Ice Climbing

The Vertical World

By Evan Stevens ‘00

After a few seasons of climbing rock, which was a great complement to the ski season, I began to wonder what this ice climbing business was all about.  A good portion of the school year is cold, dark, snowy and icy, so I decided to take advantage of the long winter as much as possible.  If the amount of ice that is normally on the ski trails is any indication, then you know that Vermont must be loaded with places to ice climb.  The only problem is that most people don’t have ice-climbing equipment and it is a wee bit of an investment.  I went out on a limb, dropped a few hundred bucks and convinced myself that ice climbing would be my next passion.

J-Term 1998 rolls around and I pestered my climbing partner Seth, to take me out to Bristol Falls, in the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness area only 15 minutes from Middlebury.  Anyone who’s gone out to the Green Mountains via Bristol (i.e. to Mad River Glen or Sugarbush) has caught the white gleam of this ice flow in the corner of their eye, but never thought much of it.  This faint gleam is what we were after, about 300 feet of low angle ice.  Now ice climbing must be one of the most ridiculous activities conceived by man; scale a frozen waterfall with really sharp things attached to your hands and feet.  What holds that damn ice to the rock anyway?

As I sat and stared at the flow the first lesson of ice climbing was almost painfully introduced.  I scrambled for my brain bucket, avoiding some softball size chunks of ice.  Obviously nothing much is holding the ice to the rock.  After roping up and getting Seth on belay, I watched every move, every swing, kick and placement he made.  When it was my turn I donned my shiny new gear and kicked and scratched my way quite uncomfortably up the ice. As I groveled up to the belay, I realized that I had discovered a whole new world in which to climb, a new way to scare the crap out of myself, and that I hadn’t wasted that few hundred dollars on ice tools.

When you first start climbing, getting your body organized and coordinated seems impossible.  Your balance and movement are about as smooth as a 15 year old kid trying to skateboard.  But, as you spend more time in the vertical world, it all starts to come to you, as thoughtless and ‘natural’ as scaling vertical ice and rock can be.  Along with the appreciation for life that climbing gives to many people, it is a most Zen-like activity where you are completely in ‘the zone’.  Your world is just the few square feet of rock or ice directly in front of you, no noise, people or danger, just the simple motions of moving in the vertical world.  Your mind is cleared, you forget to breathe and blink, and before you know it you are at the top.

Some people practice yoga, others meditate, I climb.  Just as folks need to run or meditate a few days a week, I need to climb.  Luckily these places are right here in Vermont, and I now find myself moving quickly and easily up the ice of Bristol Cliffs.  The learning curve is fast and last year I returned to Bristol with a different perspective.  Now the ice looked low angle and easy, my swings came smooth and natural, my movement calm and regular.  I forgot the fact that I did not have a rope or protection with me and that I had total confidence in what I was doing, meditating.  I topped out and turned to catch the sun set behind the Adirondacks.

My friends and climbing have taught me more than anything else here at Middlebury.  Bristol is where I learned to ice climb, found a love, and opened other friends’ eyes to a whole new world.  Learning, living, teaching and meditating through the avenue of the vertical world.  I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.

Bristol Cliffs Wilderness

Just a short drive from campus this spectacular ice flow provides grade 2+ – 5 climbing with two to three pitches possible.  At the top walk off to the North.  Be aware that the flow is west facing and often melts out in the afternoon.

Directions: Take Route 7 north for 8 miles and a right at Route 17 to Bristol. At the traffic light in the center of Bristol take a right to find Bristol Notch Road.  Follow this road for approximately five minutes until you notice the flow on the hillside.  Park at the entrance to an old logging road.  Follow a path or make your own way up to the ice.  It is about a twenty minute approach.

Smuggler’s Notch

This excellent area offers endless possibilities as ice is everywhere.  Climbs are from one to four pitches and range from grade 1 – M7+.

Directions: Take Route 7 north to I-89 in South Burlington. I-89 south to exit 10 for Route 100.  At the town of Stowe find Notch Road (Route 108) leading north to Smuggler’s Notch. Note:  This is about an hour and a half away.

Keene Valley, New York

Frozen cascades drape the cliffs throughout this valley.  The best climbing is found in Chapel Pond Canyon and the pond area itself.  The routes range from one to three pitches with grades of 2 – M7.

Directions:  Go west on Route 125 until Route 22A intersection. Take a right and soon after a left to rejoin 125 west  Cross the Champlain Bridge and at intersection with 22 and 9N take a right into Port Henry.  Continue on 9N through Westport and Elizabethtown until reaching Route 73. Take a left on Route 73 to Keene Valley.  Continue through the town of Keene Valley and look for roadside parking areas.  All trails lead to cliffs suitable for climbing.  It is a 10 to 45 minute approach depending on the

Additional Resources

Climbing in the Adirondacks, Dan Mellor 1995
Smuggler’s Notch Ice Climbs 1998

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

— Rene Daumal