Dames in the Dacks: A Mountaineering Adventure in the Adirondacks with Eastern Mountain Sports

Our little crew near the top of Algonquin. Boy was it cold!
Inspired by friends adventuring all over the world, I started looking at mountaineering courses this past fall. I've spent so much time reading about other peoples' adventures in faraway places and I've always wanted to try mountaineering, to be like one of those people I read about. 

And I never really thought it was possible. But after reading about a close friend's experience and trying to understand what it was that kept me from pursuing a whole new realm of outdoor adventure, I finally decided it was time.

One of the most prohibitive factors was, and still is, cost. But where there's a will...you know... and I found out through the Eastern Mountain Sports website that they offer classes of all sorts very close to home. Their 3 Day Accelerated Mountaineering course sounded like the perfect way to introduce myself to ice climbing and mountaineering, and by taking it in the Adirondacks, I'd be doing it in a relatively familiar environment. Leave it to Twitter to make a good idea a great idea. I was ecstatic to discover that Aleya was interested and we signed up to take the class together.

Day 1: Basic Mountaineering Skills, Sliding Down Hills, and My First Pitch of Ice

All suited up to climb my first pitch of ice!
Aleya and I met our instructor, Matt, at the EMS store in Lake Placid Friday morning (1/8). We discovered we'd have a third in the class, Alex, an assistant professor of medicine from New York City. Alex's enthusiasm and willingness to learn a million new things in the span of three days was fantastic, and I'm so glad we had the chance to meet him.

We geared up at the store, learning about different types of boots, crampons and ice tools. Matt told us o
ur first half day would be spent learning basics, including walking in crampons and self arrest techniques. Imagine our excitement when we learned we'd be sliding down a hill all morning! 

Matt took us to what was the site of the 1932 Olympic ski jump landing area for our lessons. We practiced holding our ice axes in self arrest position and arresting while sliding down the hill in different scenarios. The face-first-on-your-back scenario was the scariest, but still, I couldn't help but giggle like a five-year-old while hurtling myself down a snowy slope.

The afternoon was a monumental one. Matt took us to Buster (NEI 2-3, Pitchoff Mountain) for ice climbing. Ice climbing has always been one of those sports I looked at with a furrowed brow, eyes full of skepticism. (You want me to don sharp, pointy things on all of my limbs and throw them at a wall of ice, repeatedly, in the brutal cold?) But when I think of ice climbing, the words "hardcore" and "badass" are among the first I think of. I couldn't wait to try it.

Matt went up first and set a toprope anchor for the three of us to use. Aleya had been ice climbing before, but for Alex and I, it was brand new. It took me a bit to understand what it felt like to really swing the ice tools like I meant it, what it felt like when I hit a good spot, and the sounds the ice makes. But it was absolutely exhilarating. For someone who submits to fear often in rock climbing, I was surprisingly unafraid. Perhaps it was understanding that in ice climbing, you don't fall, and if you do, it's really, really bad.

The afternoon flew by and before we knew it, day 1 was over. We all met George for food and my favorite beer at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. George told us about his activities for the day, which involved a solo ice climb called Sisters Right. Awesome, George.

Tools/Gear I Used: Black Diamond Viper Hammer Ice Tool, Black Diamond Sabretooth Crampons, Black Diamond Raven or Raven Pro Ice Axe, Petzl Elios Helmet

Day 2: Who Needs One Pitch of Ice When You've Got Three?

Yay ice climbing! I was having a blast learning how to ascend an entirely new form of vertical in the sun.
We began the second day at the EMS store in Lake Placid again and hatched a plan to do a multi pitch ice climb called Chapel Pond Slab (II, WI 2-3, ~700'). I was beyond excited. My first multi pitch climb EVER, and on ice no less! We got to the base of the slab and found but two other parties in the middle of their ascent. Rather than waiting for them in the bitter cold, we moved on to an unnamed three pitch climb a bit down the road from Chapel Pond.

Again, Matt went up first and belayed us all from above. We ascended the first pitch in no time at all, and Alex belayed Matt on lead - his first lead belay ever! We hunkered down into the ice and snow at the top of the first pitch together while Matt led up the second. The entire climb was in the sun, and after the way was over, Aleya and I decided to name the cl
imb "Juicy (NEI 1-2) for reasons I'm sure you can suppose. (We opted for a finalized name of Slushie today).

The second pitch was mostly hard packed snow over a thin sheet of ice, but not at all steep, and the third pitch was ice covered, but short. I half jokingly I told Matt I'd lead it - after all, it was only 20 feet or so. We made it to the top and took turns rappelling down. I finished the day with an incredible sense of accomplishment.

