Step like you s***, Swing like you f***; Ice Climbing at Cathedral Ledge, NH

A satisfying little vibration reverberates through the tool as the axe lodges itself in the ice. It’s a good stick. A few rocks up and down and the second axe lifts out of a pocket. A subtle glare gives away a small concave dip right at arm’s length above my head and a touch off center, my target.  Keep the hips in, long arms. A swing and a thunk and the second axe tossed chips of ice back over me.  One more swing and the axe sinks itself in with a distinctively clean *thup*.  I give it a light tug to check if the placement is stable.  Gotta remember to breathe.

There’s a nice ledge near my right knee. I pick my right knee up to bump my foot up and a little kick flicks the points of the crampon into the ledge. The left leg follows with another measured kick into a pocket ten inches to the left.  Leaning back towards my heals, I can feel the secondary points of the crampons engage the ice and it’s almost comfortable.  It’s definitely stable.  Gotta remember to breathe. 

Compared to a crimp on rock, I feel like I could hang on the ice tools all day.  The rigid boots make each foot placement into a little platform; I’m glad I’ve been on the slopes and given my calves a workout earlier this year snowboarding.  Everything is a jug.

Near North Conway, New Hampshire, Cathedral Ledge is a world-class destination for climbing, not just for ice, but for trad and mixed climbing as well. My friend Molly, her boyfriend (though that turned out to be a complicated story) Matt, and I are on an introductory ice climbing trip. I had purchased a package deal with Northeast Mountaineering on a whim in December, then struggled to find partners with the critical combination of vacation time, disposable income, an interest in climbing, and a desire to stand out in the cold with the chance (however remote, for where we are) that one might plummet into the ground along with several thousand pounds of ice which used to be attached to a wall. This is the first day of a three-day trip. The next two days will be mountaineering skills and attempting to summit Mt. Washington. It’s good to have open-minded friends.  


Northeast Mountaineering is owned by two brothers, Brett and Corey Fitzgerald. Their marketing, bolstered by Brett’s web design background and Corey’s photography, doesn’t give the impression that they’ve only been in business for three years. Starting from a $10 investment, they’ve built up a thriving business and a rental collection that makes the gear junky in me twinge with jealousy. 

Today is an evaluation day for a new guide, Nate. “Evaluation” is a pretty generous term, since Brett (one of the co-owners of NEM) described the growth of their venture as a direct product of the gross number of guides they can pick up. Nate’s extremely personable and a has a wealth of knowledge, he’ll make a great addition.

Nate grew up in Connecticut and has been ice climbing for 16 years.  He moved to the area 7 years ago and does some occasional guiding, but his new daughter keeps him busy.  I had almost forgotten that most of the rest of the country is settled and starting families by my age.

I look up and pick my path.  There are two ledges. Snow packs a reasonable slope up to the the lower, which is then about 7 feet up. From there, it’s 20 feet up at a 30 degree angle to the base of the upper face.  The upper face ranges between probably 15 and 20 feet tall along the section we’re at. Frozen runoff has formed gorgeous cascading ice features down both faces, layering as the runoff freezes each night.  There are sections that look to be feet thick and other patches where the ice has formed columns in front of caves and bare rock is exposed behind.  

I scramble to the lower face and choose my start. There is an incredible
column, about a foot wide, in front of an exposed rock section. It seems absurd that I’m about to climb it, but I’ve hung off of rock flakes that struck me as ridiculous at the time, and Nate has told me it’s completely stable. The column isn’t tall enough that I really need to use my axes on it at the start, so I reach up and place them, one at a time, in the thicker, solid line across the top of the face.  Skeptically, I pick up one boot and set it in a gap in the column.  I shift my weight on to it, but still don’t really trust that the ice isn’t going to snap.  I bump my other foot up to match.  Climbing has taught me that you will invariably fatigue your arms immediately if you keep them bent, and I remind myself that this is no different – I’ll have to trust my feet. I pull my hips in to the ice and stand up tall on my feet. Even though this is my 7th route of the day, I’m still surprised at just how stable my feet feel, with the two front spikes and the two secondary spikes engaged – dug in to the ice –  on both crampons.  

The nice thing about ice climbing, as compared to rock, is that the route really just is “go up.” Whereas I might need to feel around a granite face, like reading braille, to find a hold for a few fingers, the ice is completely open. Any small divot in the ice is a spot to stick an axe or a toe spike. 

The upper face, which will require more than a few movements, being 3-4 body lengths in height, is mostly exposed rock for two feet to the right and left of the column I want to try.  I’ve climbed the ice to either side; the left is a 70 degree incline with prominently stepped out indents from previous climbers over the season and the other is a bit steeper with less defined placements and some snow melt running gingerly over the surface in a few streams.  Under the left, there is a gorgeous cave defined by a frozen waterfall. My column widens from 18 inches at the base, in a V to where it connects with the formations on either side.

Halfway up the column, I give a little chuckle to myself as I am struck by the juxtaposition of such graceful beauty and the pointed violence as I stick my axe into the ice with a flick of the wrist. Arms out; trust the feet; gotta remember to breathe.  

I supposed I should explain the title. It’s a phase to remind you where your hips should be while you’re moving your feet or your tools. When moving your feet, you want to squat back, with your knees bent and your weight on the tools.  When moving your tools, you want to stand up and bring your hips close to the ice with your weight on your toes. I really like to think that at least once, someone has taught the phrase and been met with a quizzical look of an innocent kid.  

Over the course of the day, I climbed 9 routes, all on top rope. I can’t say that I have recently spent that much time on a top rope and I could easily see following placed ice screws. For better or worse, there really isn’t much of a sport (pre-bolted routes) version of ice climbing. Looks like I’ll just have to learn to set screws.