Get Your S$%t Together!

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

By CMG Guide 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.)

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.