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Forget About Swimming Under a Waterfall - Climb One Instead!

Get the Perfect Winter Adventure by Ice Climbing in Vermont

by Wendy Knight

Bach explodes from the 20-year GE alarm clock atop my nightstand. The sky is dark, though a shadow of light sneaks through the window. Moon or sun? I can't tell. This kind of music is to be played softly while drinking a glass of cognac near a crackling fire. But it is 6 a.m. on this first Sunday in February and I am off to climb a frozen waterfall in the Green Mountains of Vermont. "What the #$@&! am I doing?" I mutter as I peel off the warm flannel sheets and stumble to the bathroom. Adding to my incredulity, it registers 3 degrees at the corner store where I stop for coffee.

Petra Cliffs Climbing Center
A happy ice climber receiving instruction from Petra Cliffs Climbing Center and Mountaineering School in Vermont.

Along with five other hearty souls, I have signed up for Intro to Ice
Climbing, a course offered by Petra Cliffs Climbing Center and
Mountaineering School in Burlington, Vermont. As a novice rock climber, I probably have no business contemplating an ascent on slippery surface, which seems like an exceptionally difficult if not downright insane pursuit. But my first rock climbing outings have been with two highly acclaimed climbers, so I am feeling sufficiently primed, probably unwarranted. With its treacherous terrain, mental focus and harsh conditions, the sport is unmistakably intriguing, in a morbid way that watching a car wreck is. Though climbing is not really a sport, but an addiction. Once you start climbing, you simply cannot stop.

Besides, I live in Vermont, where winters envelope us in powder, sleet, freezing rain and subzero temperatures for up to six months. However tempting, it is just not possible to stay indoors for that long without losing all senses. And while spinning or kickboxing at the local gym have their merit, they lack the appeal of being outdoors. So I opt to forego a day of skiing or indoor aerobic activity to try ice climbing. After all, Vermont is legendary among those who climb vertical glass.

"Vermont is one of the best places in North America to ice climb," says Alden Pellett, a well-respected climber and professional photographer from Burlington who, along with another local climber, Doug Dillon, has joined us to shoot some photos for a future Petra Cliffs brochure.

"It's good to see another woman," says Ara as we our fitted with gear for the day-- helmets, harnesses, ice axes and crampons. My thought precisely. Fortunately, more women are taking up climbing, diminishing the sport's traditional male-dominated image. Our group hikes a quarter-mile up a steep, wooded slope to the base of Bristol Cliffs nestled on the west of the Green Mountains south of Burlington. Bristol Cliffs is a 80-foot wide, 220-foot high slope of cascading ice, rolling down from the roof in a 40-degree pitch. At the very top lies a swath of vertical ice, ice climber's nirvana.

"I notice a purple mark the size of a quarter encircling the middle knuckle of my left hand. Aside from the genuine battle scar, I don't recall having this much fun since I careened down the hill behind the post office on a plastic saucer."

Russ Halpern-Reiss, a 39-year old contractor, four-time Eco-Challenge competitor and our guide for the day briefly schools us in the basics. While there are varying degrees of climbing expertise among the group, we are all new to ice.

Crampons require a wide stance, like that of a cowboy or diapered-baby, so we diligently practice our new swagger. "If the front-points stick in the snow while moving forward, you can take a serious end-over or break an ankle," warn Halpern-Reiss. "And don't walk on the rope," he lectures, referring to essential piece of equipment that secures us to this lifetime.

As I begin hacking and kicking my way up the ice, I feel surprisingly
secure. It is hard to imagine that fragments of metal are the only things keeping me from premature death or permanent disfigurement. So I don't. My first destination is the anchor Halpern-Reiss has placed a hundred foot up the right side of the frozen cliff. I focus on throwing the serrated edge of the axe and jamming the front-points of the crampon-encased boot securely into the ice inches from my body. Ice climbing is a meditative endeavor, I discover: hand, hand, foot, foot. Each step or swing is taken slowly, methodically. Maintaining mental focus is critical.

We take turns ascending the two fixed routes, exchanging impressions and gathering pointers. At one point, the group is watching Halpern-Reiss solo up the cliff to set a third anchor above a bulge just below the vertical ice. He is quick and composed, entirely confident. Plate-sized ice chunks rain down from above. "Ice!" he warns repeatedly during his climb.

"You know how arsonists like to watch buildings burn? This is kind of like that," offers Onsol, a rock climbing instructor and artist from Manhattan. Watching ice climbers is almost as mesmerizing as the climbing itself. It is a surreal vision: a human being using his own power to move vertically up a slippery slope is just not natural. But the graceful and rhythmic movements are beautiful to witness.

On my second run, my calves are searing like a Texas rib-eye.

"Let your heels drop," Halpern-Reiss calls from below.

I concentrate on my grip and give the ice a fierce blow with the axe. Bam! A clean shot into the ice. Tiny ice particles spit at my face in retaliation. Solidly stabbing the pick in the ice is a mixture of success and comfort like locating a misplaced pair of old slippers. I pull down on both axes, hoping they hold, as I thrust my boots higher onto the ice and push my body toward the sky. Another set complete. Charged with adrenaline, I feel as if I can climb all the way to heaven.

Ice Climbing Instruction

Petra Cliffs Climbing Center and Mountaineering School,
105 Briggs Street,
Burlington, Vermont 05401, (802) 657-3872, offers ice climbing and mountaineering courses and private instruction.

International Mountain Climbing School, Main Street, P.O. Box 1666, North Conway, New Hampshire 03860, (603) 356-7064, offers special beginner and intermediate ice climbing retreats for women.

Colorado Mountain School, P.O. Box 1846, Estes Park, Colorado, (970) 586-5788, offers a 2-Day women?s ice climbing retreat for the REI Outdoor School. Female guides instruct women on ice climbing basics and on mastering techniques for progressively steeper ice.

Halfway up, I swing the left axe hard, smashing my knuckles into the surface before the sharp edge of the axe can catch the ice. My hands are so numb, the collision barely registers a grimace. It is only when I rappel down later, that I realize how cold and sore they are-- frozen, listless appendages dangling from my wrists. I exchange the soaked mittens for a dry pair and notice a purple mark the size of a quarter encircling the middle knuckle of my left hand. Aside from the genuine battle scar, I don't recall
having this much fun since I careened down the hill behind the post office on a plastic saucer.

"Have you eaten at Iron Horse?" inquires Dillon, a former coast guard helicopter pilot, bartender, caterer and now medical student. "They have the best steak," he exclaims. Hunger has obviously set in amongst the group. So with ironic pleasure, we begin a lively conversation about beer, wine and food.

A young, solo climber who joined us earlier reappears from his first climb. Dillon asks if he wants to take another run. "No, I have to go," he replies with disappointment. "I'm short on time."

We continue our culinary discussion. At one point, Dillon looks up to see the kid half way up the solid ice again. "Hey, I thought he had to go?" he asks rhetorically. The ice is obviously too enticing. Whatever it is he has to do will have to wait.

It is approaching dark and we are all spent. On the hike down, the talk drifts to food and spirits again. For dinner, I eat a pair of rare lamb chops and a pile of couscous that I rinse down with a glass of cabernet.The closet I get to a vegetable is the bag of peas that rests atop my bruised hand. Forget the balanced, healthy dinner: I've earned whatever it is I want to consume. One final glass of wine accompanies me in the steaming bath before I crawl back into the flannel sheets. No need to set the alarm tonight.

Wendy Knight is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in Vermont.