes pointed up while you kick might save them from a beating by letting the crampon take the impact once, not your big toe over and over and over again.

Practice the old school way.

Set up a TR on a WI 2 slab and climb it without ice axes, front pointing. You might notice two things: (1) It is faster and (2) It is easier. Try it out on a WI 3, you’ll be surprised. An early season session like this will quickly make everything feel just a little less scary.

Kick better, kick less and keep ’em sharp. Feel more confidant in the early season and you’ll have the rest of the season.