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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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