Places to hone your ice climbing skills

January 29, 2012
Look for ice climbing instruction and other climbing opportunities in AMC’s online trip listing database.

Though rock climbers are being driven indoors by the chill, the depths of winter bring a different opportunity for altitude lovers to get their fix. Away go the cams and hexes, out come the ice axes and screws. It’s time for ice climbing.

If you’ve never dug an ice axe into a frozen waterfall before, don’t strap on your crampons just yet. Even if you’re a seasoned rock veteran, ice climbing is dangerous. Ice, unlike rock, shifts constantly. Ice can break off beneath you. An ice axe can slice through your rope. AMC and its chapters put on ice climbing classes several times a year. Climbing experts will teach you the finer points of safety and technique so when you venture out without instructors, you’ll be ready to handle the ice.

Once you’ve learned the basics, but before you’re ready for enormous ice walls, where should you go to sharpen your axe-wielding skills? Here are a few lower-risk spots to get your crampons frosty. In many cases, route names won’t appear on maps or trail signage, so make sure to research locations in advance and to go climbing with someone familiar with the sites.

Texaco Slab and Amphitheater
Hart’s Location, N.H.

Texaco Slab and Amphitheater provide great ice and is also sunny and sheltered from the wind. After a short hike in from Route 302, this ice-laden crag offers an array of climbs, easy as well as difficult. The area known as Amphitheater Left has several routes that can all be top-roped with only a single line, making it safer and cheaper for a newer climber. The Dunking route is an easy climb with plenty of ice. For something a bit harder, you could tackle “Ankles Ahead,” which takes you up an ice-filled chimney formation.

Directions: Park at the Davis Path lot and follow the trail over the river. Turn left and follow the river, keeping an eye out for the amphitheater crag, followed by the slab, uphill on your right.

Frankenstein Complex
Crawford Notch State Park, N.H.

This top-notch ice wall is just a short hike from the Arethusa Falls trailhead. It offers up an enormous number of climbs that can appeal to all levels of climbers. The Trestle Slabs feature a range of grades that can be easily top-roped so you can work on your fundamentals, or safely test yourself. A Walk in the Forest is another spot that offers several milder routes of varying grades. Fortunately, these are all one-pitch climbs. Lost in the Forest has more beginning options.

Directions: Park at the Arethusa Falls trailhead and start up the trail, turning onto the Frankenstein Cliff Trail. Keep an eye out on your left and you’ll see the cliffs.

Cathedral Ledge North End
Echo Lake-Cathedral Ledge State Park, N.H.

Cathedral Ledge, a renowned 600-foot rock face just outside of North Conway, N.H., offers a plethora of daunting climbs, but has easier options as well. The North End area is a great place for those with fewer nicks in their crampons. “Thresher” is an easier, single-pitch climb up a broad ice flow. North End Pillars is very top-rope-friendly and can be climbed in many short, interesting ways. Since both of these areas are so broad, the fun you can have with each pitch is nearly endless.

Directions: From Route 16 in North Conway, take River Road (becomes West Side Road). Turn left at the sign for Cathedral Ledge and Echo Lake State Park, onto Old West Side Road, then immediately right onto Cathedral Ledge Road. Follow the road up past the small subdivision, parking anywhere on the road past that development. The road isn’t plowed, so it may not be passable all the way up. Just park as close as you can.

Smugglers Notch
Mount Mansfield State Forest, Vt.

Nestled between two ski resorts in the heart of Smugglers Notch, a short snowshoe in on Route 108 from north or south will get you to plenty of ice. “Jefferson Slide” on the west side of the road has numerous easy ascents. The left side of the slide is more iced than the right. The practice slabs on the east side offer some good beginner routes, though there are some more difficult pillars to avoid.

Directions: From Jeffersonville, take Mill Street (Route 108) south until you find a “road closed” sign just past the last parking lot for Smugglers Notch Resort. It’s a mile hike in to the climbing area.

Auburn Ice Canyon
Auburn, Mass.

The ice canyon is actually a flood diversion channel for the greater Worcester, Mass., area. Thick, glistening walls of ice form at the head of the canyon from the water flow. There are a lot of top-rope options, and with the abundance of ice, you shouldn’t have any problem finding spots to place your axes. For the more adventurous, there are a few mixed routes to explore as well.

Directions: Find a place to park on Westec Drive in Auburn. Cross Route 20 and follow the trail under the power lines. Follow the trail as it leaves the power lines to the right, and take a right when you reach a T intersection. Go until you come to a gap in a fence, and you’re at the head of the canyon. Follow the canyon to your right to find a way to the bottom. There have been access issues due to inconsiderately parked vehicles, so visitors should be careful to follow this route, rather than blazing a more direct path.

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Jeremy Day

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