By Carol Nelson Falcone
hose of us who think of ice as something on which one tends to slip and fall may think that people who willingly choose to climb ice are crazy. This is perfectly understandable, given that there's plenty of terra firma out there. But in recent years, ice climbing has become a popular winter activity. And while most of us typically enjoy viewing waterfalls during the warmth of summer, the ice climber gets a thrill out of climbing up that same waterfall frozen in the dead of winter.
As those who live in the ridge area know, the Shawangunks boast some of the best rock-climbing in the northeast, with over 1,200 documented climbing routes, and as many as 50,000 avid climbers visiting the ridge each year. Marty Molitoris of Alpine Endeavors, a rock climbing business located in the Town of Rosendale, says that the sport of ice climbing can be enjoyed by a large cross-section of people.
"You don't need to be a rock climber to enjoy ice climbing. It's like skiing, where you have different levels from the bunny slopes to the double diamond," he says.
Ice climbing, then, is a winter sport in which brave individuals attempt to climb different types of ice formations, some vertical, some merely inclined. Often using elaborate rope systems, climbers traverse these ice formations, some of which are made up of alpine-ice created by snow or rain and are usually found on mountains, or others made up of water-ice which tends to form near waterfalls and is often seen along cliff faces.
If you're going to give ice climbing a try, there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, employing a guide who is highly experienced in this dangerous sport is well advised. In the Catskill and Shawangunk regions there are a few good ice climbing guide services that have staff who are highly experienced and state-licensed in ice mountaineering — and are also certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. Some of the guides in the ridge are the aforementioned Alpine Endeavors (www.alpineendeavors.com), High Xposure in New Paltz (www.high-xposure.com), and Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in Gardiner (www.emsclimb.com). You may also want to practice at an indoor rock climbing facility that offers ice climbing. Ice climbing's growth in popularity has led to many indoor ice climbing facilities popping up in recent years.
Most seasoned ice climbers will advise the novice to avoid buying their own gear for as long as possible. At first, try to borrow or rent your gear in order to see what works best for you. In addition to the different climbing tools, you will also need to consider clothing. Wearing the correct garments is as important as having the right ice axe.
"Proper gloves are essential," Molitoris says. "I suggest using thinner, dexterous gloves when leading for harder climbing, and a heavier pair when belaying. When you aren't sweating as much, you get colder quicker so you want a heavier pair."
To dry a pair of gloves not in use, Molitoris suggests tucking them inside your jacket, rather than placing them in your pack, because it will help them dry more quickly and keep them warm. Cotton, interestingly, has no place in your winter layering system: it keeps you cold if you sweat and it takes a long time to dry out. Synthetic fabrics or wool keep you warmer when they become wet with sweat and some are designed to keep the sweat away from your skin, thereby keeping you dry and warm.
Another problem ice-climbers face is the frozen water bottle.
"I suggest a water-bottle parka because it's interwoven and also keeps the water in your water bottle from freezing," Molitoris says. "Bring a wide-mouthed bottle since the increased surface area will take longer to freeze and keep it upside down so it freezes on the bottom so when you open it up you can still drink from it."
A good local place to get sturdy ice climbing equipment is Rock and Snow, Inc., located in New Paltz.
In the winter there are several frozen waterfalls on Shawangunk Ridge. Buttermilk Falls, Verkeerderkill Falls, Awosting Falls, and Vernoykill Falls offer spectacular scenery. Although there are many thousands of acres of public lands for rock climbing in the ridge area, currently only Sam's Point Preserve allows ice climbing. The Mohonk Preserve and the Minnewaska State Park Preserve have a long-held "no ice climbing" policy; but, due to the urging of local climbers, they are in the process of reviewing this.
For those who truly love the thrill of competition, the sport does have an annual ice climbing competition called the North Face Ice Climbing World Cup. This event, which this past year was held in an indoor facility in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, draws over 2,000 ice-climbing enthusiasts from around the globe.
More locally, there is one event that celebrates winter and things ice-related: the Winter Carnival in New Paltz. This event gives winter-sports enthusiasts and lay-persons alike a chance to meet others who enjoy outdoor winter activities. This year's festival will be held February 6 and 7, and will feature activities such as ice-carving demonstrations, show-shoe trekking, and cross-country skiing (call 845-255-3631 for more info). You can also visit the Alpine Endeavors website at www.alpineendeavors.com for information on other events in the ridge area.
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