Hanging at the Tasty Freeze
We test the ice-climbing gear to get you started
By Mark Synnott
| Doug Berry/Telluride Stock|
SO YOU'RE clinging to the side of a frozen waterfall 60 feet off the ground with nothing but a half-inch of ice-submerged steel stopping you from an unscheduled descent. Wrists cinched into leashes, fingers gripping cold metal, your hands tingle and then go numb. Shrapnel explodes into your face with every swing of the ax. This is ice climbing, a cross between The Song of Roland and the NHL. And despite the abuse—or perhaps because of it—there is a certain primitive satisfaction in sinking razor-sharp picks into solid blue ice.
Which may in part be why ice climbing has emerged as an increasingly popular fringe sport: Ski towns like Vail and Valdez now attract ice climbers, and once-deserted trailhead parking lots are bustling with rusty cars and pickups crammed with gear. Before you swing a tool, however, do yourself a favor. If you're willing to take some risk and confident of your ability to suffer (whether you enjoy it or not), then find qualified instruction. Don't try to figure out ice climbing on your own. Hire a guide—or better yet, start at an ice festival (see "Icicle Capades," page 84), where you can attend a clinic and demo much of the equipment reviewed here. It's nice to be able to try the stuff, considering that outfitting yourself costs upward of $1,000. I recently spent some time in Mount Washington's Huntington Ravine testing the newest offerings from the four major manufacturers (those whose wares you can actually find in shops). All of it is of the highest caliber; nuances of design will dictate what's best for you.