Rhythm of the Seasons – Part Three

It’s been a busy few weeks, but the essays are graded, the exams are printed, and there’s time to relax and think about ice climbing again.  In Part One, you learned about my affinity for seasonal beverages and my one-track mind when it comes to the off-season.  In Part Two, I got all “dippy and philosophical” while nerding out about literature and No Man’s Land.  Ultimately, though, what it’s all building towards is a simple fact:

Part Three: December-March

“Winter is Coming”

Article by Patrick Cooke

Sure, by the time December rolls around (and surely by January, February, and March), winter is not coming, but instead is hopefully upon us.  But the giant dork in me can’t resist the Game of Thrones reference, and we’re still enjoying daytime temperatures in the mid-60s this week in Boston.  If our NEice meteorologist in residence, Smike, is to be trusted we need not worry: Winter is Coming.

As we adjust to the increasingly early sunsets, seeing our breath in the air, and digging out our cars, there’s a looming sense of adventure about the months ahead.  What kind of winter will this be?  Will PowerPlay and Big Brother be locked up again this year?  Will Poko be off the hook again, or will Cathedral, Willoughby, or Smuggs see conditions so fat that even this guy can climb classic test-pieces?  Can Joe Szot be unseated as the undisputed champion of the world when it comes to rollies?

Each year, the winter’s water cycle is largely determined by what happens throughout the fall.

This year, Hurricane Irene rudely knocked on our doors, not only soaking the northeast but also potentially rearranging water flow patterns throughout the region.  The Trap Dike has a new exit out onto the slabs.  Cascade, Wright, and Saddleback all have new slides that may yield new winter alpine routes.  There is significant potential for new routes and variations hiding in familiar locations, while there are also new opportunities to be had for those willing to go beyond the beaten path.

Early Season Potential: Fortune Favors the Bold

Amid all the uncertainty that awaits us each season, there are still certain facts of life that are givens.  By early December, most of the climbers in the northeast will be chomping at the bit to get their first sticks of the season.  How early one sates this hunger will often be directly correlated to how bold a climber he or she is.  Last year, I managed to get out and climb the Trap Dike the week before Thanksgiving, opting for the greater likelihood of climbable ice at higher elevations rather than the potential to scratch my way up something at the North Face of Pitchoff.  Sure, I could have ended up taking the tools for a long walk, but at the very least I would have a good day in the mountains.  As it turned out, we found wicked fun conditions on the waterfalls and perfect neve up the slabs.  That same day, people found ice to climb at NFOP.  Was it fat? No.  Did it take screws? Sort of.  Did they have fun?  Absolutely!

Typical EARLY season conditions at NFOP – Rowdy Dowdy on Screw and Climbaxe (11/21/10) – photo by Rockytop


As the season ramps up, there are certain climbs and venues we can look to each and every season.  In the Daks, the North Face of Pitchoff and Chapel Pond Canyon are sure bets.  Full of moderate lines, these areas have routes that may not be considered “classic”, but offer a little bit of something for everyone.  Fans of long moderate lines can enjoy a day out on Weeping Winds or Screw and Climbaxe.  Those looking to push themselves on harder grades may not find the steep pillars and curtains of Poko or the Lake, but can link up many routes into a good long day: At NFOP, try linking up Central Pillar (to the top!), Arm and Hammer, Tendonitis, Weeping Winds, and Screw and Climbaxe; at the Pond, Crystal Ice tower/White Line Fever, Lions on the Beach, Hot Shot, Ice Slot, Positive Reinforcement, and Haggis and Cold Toast make for a good long day.  At Smuggs, you’ll find plenty of ice early in the season, and linking routes will give you a hell of a leg workout!  At Frankenstein, you can try to get up early and beat the Standard Route conga line (can you find all 12 climbers?), hook and torque your way up the Pegasus rock finish, and probably even take a lap on Dracula if you’re looking for a little bit more spice.


If you feel like you’ve “climbed out” your usual haunts, early season options may be the perfect remedy.  That fat 3+ or 4- that you’ve climbed 200 times may be a different beast early in the season.  Stubbies, spectres, and and a couple of stoppers instead of an endless line of 16s may mean the difference between just another lap on “the hardman’s warmup” and a personal first ascent of “the hardman’s ego-check.”

