MY SPRUCE PEAK ADVENTURE: Ice-Climbing the Notch
HOW I STEPPED OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE AND FOUND MY GROOVE
By Lindsay Warner
Cement-gray clouds drift across the sky when I get out of my car at the base of Smuggler's Notch for a guided ice-climbing adventure booked through Spruce Peak Outfitters.
Greg Speer, co-owner of Sunrise Mountain Guides, hands me a pair of stiff ice-climbing boots, snowshoes, and ski poles (for the hike in), as well as a backpack with a climbing harness, helmet, and a pair of spike-studded crampons that I'll strap on when we reach the ice pitch we'll be scaling today. He also fits me with a pair of tough, knee-high nylon gaiters to keep snow out of my boots and protect my snow pants from the sharp points of my crampons.
It's a short, 30-minute hike up the Notch to our destination, and our snowshoes clatter across the crusty March snowpack. By the time we arrive, I'm sweating. We drop our packs as Speer assesses the ice. He's intimately familiar with the crag in all of its conditions, as he's been leading ice-climbing groups here for more than a decade.
"We weren't the first climbers here," he tells me in a conspiratorial tone. "There were those who came before us, and you can see the evidence on that tree!"
A pause. I peer near-sightedly at the tree he's pointing at. After a beat, he takes pity on me: "See the claw marks? Bears are climbers, too!" He's right, though it's hard to imagine a giant bear choosing to scale the steep waterfall of ice that's now right in front of us.
As we strap on our crampons and I check out the pair of curved, pointy-ended ice axes Speer brought for me, he talks me through what makes for good versus bad climbing conditions.
"Look for clear ice that you can see into," he advises. "Think of swimming in a river; you definitely don't want to jump into water that's white, as that means it's full of air and not very buoyant. It's the same with ice. Milky-white ice is airy and soft. That makes it easy to put a tool into, but you can't trust it. Clear ice is solid ice."
Because I'm a beginner, we'll be top-roping instead of screwing anchors into the ice itself. That provides more security, as I'll be attached via a fixed point at the summit of the pitch. Once the top rope is fastened, Speer gets me harnessed up and soon I'm "on-belay" and ready to climb.
The ice axes feel a little awkward in my hands, but I'm pretty good at swinging a hammer thanks to a summer job as a construction worker when I was 19, and similar principles apply here. Soon I get into a rhythm — draw back to my ear, swing in line with my shoulder, follow through with my wrist — swing-thunk; swing-thunk; kick your crampons into the ice and climb upward; pull out your tools and repeat. Speer instructs me to aim for low spots in the ice rather than bulges, which are prone to crumbling. Ice chips fly from my axes as I make my way up the face, stopping for a moment to peep into an ice cave that's flowing with water. Sooner than expected, I pop out on top, earning a warm, "nice job!" from Speer.
He sets up a new top rope to the left of our current route and sends me up again. This time, I take more care with my foot placement and body position, keeping my pelvis closer to the wall, and aiming to keep my shoulders low and heels down to help my crampons firmly lock into the ice. Soon I start to recognize the sound and feel of a solid swing, and while I still have strikes that glance off the ice and rebound toward my face, I'm also feeling faster and more comfortable.
When I get to the top, Speer rewards me with an invitation to rappel back down. Rappelling — a controlled descent by moving down the climbing rope — requires trust in your belayer and the courage to walk backward off a cliff. But once you get past that part, it's thrilling to purposefully bound down a sheer ice face, using your legs to propel you off the rocks and ice as you make your way to the ground.
Once I've landed, Speer packs up his gear and we make our way to the trail. I learn that there are tougher routes and bigger climbs further up the Notch, but Speer and his business partner, Alex Sargent, often take guests to this particular pitch because it's relatively easy to get to and offers easy to moderate climbs.
Speer and Sargent host about 50 guided tours per year, from rank beginners to more advanced climbers. And while guests typically show up in some semblance of the right gear for a winter adventure, Speer tells me a funny story about a young man from Trinidad who booked an ice-climbing tour — and then showed up in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops.
"I had to go home and get a bunch of winter clothes for him to wear," Speer says. "He grew up on the beach and had never seen snow in his life. While I was setting up the anchor, he disappeared, and I came down to find him flat on his back making a snow angel! I mean, this kid was like, 18, 19 years old, but if it's your first time in the snow, of course you're going to make a snow angel."
He laughs, remembering. "We had an awesome day. He was a terrible climber, but it was fun for me and a unique experience to teach someone how to ice climb who had never seen snow before."
I laugh too, and feel better about the dumb questions I no doubt asked, and questionable swings I no doubt made. Speer has seen and heard it all.
By the time we get back to the car and eat lunch, the sun is starting to come out, and he's nearly talked me into tackling the Stowe Mountain Meister Challenge: four days of guided snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing, and ice climbing tours. Nearly. But with the sun on my face, a sandwich in my belly, and a surge of confidence from today’s successful climb, anything seems possible.