The first ice climb of the season is an eventful day for all of us. As fortune would have it, every year over the last decade, I’ve found good ice in the month of October. And over the last five years I’ve shared this day with my good friend and NEIce founder, Doug Millen. As autumn starts to wain, areas that are familiar transform to the unusual. The places we know are slowly morphing towards winter as they slip into dormancy. Moving from brown ground and fall foliage, to winter conditions and back in just hours is a wonderful experience. This time of year also offers one of my favorite treats, approaches made over frozen trails in sneakers.
One does not need any special skills to experience this, however a few ingredients need to blend together. Paying attention to the weather, thinking about a given climb’s aspect and water flow. Then lastly, having desire and passion for this equals commitment which can get you to these beautifully surreal places. And if you’re timing is right on, the first sticks of the season.
There are many advantages to getting out early besides the pure beauty you will find. Climbing freshly formed ice up a long gully not covered by snow is an excellent workout. The benefit for the mind and body and a release of the soul is limitless. These conditions also offer the perfect opportunity of getting into a rhythm of movement over long distance, a time to find yourself. Simple gullies become more of a challenge when the ice is thin and there is no snow. Besides reading the ice to find the thickest place to travel, you have to keep your head up and pick the best line far ahead, for down climbing ice is a discipline best practiced in a more controlled environment. And on thin ice that is not an easy task. Another advantage is with your gear. Getting into the packing routine and making sure living room adjustments to the crampons are dialed in before the full on season.
I’ve read elsewhere that early season ice is only for a select few and that it’s not really “in” for it may melt in a few hours. Or that it’s only October. Another comment I’ve been told is it all starts with someone climbing the Black Dike. I find this closed thinking interesting and often ask myself why? If one wants to rock climb as long as you can that’s great. My train of thought is this, the climbing of rock can happen year round. The season of ice is far to short. There is no need to be negative on early ice conditions or be shackled by the calender. With the right weather conditions water will freeze. The calender is just like the clock we move forward then fall back. The calender receives days and losses them. It is but another human made measurement of our lives that matters not.
It is a given that every year I’ll have at lest one false start. Theses days out are still worth it for there is always something to prick your interest if you want it. Not finding ice and climbing the Huntington Ravine trail, through the headwall in unsavory conditions is not a simple hike. Moving through fog over wet and verglas covered rock while the song of Pinnacle Gully in liquid form sings behind will keep your attention.
Lastly, I always know where I’ll go looking for ice long before the freezing takes place, except this year.
Finding the Lost Dutchman’s Mine
The drive had begun. For the next six hours there will be times of intense conversation and also moments of complete silence. In these times the only sound is that of rubber making contact with asphalt. When that time takes over, we all slip into our own private space. In the mean time, there is talk of climbs done and of those to do. But on this day the conversations are not of some faraway area, they are of one place in New England and of one mountain.
I fall silent, listening to the excitement in the car. The live human voices are in competition with the recorded sounds coming from the car’s speakers. The voices increase in volume in an unconscious effort to take center stage. It’s Friday, August 31. Mt. Katahdin is in the rearview mirror and the talk is of coming back for one more rock climb before winter descends on the mountain.
After the usual reentry back to everyday routines and the thermals of the brilliant Pamola 4 route had dissipated a little. It was time to book another trip back to Baxter State Park. I picked the second weekend in October. A time when the first ice of the season, under the right circumstances, can be found here in New Hampshire. Doug and I knew we would climb ice soon, but figure it would be on Mt.Washington or Adams… not Katahdin.
Seven days before our departure, the forecast in northeast looked promising for ice. The NEIce weather guru, Smike was predicting an ascent of Pinnacle Gully. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday was calling for overcast skies, snow flurries with temperatures in the low twenties. But for us, the coup de grace on climbing rock and the finding of ice came with this. Clearing Friday night, winds ramping up and temperatures bottoming out in the teens. Doug and I spoke the day before we left. The rock gear would still come with us to Roaring Brook, however our packs were made ready with ice gear even before we left our homes.
We arrived late Friday to snow flurries. I was up Saturday at 5am. The predawn was cold, clear and the stars were shinning bright. By 6:30 we were on the trail chipping away at the 3+ miles to Chimney Pond and the dramatic walls of the South Basin. The minuscule shadow of doubt that lingered unspoken of, in darkest corners of our minds evaporated with each mile. The trail conditions were frozen ground with patches of hard ice. The decision was right and our commitment to finding ice was about to be realized.
The first view of the South Basin comes before Chimney Pond. It was here where Doug and I were greeted with the sight of the incredibly beautiful Cilley-Barber route. This line of ice sliced like a silver sword through the dark headwall, then on up into the cloud mantle that hung anchored to Katahdin’s summits. Though the climbing had yet to come, we shook hands like we had just accomplished something big, for in a strange way we had. The walls were shinning with ice on all the routes and from the ranger station we decided on our line. After telling Mark, the ranger on duty our plan and feeling his enthusiasm we were boulder hopping along the edge of Chimney Pond as fast as we could.
We emerged from the Cilley-Barber drainage and on to the talus proper, here we switched from sneakers to our climbing boots. There was now a few inches of snow on the rocks and alders. Our intended route was in complete view, the ice went for hundreds of feet up huge slabs to a talus break.
Above the talus the flow dropped into a corner, over steeper ground. Next was mixed, tricky terrain that eased off to snow, scrub and huge boulders. The Piggy-Wiggy would go all the way to the Cathedral Ridge. The gold mine of the Lost Dutchman was found.
Back at the Chimney Pond Ranger Station we chatted with Mark. He was psyched for us. A change back to the tennies and we were off. Light footed and higher then Hendrix, we practically ran back to camp. Doug and I had threaded the weather needle. Sunday night it snowed and we woke to several inches, the temperatures were also on the rise. Like thinking, being prepared, the willingness to adapt and take a chance gave us the best first ice of our season of our lives.