Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Mica Mine

I think it's safe to say that modern mixed climbing has fully arrived in the northeast. There are now multiple areas that have radically overhung routes that include both ice and rock climbing at a very high level of difficulty. Exit 30 Crag in the Adirondacks, Snake Mountain in Addison, VT, the Cathedral Cave, Toko Crag in Madison, NH and the Mica Mine in Evans Notch all have amazing modern mixed routes. Many of these routes are bolt protected and fruit boots and modern mixed climbing ice tools are pretty much required. I know, the traditionalist in you is saying this is silly. Well, it is. And it isn't - the climbing is hard, and a lot of fun.

I had the opportunity to check out the Mica Mine in Evans Notch a few days ago. I went in there with Matt McCormick, Josh Whorley, and Jeremy Dowdy from Vermont. Bayard Russell and Anne Skidmore met us there later in the day. Bayard and a few other North Conway are locals have been very active in the Evans Notch area. Our first impression was "whoa, this rock looks like crap". It is. But it turns out that the climbing is really fun, and no one's going to complain about the high quality rock being scarred by picks and crampons. It turns out that it's the perfect type of place to put in hard mixed routes.

The lighting in the mine, basically a round hole in the ground, wasn't that good so bear with the photos. What's spectacular is the climbing. It's sheltered from the precipitation and the wind - the perfect spot for nasty days. I'm hooked. Now the only thing I have to do is find a pair of fruit boots in size 15....

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Lake (Willoughby)

Lake Willoughby needs no introduction.  If what you want to do is climb multi-pitch ice routes in the United States there is no better venue. A 500' tall, .5 mile long cliff situated on a steep hillside overlooking the deepest lake in Vermont, "the Lake" as climbers call it, is the finest pure ice climbing area in the United States. Argue with me if you like, or just spend some time getting to know the place and likely you'll agree.

Living in southern New York state most of the year, it's a challenge to get to Willoughby at all during the ice season. It's not the first venue to form up and the late winter sun takes it's toll on the climbs. The window for climbing there is shorter than in the higher elevation, shady New England climbing areas. The past few years I've only climbed there once per season. Several years ago, while living in Vermont, the Lake was my favorite climbing area, and I climbed there a few times a week during the winter. Since then my visits have been less frequent. It's a challenging place to get to for most of us which really makes it a special place to climb.

Another challenge, ironically, is finding a partner for weekday climbing. It's pretty hard to find reliable partners that have the same schedule as you when you work weekends. My partner for this day was Mike Wejchert. He's a young guy (23!) from Connecticut who's talented and experienced for his age. He's one of those fortunate individuals who's very motivated and was introduced to climbing by his father at a very young age. Mike is definitely a guy to keep your eye on over the next few years. He seems psyched to climb big alpine routes and harder winter routes here in the northeast.

The intention was to climb something I've never done before (long list); it was only Mike's second visit so he was psyched just to be there. I was hoping that Solstice would be in, but was just about willing to settle for any line there, they're all really good. Solstice was a no go. The sun was definitely out last week and the thinner climbs were looking a little baked. I was worried the bottom of Solstice might fall off under the weight of a climber, not to mention there's very little protection on the first pitch. We "settled" on Called on Account of Rains, which was in and is relatively close by. I followed this route several years ago and, knowing that the start was the psychological crux, was eager to lead the first pitch.

The first pitch went pretty smoothly. It was unbonded and a bit hollow sounding (the norm for p.1 of Called).  The following three pitches went very smoothly and Mike and I found ourselves on top of an amazing route in a beautiful spot. Climbing at the Lake is great, pure fun with a bit of terror mixed in. After all you are climbing enormous columns of ice that are, at times, barely attached to an exposed 500' tall cliff.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's Official, Winter's Here!

It's been consistently cold throughout the northeast for about 4 days. That's enough time for ice climbs to start forming. Like many other climbers, I recently dug out my winter kit. After a lot of searching in my storage unit I finally found everything I own for winter climbing. So, I've added that to what I carry around with me in my small vehicle (a Toyota Yaris hatchback). I'm still keeping the rock gear with me too because there's always the chance of a warm, sunny day.

I'm a pretty laid back person, but early season I can become pretty anxious. I live for northeastern winters. When I haven't climbed ice in 8 months I frantically pack, repack and prepare for the first day out winter climbing. Yesterday was a little different though. Everything was in my car, but nothing was packed. Monday, after some convincing, I was able to get my friend Erik Eisele to agree to meet me over at the Cannon trailhead on Tuesday morning. I wanted to do a recon mission and I felt that four days was plenty of time for the cliffs to have some ice.

The ride up, for both of us, was a bit disheartening. I saw almost no ice on any of the roadcuts along interstate 93. Erik, coming from the Mt. Washington Valley, told me that he didn't really see any ice at all along his drive through Crawford Notch. Not good news. Maybe it wasn't a bad thing that I didn't bother packing my things three times the night before. Adding insult to what already seemed like injury, we were going to have to schlep up to the base of the cliff because we couldn't see a damn thing. Cannon was shrouded in clouds. If you've walked up to the base of Cannon in early season you know that walking back down the talus shouldn't be part of your plan. Descending that talus is like gambling, but if you're the unlucky winner you get a hyperextended knee or tib/fib fracture.

I packed my stuff (Erik, who's more organized than me was already packed) wondering the whole time what I was forgetting (actually remembered everything). We missed the approach trail first time around (oops, too much chatting), found it and continued up. Omega looked promising so we headed there first. Along the way we noticed that the ground wasn't frozen anywhere. It's been such a warm fall that the Earth's surface hasn't cooled off too much quite yet.

Omega just wasn't there, and Prozac to the right had a lot of ice in the middle. Prozac (WI 5+, M6 ish, the name says it all) didn't seem like the best choice for our first route of the season though. Oh well, back towards Whitney Gilman Ridge to have a look at the dike....

As we looked up into the Black Dike we were pleasantly surprised to find normal December conditions up there, with several inches of fresh, soft new ice to climb and no one else around. Score!  The climb looked great and after a couple rounds of rock, paper, scissors Erik determined that he wanted the crux pitch.

As we started up the route we found good climbing conditions - soft ice which is friendly to climb, but too new and soft to hold reliable screw placements. Well it's never in the planbook to fall on lower angle ice anyways so off we went. The rest of the climb went very smoothly. The Black Dike is an absolute classic, and feels that way no matter how many times one has climbed the route.

I'm hoping to head up there again over the next couple days. I haven't climbed on Cannon much in the winter (being from NY state it's a long ride). I'll post more details if I head up there Thurs/Fri.  For conditions and additional information about climbing in Franconia check out NEice.