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Review of EMS Winter Climbing 101

Ice Climbing at Frankenstein Cliffs
Ice Climbing at Frankenstein Cliffs

I took the first mountaineering and ice climbing course offered by EMS, Winter Climbing 101, in their winter climbing school curriculum on Saturday and I had a blast! I learned far more than I expected too, and I had a really good time.

We spent most of the day practicing ice axe, crampon, and ice climbing skills, outdoors at Frankenstein Cliffs in Crawford Notch. This is the home to some of the best ice climbing in the Northeast.

The EMS instructors were great and there was plenty of one-on-one instruction and individual attention. For $150 for an 8 hour class, this course is a great deal for anyone who wants to try something different or get a taste of winter mountaineering and ice climbing.

Gear Outfitting

One of the biggest hurdles to trying out winter hiking, snowshoeing, mountaineering, or ice climbing is getting all of the required gear together. So if there’s one benefit to taking a class like this, it’s to see what equipment an accredited school like EMS uses to safely teach students. Chances are good that the gear they use will work for you when it comes time to buy your own.

EMS Climbing School Gear Fitting
EMS Climbing School Gear Fitting

Upon arrival, students are outfitted with all of the winter gear they need for the course from insulated plastic boots to crampons, ice axes, climbing harnesses, and helmets. EMS uses Koflach Degre and Scarpa Inverno mountaineering boots, Black Diamond Raven Mountaineering Axes, Cobra Hammers, Half Dome Helmets and Cyborg and Sabertooth Pro Step-in Crampons.

The overlap between these products and my own winter gear list is pretty impressive. Someone at EMS must be reading my blog!

Rope Safety and Practice Session

Before we headed out to the ice, one of the instructors gave us a demo on how to tie-in to our safety harnesses using double figure eight and stopper knots, and we practiced for a while under the watchful eyes of the instructors, Charlie, Sara, and John. Once you’re fitted for your harness, it stays on for the rest of the day, indoors and out, until you’re off the ice.

Winter Ice Climbing Rope Safety Practice
Winter Ice Climbing Rope Safety Practice

I’ve attended my share of climbing safety demonstrations and mountaineering courses and there are a lot of different ways that you can communicate these skills and the importance of safety. While the theme was reiterated throughout the day and additional instruction was provided outdoors, I have to give the instructors credit for not using scare tactics for conveying this information. We all understood the risks and the fact that we were relying on each other, but I had fun during class without the specter of fear looming over me. That’s a subtle teaching skill, given the subject matter.

Experiential Learning

The emphasis of the Winter Climbing 101 class is on experiential learning, so we headed out to find some ice as soon as the basics had been covered. The class split up into a couple of vehicles and we carpooled to Crawford Notch, just down Rt 302 from North Conway.

Ice at Frankenstein Cliffs, Crawford Notch
Ice at Frankenstein Cliffs, Crawford Notch

From the Frankenstein Trail-head, we walked about a half mile along the mini-gauge scenic railway line that runs out of the AMC Highland Center. There was ice and we passed some climbers who were already setting up anchors for the day.

Our instructors picked a location known as The Lost Forest that had a good-sized ice face for us to climb, including some harder vertical sections. But first, we had to learn basic mountaineering axe and crampon technique.

Mountaineering Axe Technique

Imagine that your ankles have ceased to flex. This is what it’s like to walk in the double plastic mountaineering boots we were all wearing. Instead of bending your ankles to walk forward, you have to sort of thrust your hips in front of your feet, like The Mummy, to walk forward.

Since you can’t bend your ankles, you can’t raise your toes to walk up a hill. Instead, you need to learn how to side step your way up a hill, using an ice axe placement and step sequence called french technique.

This is where the ice axe comes into play. It’s always on your uphill side, and you plant it in the ground to use as a support as your step sideways, crossing one foot over the other. If you need to switch directions, you position your feet spayed out duck-wise, switch your axe to the other (uphill hand) and continue uphill leading with the other foot.

Ice Axe Self-Rescue Position
Ice Axe Self-Rescue Position

There are a couple of little nuances to remember. Take small steps to conserve your energy, keep the pick side of the axe pointed backwards, don’t take steps that aren’t supported using your ice axe, and keep your feet flat to the surface of the ground.

If you fall, you can use your ice axe as a break to stop. Sara gave us a short demonstration of this, but there wasn’t enough snow to practice. Using an axe like this for self-rescue requires holding it a certain way (pick facing rear), which we did the rest of the day. Ice axe self-rescue is covered in the next winter class, Ice Climbing 201 or Mountaineering 201 if you want to learn it.

Crampon Technique

It’s really hard to imagine what wearing crampons is like until you try it. For ice climbing, it’s normal to wear a 12 point crampon that is rigidly attached to the bottom of your mountaineering boot and has sharp 1 inch teeth jutting down and in front of you.