Tools/Gear I Used: Petzl Charlet Quark Ice Tool w/o leash (absolutely loved these), Black Diamond Sabretooth Crampons, Petzl Elios Helmet

Day 3: Putting it All Together on the Summit of the Second-Highest Adirondack Mountain Peak

Pausing for a rest near the top of Algonquin!
I've spent many a backpacking trip on the trails in the Adirondacks, and the area is one of my favorite places on Earth. I couldn't wait to try for the second-highest peak in the region, Algonquin, as the true test of what we'd learned. To be honest, I was a bit nervous suiting up in the parking lot at -5ºF. I have all the necessary clothes to stay warm in those conditions, but part of me still couldn't believe I'd make it out without frostbite.

We left around 8am in snowshoes fr
om the Adirondack Loj parking lot. Snowshoes are required on the trails in the winter, not just for personal safety, but to prevent post-holing, which can cause deterioration of the trail and pose a hazard for other users. I found snowshoes extremely awkward at first, but had them figured out in no time. I had a blast experimenting with just how deep a snow pile I could step in without sinking.

We made our way up the trail and reached a good stopping point 0.9 miles below the summit of Algonquin at a trail intersection. One way up led to Wright peak, the other up to Algonquin. We'd decided what our turnaround time was in the parking lot, and agreed we'd reevaluate our summit attempt at that time. Our options were to try for Algonquin at 5,114' or summit Wright instead. We'd passed our turnaround time by a short bit, but after a short discussion, we decided we wanted to try for Algonquin regardless.

Despite hearing reports of brutal wind and decreased visibility, we switched from snowshoes to crampons and moved climbed. When we broke through tree line, I started to get scared. The wind was howling, so fierce that at times that standing seemed difficult. Mid-afternoon snow had come in, as predicted, and a large cloud was enveloping the mountain as we climbed. At no point did I have any doubt Matt was keeping us safe, and I knew he wouldn't have taken us up if he thought there was any danger. But being confronted with that kind of weather - that wind and those temperatures - in such an exposed spot for the first time was scary. Way finding became difficult even though the cairns we were using were quite tall. They'd been enveloped in rime ice and snow, and looked just like any other lump on top of the mountain. But all of the fear aside, it was absolutely beautiful, like another planet only those willing to bear the weather and the conditions got to see.

We made it down safely, switched back to snowshoes, and headed down. I've battled ITBS (Illiotibial Band Syndrome) in the past from running, and my right knee was extremely sore by the end of the descent. Matt suggested I use the poles to take some of the weight off my knee, which helped considerably, but it's definitely something I'm going to need to learn to manage on longer trips. But the pain in my knee didn't matter in the slightest; we'd accomplished something incredible, something I'd always wanted to do, and it felt great.

Nature of any kind is restorative, and I'm never as happy as I am when I'm outside. Rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, ice climbing, mountaineering, all of it makes me feel more whole. The need to live completely in the moment when I'm on a climb, leaving everything behind, I thirst for it, and am beginning to realize I need to experience that on a regular basis to be happy. I need to be outside. It doesn't always have to be pushing my limits rock climbing, or setting a pace on a hike that makes me want to fall over at the end. It's just being there, feeling the terrain below my feet, feeling the wind on my skin, and knowing I'm just a small part of a very big world.

This weekend was, like I said, a monumental one. I got to try so many things I've only dreamed about trying, never picturing myself as the type of person who'd be doing those things. And granted it wasn't a big mountain, or a super tall ice climb, I still feel like I really accomplished something up in the High Peaks with Alex and Aleya. I've had friends and family members comment on my trip photos, telling me they can't believe the girl they knew could ice climb, or could make it up a mountain in sub zero temperatures and blistering winds.

But I can, and I can't wait to do it again.


Jayme said…
Love reading your ADK posts. We did Wright on an icy Columbus Day this fall, with a dusting of snow - your pictures are pretty impressive in light of that experience! We went up the same way from the HPIC, just decided to take the spur to Wright instead of Algonquin 0.9 mi. from the top based on time. I don't know if I'm ready for quite -5^, but would love to get together for a peak sometime this year!
Rockgrrl said…
What a great post, thanks for sharing it, I think it will inspire others to take up new sports, I know it added to my own desire to add more to my outdoor sport list :)
Jayme said…
Love reading your ADK posts. We did Wright on an icy Columbus Day this fall, with a dusting of snow - your pictures are pretty impressive in light of that experience! We went up the same way from the HPIC, just decided to take the spur to Wright instead of Algonquin 0.9 mi. from the top based on time. I don't know if I'm ready for quite -5^, but would love to get together for a peak sometime this year!