Mid-Season: Getting After It

Come my winter break (end of December), I generally feel that there’s no question as to what season it is: sending season. Sure, there’s those pesky family commitments involving stuffing your face with delicious food and the mandatory Christmas eve whiskey (if you don’t already have this tradition, I HIGHLY recommend it!), but my main thought is about getting out and getting after it.  Last winter, the stars aligned perfectly: I’d never done Dracula, Welcome to the Machine was in, and Fang was so fat it could easily have been mistaken for Standard Route.  It was looking like it would be a great day!  We’d have to move quickly as a party of three, but we were ambitious.

Dracula was great, except for one thing… apparently those toe bails that keep your crampons on your boots are not indestructable!

When you break a crampon on lead, sometimes you end up with amusing photo opportunities like this… tools left for comic effect!

Yep, 20 feet up on lead and for whatever reason, I can’t get good sticks with my right foot.  Look down… “#$%&!!!!!!!!!!!”  There’s my crampon, dangling from the strap around my ankle with a busted toe bail.  I had just placed a screw with a screamer, so I placed another and lowered off… As a single pitch climb, I knew we’d be able to make things work, but WTTM and Fang were out of the picture.  Regardless, sending season had begun!  With my unbroken mono-point on the left foot, my buddy’s dual points on the right, and a second set of tools, I was off again, enjoying superb sticks and even placing more than 3 screws (actually, a lot more)!

Every winter presents the opportunity for climbing new routes.  Even lines you’ve done before can form in new ways.  That’s part of the beauty of ice climbing.  Sure, sometimes different climbs can feel the same, but some days the same climb can be a totally different beast from a previous ascent.  If you’ve already climbed the Gent, that doesn’t mean you should’t go do it again.  Tackle the direct start, climb the steeper pillar left of the groove on the crux pitch, or head way right at the top.  It all may be the same climb in the guidebook, but each and every ascent will be a new experience.

One of the beauties of living in the Northeast is how close we are to so many great ice climbing venues.  If you’re only climbing in one place all winter, you’re missing out.  Venture out and check out what other people get to experience as their home crag.  If you have some vacation time, why not make a road trip around the Northeast?  In 5 days you can easily link Cannon, Willoughby, Smuggs, Poko, and the Catskills into one epic adventure.  Limited to weekends?  No problem, shoot for a different venue each time you get out.  Even in one region you can easily have a diversity of climbing experiences. Here are a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing:

Catskills: Day one – Buttermilk Falls (be sure to hit the mixed cragging to the right of tier #3).  Day two: Black Chasm

Daks: Day one: Avalanche Lake.  Day two: Poko

VT: Day one: Smuggs, Day two: Willoughby

NH: Day one: Cathedral or Frankenstein.  Day two: Mt. Webster

CT/MA/Other locations:  Drive north and don’t feel limited by the local offerings!

With so many options in the Northeast, you should never get bored.

Ice season is undoubtedly the best time of year, but there is one dreaded element that seems to hit every year – the midseason thaw.  Last year, this hit on New Year’s Day (the day after the photo above was taken), making the ice in the Catskills entirely unclimbable.  A few years ago, the thaw coincided with Mountainfest and resulted in several cancelled clinics.  While we hope that this doesn’t happen this winter, don’t despair – at the very least it will help heal the ice and return a hooked-out classic back to its proper form!

Late Season: Back to the Mountains

As the calendar pages flip and the days get longer, our options begin to change.  Willoughby, Poko, and other predominantly south-facing crags begin to melt away.  At the lower elevations, those early season options often linger and remain our best bet.  Every year, Dracula seems to hang in there in its black cave, much like the bat its namesake emulated.

With such long days, the late season is prime time for long routes in the mountains.  In the Daks, Joe Szot laid down the gauntlet completing the “Adirondack Trilogy” of Gothics, Marcy, and Colden in a day, Emilie Drinkwater completed her own version of the Trilogy, and Alfonzo created the “Trifecta” of Pinnacle, Shoestring, and the Throat in the Whites. Countless other opportunities exist for those with more modest ambitions as well.  Long days of linking up gullies await you in Huntington Ravine, and Katahdin hosts countless alpine routes in as remote a setting you can find in the Northeast.

Katahdin’s South Basin from Chimney Pond – Photo by AOC


It may have been 62 and partly cloudy in Boston yesterday, but don’t worry, Winter is coming!

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