Truthfully, you feel like superman when you’re wearing these things. I guess it’s like driving a truck with giant tires or living with Sarah Palin. Nothing can get in your way.

Charlie Demonstrates Bad Crampon Technique
Charlie Demonstrates Bad Crampon Technique

Crampons are designed for giving you traction when walking on ice. You get maximum traction when your feet stay flat and all of the vertical crampon points are in contact with the ice. If you pivot the base of your foot, half of your crampons will lift off the ice, increasing the risk  of your slipping.

Coordinating the use of an ice axe and crampons takes a little practice to get down, so we played follow the leader for a while on harder and harder sections of hill, until we were competent enough to proceed to some real ice climbing, using top ropes, climbing axes, and our climbing harnesses.

Ice Climbing

When you ice climb with EMS in Ice Climbing 101, you’re using a safety technique called top roping, commonly used at indoors climbing gyms. Should you lose your step during your ascent, you’ll be caught immediately by a belayer who’s got a brake on your rope to catch you from descending suddenly. I fell and was caught like this on my first climb on Saturday. But after I slipped, I was able to regain my footing and continue climbing.

Ice climbing with a single ice axe
Ice climbing with a single ice axe

During our first climb, we only used one ice axe, instead of two. It’s kind of amazing how far you can get on medium angle ice this way. Using a second axe becomes important when the ice gets more vertical, but it was an interesting teaching technique to only introduce the second axe after you’ve mastered just one.

Here are some additional elements of technique I learned:

When climbing up an ice wall, you’ll probably use the horizontal front points on your crampons a lot. These will tire out your calf muscles so you want to find a place on the ice where you can rest a foot, horizontally, on the other points of your crampon.

When climbing it’s important to take small steps and bring your following foot up to the same level as your lead foot. Taking big steps uses a lot of extra energy, but can be justified if the shape of the ice requires it.

Individual Instruction by Sara Reeder - EMS Climbing School
Individual Instruction by Sara Reeder – EMS Climbing School

When you swing a short ice axe, you don’t have to swing it that hard. We were using weighted axes with flat ice hammers opposite the pick, so you really just needed a straight throw with a final flick of the wrist to get a good purchase in the ice.

Multiple Belayers Belaying
Multiple Belayers Belaying

Ice has bulges and pits, so when you aim your ice axe, it’s good to aim for a pit to get the best hold. If it’s hard to get the pick out of the ice between swings, you’re probably swinging too hard and can let off some the force.

The length of your swing should be above your current position since your going to climb up to it, or to the side if you want to move laterally across the ice face.

Prerequisites

Tom Murphy, one of my regular readers asked me to document what I thought the fitness level required for taking this class was. While EMS says, vaguely, that you should be reasonably fit, I think I can be a bit more precise. If you can snowshoe 3 miles on a golf course with a 20 lb backpack, you can comfortably take this class.

Truthfully, the most tiring thing is being in the cold for 6 hours straight. I climbed the ice three times during the day for about 4 minutes each time, but it wasn’t that strenuous . I was out of breath with excitement the first time, but the next two times I took my time and experimented with resting along the climb, which was a useful skill to learn. Some students only chose to ice climb once. It’s really up to you.

Ice Climbers Walking near Frankenstein Cliffs
Ice Climbers Walking near Frankenstein Cliffs

Student Feedback

While I had a lot of fun in this class and I learned a lot of new things, I was very interested what my fellow students had to say at the end of class. Face it, I was a ringer. Six of the other seven students in my class had zero winter hiking or climbing experience, but everyone said that they’d had a blast and that they’d achieved way more than they had expected.

One thing I found amazing, was how far most of the students had traveled to attend this one day course. Three people came from New York City, one from Rhode Island, and another from south of Boston. I think that says something about the EMS Climbing School and their reputation, that it can attract people to a class they really know nothing about, from so far away.

Disclosure: EMS has provided Sectionhiker.com with complementary admission to a series of Climbing School classes in exchange for guest blogging coverage, but EMS has not covered the full expense (lodging, meals, gas) to create this content and Sectionhiker.com is not obligated to give the EMS Climbing School favorable reviews.

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17 comments

  1. Thanks for the write up, I was thinking of taking a class with EMS. What would it cost to rent all the gear you need for a weekend after you learn the skills? btw I would definitely climb with Sarah Palin. lol

  2. Wish I lived closer! I'm in NC… Interesting, in any case. Thanks.

  3. You have to call EMS. While they don't list that on their site, I did see a rental office at the back of the North Conway store full of gear. I'd just call them and ask about it. Here's the rental link on their site: http://www.ems.com/helpdesk/index.jsp?cp=3815231&…

    That said. I would not recommend that you go ice climbing unescorted without a guide. The 101 class gives you a taste, but you don't have the safety skills to set a safety anchor or ice screw protection.

