In The Early Season


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.


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


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.


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.

Conditions Report for Jan 24th, 2014

Well, it’s cold. It’s been cold and it’s gonna remain cold. The effects of all this wobbly weather is apparent in the ice around the Mount Washington Valley. In general, here’s what to look out for.

1. Top outs are hollow. Because of the prolonged thaw, and especially the accompanying rain, the tops of many ice climbs are undermined and hollow. Generally, and I mean generally, things have refrozen, but you will be climbing floating ice as you top out many of the area’s ice climbs, especially the major water courses. Look out for some wild looking and sounding ice – dong, dong, dong! Good cramponing skills are huge when the final bulge is delicate. Remember, keep your eyes on your front points as you top out and you’ll be in the right body position to use more feet and less arms – ass out until you can bury your head and see your frontpoints!. Don’t succumb to temptation and sink your tools as far back as you can over the bulge. This is especially important when the final bulge is a floating, water sculpted piece of modern art and there is nothing but rock out where you would otherwise plant a tool!

2. Pillars are under tension. Be wary of pillars that are connected both top and bottom. Ice, like most materials, gets smaller when it gets colder. The ice that formed in the beginning of the week, formed in warmer weather, and formed bigger. Now, since it has gotten really damn cold it is too small for the area it spans –  creating tension. How it all plays out over the next 10 days of prolonged cold I don’t know, but be thoughtful. Just because that pillar felt good on the lead at the end of last February, doesn’t mean it really wants to be climbed this January… but it might. Just err on the side of caution.

3. The ice is hard. A few days ago while climbing ice on Cathedral I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my tools. They just wouldn’t stick. They just kinda bounced despite nice, new sharp picks. A few feet higher I got into some wet, fresh ice and POW! right in there. Ah Ha! This ice is just really, really hard. I’ve worked out a different swing to accomodate the conditions. Here it is:  Swinging harder doesn’t do it. It’s like hand drilling a bolt; you can swing as hard as you like, but a drill bit can only go so far into granite with each blow. Instead you swing a lot and not that hard. I’ve been swinging into this cold ice in a similar manner, planning on three or four 1/2 powered swings to set the pick. Fortunately, when the ice is this strong, you don’t need as much metal in it to get the job done. This may be a hard one to get your head around, but try it out; a few well planned out, softer swings to set the pick to the 2nd or 3rd tooth when you’re encountering a lot of resistance. Also, it’ll mean less fractured ice flying around to mar your pretty face.

On the plus side there is neve all over the place so getting around is a breeze and the ice is here to stay. The bigger flows still have water moving in them, despite the cold, so many of the classics will continue to get fat.

Specifically, I climbed Repentance Wednesday. There is more ice on it than I have ever seen… hmm, tempting. After completing the second pitch pillar I vowed to stay away from it until it warms up. It is alluring, but, now, fractured and spooky. When I lead it it is was down right scary; the pillar fractured at my feet, releasing the aforementioned tension to some degree, but leaving a poorly put together bit of frozen architecture. A party checked it out yesterday, I didn’t get a chance for a debriefing.

Here’s the breakdown:


Goofer‘s looks great and fat taking long screws way down low on the pitch

Super Goofer‘s looks a little funky. Pretty cool really, but not straight forward.

Repentance and Remission are loaded with ice, but be cautious. The pillar on Remission looks great from the ground, but from the side you can see what is really there.

Note the wimpy little point where the Remission pillar touches down in the background. It looks rowdy!

Note the wimpy little point where the Remission pillar touches down in the background. It looks rowdy! That’s the traveling Irishman Brian Seery smiling  on Repentance despite the cold.


























There is loads of ice, and it’s still forming, at the North End of Cathedral. The Thresher Slab climbs are in great shape, as is everything else.


Paul Mascioli climbingThresher Slab on Thursday, Jan 23rd.