Ice Climbs at Lake Placid, New York

ice climb nols

I ice climbed the weekend of January 20 at Lake Placid, New York. Technically, this was not my first time ice climbing; the first time was in some unnamed crevasse in Alaska during my NOLS mountaineering course. The first experience was great even though we weren’t offered formal instructions on how to swing the ice tools or how to kick the crampons. We simply did whatever moves we thought fit under the warm, bright sunlight – everybody had fun. I thought I loved ice climbing.

I started to doubt whether I really liked ice climbing immediately after I stood in the crazy wind on Saturday, January 20. The guide explained to us that we could have driven to a more sheltered area if not because our group had a car problem therefore we didn’t meet him until noon. Every available layer was on which made me look like a pumpkin but I still couldn’t neutralize the wind chill. “Let’s climb! We’ll warm up.” Well, if I were already an experienced ice climber, maybe; however, I was such a newbie that it took me a century long to manage tightening the leashes of the ice tools with my heavy gloves.

The first thing we practiced was traversing. Solid footwork is the avenue to climbing success not only on rock but also on ice. Our guide, Mike, placed six ice tools and asked us to move in a fairly horizontal line while putting emphasis on kicking our feet with dropped heels so that we could engage as many as possible spikes from our crampons into the ice.

It wasn’t easy or I must have done something wrong. My crampons simply refused to bite the ice and I was always afraid that my feet were going to slip off and they did most of the time. During the whole course, Mike pointed out several mistakes I had been making. I had to drop my heels, utilize gravity and kick with confidence. “Stick your butt out,” said Mike, otherwise I could not form a kick line that would penetrate the ice with the most favorable angle. “Trust your feet!” I worried too much that my feet were going to fail. And I had a tendency to wiggle my feet when I swung my ice tool higher, causing me to lose my original foot position.

“Trust your feet” has become the most used/heard phrase recently, like when I just entered a new sport I heard “Relax” all the time. While I was ice climbing, I didn’t show enough respect to my feet and the fact that ice climbing is a new sport to me is not the main reason. I have been rock climbing in a gym slightly over a year, but I still don’t think I offer my feet enough credit as I should. You can not see your feet and you should not intend to look at your feet all the time for many sports. You have to have faith in them as you believe that tomorrow will be a better day because foot work plays a more significant part than we intuitively think it does. No matter whether we run, climb, ski, or even kayak (surprise, surprise!) our feet, or in a broader sense our legs, are our best friends and they deserve this.

As for swinging the ice tools, the best place to pick is on a concave surface or a depression spot because the ice tools get in and stay there easier. When swinging the tool, be sure to swing it like you are whipping it and make sure at the last moment, stress your wrist.

Mike set up a top rope and we started to climb. I was not doing very well, partly because of my lack of skills and partly because of super hard ice caused by persistent cold weather before our trip to Lake Placid. The sun was not there and I was exposed to the wind. It was very cold and I stubbornly insisted going up and wasn’t aware that my fingers were getting numb. Finally I was beaten by frustration and requested to be lowered down. The moment I started to let loose my ice tools and let them hang, my blood started to occupy my finger tips and the pain reached its climax when my feet dropped flat on the ground. It was so painful to have warm blood rapidly stream into frozen fingers that I lost my strength to defend my dignity and my tears immediately were around the corner.

When I rock climb, I lower my arms beneath my heart and shake them whenever I have a chance to facilitate the blood flow and give my arms a short break. Why did I forget to do the same when I ice climbed? It should be stressed more given all the cold factors: ice, air temperature, and wind chill. I had it coming; I should have known better that prevention was the key.

We then learned about how to use ice screws and some knowledge about ice anchors and got back to the top rope. Mike suggested that I climb a different route to the left of the one I climbed because it was a wetter route given some evidence he collected. A wetter route means that the ice is softer and I could spend less energy to stick my ice tools and crampons in but the drawback was I would get wet which is not advisable in winter. After the climb, we called it a day and I was glad to get out of the wind. That night, I kept wondering whether I still liked ice climbing.

The second day, it was sunny and no wind, nice conditions. We came to a different site and started to see other fellow ice climbers. Mike led a route and set up a top rope for us and this time I climbed to the top even though I had to take a few breaks because it was a very long route. I learned afterwards that the route is called Positive Reinforcement. “What a name,” I said to Mike, “Who named it?” He replied, “Sometimes we just called it PR.”

I looked at the route from below, and wondered whether it would look the same and feel the same the next winter. It is fascinating that an ice route has a unique name, which means that even though nothing really remains the same, this route must offer some similar characteristics to the climbers next winter and the following winters to come.

We switched to another route and practiced placing and removing ice screws while top roping. I practiced traversing more to strengthen my foot placement. Time flied and it was time to greet farewell to the ice. In summary, the day was a positive reinforcement but I was still debating whether I wanted to have ice climbing as a regular sport.

The next day was a Monday, we should have been back at our jobs; however, the car wasn’t fixed yet. In order to kill the waiting time, we decided to throw in another half day of ice climbing. Mike took us to another site, which required a bit of a hike-in. Along the way, we hiked on a frozen lake, passed several frozen waterfalls of different scales. There were no other people, it was quiet and the color was either white or crystal. We did an easy two-pitch climb as a warm-up and finished up on a route that provided a short but challengingly steep section. It was indescribably fun.

I loved the last day very much. Although we were very close to the trailhead, I felt that we were in another world. Nobody else but us was there, traveling on different terrains, experiencing different landscapes. All these wilderness elements put spices on ice climbing, and made it beyond the scope of simply being a sport. Therefore I am willing to drive somewhere more nearby, get out of my car to practice swinging my axes and kicking my crampons in order to develop my skills and strengths. Because I know if I practice persistently, one day, yes one day I will strap all my gear to my backpack and climb into some place less traveled, some place I love to be.

Ice climbing is fun and I love it.

Some notes about my instructor Mike Leblanc:

Mike is one of the instructors from EMS climbing School. I like him. He presented the material well and made things easy to understand. One thing I really liked was that he showed us climbs of different characteristics so that we got to know ice climbing from a macro view. One thing I wish he had done was to point out what I did wrong and corrected me without worrying about that might offend me. I think that is due to the fact that he is a very polite and humble person, and he started to correct me in a straight-forward way after we had been talking for a while. If one takes classes from him, I would suggest to keep asking him questions. He seems to know the right answer to every question related to climbing and mountaineering and has a lot of personal experience to share.

His info:
Mike Leblanc, AMGA certified, EMS climbing school instructor.
Email: mleblanc AT ems DOT com
2453 Main Street, Lake Placid, NY 12946

2 thoughts on “Ice Climbs at Lake Placid, New York”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top