    IMHO, this class still requires that you take another day of instruction to learn ice axe self-rescue technique, even before your venture out for walks wearing crampons. It's really easy to break your legs wearing crampons if you haven't learned how to stop a fall.

    Alternatively, you can take another day of instruction, on a climb up Mt Washington. This is what the father and son duo on my course did. Although I haven't done this with EMS yet, I bet they teach ice axe self-rescue because you need it to climb that peak, in particular.

    I did 2 self-rescues my first time up Mt washington in winter, but it's a skill you need for any any hike you wear crampons or use an ice axe on. Sermon off. :-)

  4. Thanks for the right up. I've climbed Shasta a few times only because conditions did not requires technical or ice climbing skills. Uncle Sam taught me repelling and rescue, but that ice climbing looks challenging and exciting. EMS is great, I took their Kayaking 102 – Strokes and Rescues course this past summer – Outstanding.

  5. I bet it gets much harder when you have to lead without protection, but with a top rope and belayer, it's very accessible.

  6. That does look like a lot of fun! Can you just have like a one day crash course or something of a sort? I'd like to take my friend for his birthday to do that since he is an avid mountaineer.

  7. Absolutely. This was just a 1 day, 8 hour class. They also have climbing schools in Lake Placid and the Gunks I think. Lots of winter in New England.

  8. Great post, Philip! I took the 3-day mountaineering course with EMS last winter and had a similar experience. I found the instructors to be top notch, and it sounds like we learned a lot of similar techniques. Kudos to EMS for doing another amazing class!

  9. Great stuff! I can't believe you got to swing a BD Cobra before I did. Mine are sitting here on my desk, waiting, plotting…

  10. Out of curiosity why did you buy a pair of Cobras? They seem pretty darn heavy. I was just looking at the X-factor series from CAMP because they seem a lot lighter and they have interchangeable handles. Do you have any opinions on the pros and cons of pick weight, or what makes one ice tool better than another?

  11. I don't think there's much weight difference – the Cobras come in at 617g / 588g and Camp X-ice at 634g / 624g for the adze / hammer respectively. I'll be really interested to see how they handle. My first impression was that the Cobras might be *too* light, and wouldn't have the crushing momentum of my old (very old) Petzls. But I'm sure my triceps will thank me at the end of a long day.

    I also really like the trigger and the finger guard on the Cobras, which come as standard. I really smashed up my knuckles this year in NZ, and decided that some better protection was in order. The other consideration is that I can get BD spares almost anywhere in Asia, so if I break a pick then I can get a replacement quickly – I rarely see Camp gear in this part of the world.

    OK, OK, the real truth is that I have a fetish for carbon fiber :-)

  12. Those are great reasons. You've given me impeccable advice over the years about mountaineering gear, so I keep asking.

  13. Heading out tomorrow for my Mountaineering 101 course! I have a question– are class participants supposed to tip the EMS guide in addition to paying the course fee? If so, how much? Does it make a difference if the class is a private one? I ask because I was recently reading an outdoor adventure website and tips were suggested for the trek guides on top of a mighty fee. This made me wonder about EMS and your experiences there. Advice?

    You don't have to post this on your blog… I don't know how to contact you otherwise. Sorry if this was rude but I wanted someone to clue me in. :)

    Thanks.

  14. It's a great question and I don't know the answer. I have tipped guides before at other schools, but I haven't this year with EMS because they've been waiving the fees for me in exchange for me guest blogging about my experiences. I'm still spending a decent sum on travel, lodging and gas, but I'm not really a paying client.

    If it were me and I had a good experience, I'd give them a tip of at between $10-$25 for a 1 day class. The reality is that the guides don't make all that much at EMS, and I know a few that have to work other jobs too!

  15. Parag Sahasrabudhe

    Took the Mountaineering 101 class in Connecticut on Feb 5th. Our guide took us to People's state forest, northwest of Hartford. It was a great experience. Definitely exceeded my expectations. Planning to hike up Mt. Washington in Winter with EMS.

  16. I am heading up to NY this weekend to take the Mountaineering 101 class with EMS and was wondering what is the best way to dress? I’m guessing snow pants/coat and layers? Any certain type of glove that you’d recommend? Is there ever any indoor time, or is it entirely outdoors for 8 hours? Thanks for your advice!

    • Yep – snow pants/coat and layers. You’ll be outside for 6 hours or so and you’ll want to be warm. I’d bring several pairs of gloves include some shells with liners. You’ll mostly be ice climbing. There’s a tiny bit of indoor time, but they’re very good about getting you outside and hands-on. For more information, call the school. Have fun!

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