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EMS Climbing School: Mountaineering 201

Silver Cascade in Crawford Notch

Silver Cascade Waterfall in Crawford Notch

Mountaineering 201

I was back up in the White Mountains last week to take the second Mountaineering Class in the EMS Climbing School’s winter curriculum and I had another great experience. This time, I climbed 700 feet up the waterfall at the head of Crawford Notch called the Silver Cascade. I never imagined that I could do something like this with just one previous ice climbing class of experience.

Mountaineering 201 is considered an intermediate course at EMS. The focus is on learning how to move quickly across snow and ice, as a group, while setting the appropriate protection at each stage of a multi-pitch climb. This is an excellent course to take if you’re headed out west to Mt Rainer or Denali, where you need to know how to work with other climbers in rope teams.

For example, if you’re on a glacier all day, you need to keep moving to stay warm, while at the same time conserving your energy by being as efficient as possible. This takes a lot of practice, requires good communication between climbing partners, and technical proficiency with ropes, crampons, knots, belays, anchors, and various ice tools.

Mountaineering Student

Mountaineering 201 – Fellow Student

Experiential Learning

Like the climbing school’s other classes,  the teaching style in Mountaineering 201 is very experiential. The instructors at EMS are very efficient at getting you get outfitted with the gear you need upon arrival at class, and out the door as soon as possible. My class was fully equipped and on the way to Crawford Notch, just 30 minutes after the climbing school doors opened at 8:30 AM.

EMS’ focus on experiential learning makes sense with a sport as complex as winter climbing. It’s like the difference between reading a book vs watching a video. You can convey more information to someone if it’s integrated into a meaningful activity, that is also enjoyable and exciting.

For example, I don’t think I fully realized everything I’d experienced in class until I got home and started leafing though my copy of the The Freedom of the Hills, which is the mountaineering bible. I was amazed. We covered a lot of skills in one day!

Class Participants

Since the focus of Mountaineering 201 is on learning how to move efficiently as a group, it’s important to keep the instructor to student ratio low, so that you don’t spend a lot of time resetting protection between pitches. Our class was perfectly sized with two students and one instructor, which meant we could move efficiently tied together on the same rope, in parallel on different ropes, or sequentially with one rope.

Additionally, having some parity among the students is important, and EMS did a great job is pairing me up with another student, who had a similar level of mountaineering experience and instruction as myself. We’d both taken previous mountaineering classes in North Conway, hold wilderness medicine certifications, and have serious backcountry experience.

Peter Lewis in his element

Peter Lewis, in his element

Our instructor for the day was Peter Lewis, a former full time instructor at EMS, who now teaches on a part time basis. Peter is a very skilled climber and teacher, but very modest and understated about it. I only learned that he’s a co-author with Laura and Guy Waterman of Yankee Rock & Ice, after our class together. I think it says something about the EMS Climbing School that they can attract climbers of his caliber and experience as instructors.

Silver Cascade

Willey’s Slide is the one of the most common places that North Conway mountaineering schools take students for multi-pitch classes. Peter knew that we’d both been there before, so he suggested we take a look at the waterfalls at the head of Crawford Notch instead. It had been very cold the previous couple of days and we were hopeful that there would be enough ice for an ascent.

Silver Cascade - The First Pitch

Silver Cascade – The First Pitch

Silver Cascade is a large waterfall, located at the base of Mt Jackson. But when it freezes over in winter, the steep gully that it flows through becomes climbable, rising over 400 meters from the roadway through Crawford Notch. Bordered by steep forest, the deepest channel of water runs along the northern side of the gully, while the southern side rises overs a series of ice and snow covered ledges that are climbable in a series of pitches.

While the cold temperatures had frozen a crust of snow and ice over the cascades that we could stand on and climb, there was water running underneath us the entire time. This sport is not without risk.

What really struck me was the sound and feel of the ice beneath your crampons or when you hit it with a pick. The strength of the ice, its density, and its structure are constantly changing as you change location on the crust. It’s a very dynamic environment, requiring the constant evaluation of your route and protection strategy, as you climb.


We used two 200 foot length sections of dynamic rope that had been treated with a drying agent to keep it from absorbing water. Dynamic rope stretches when it’s pulled really hard, like when a climber falls, providing a built-in shock absorbing capability to reduce injuries.

Peter stacks the ropes before we start climbing

Peter stacks the ropes before we start climbing

I’ve never had to develop any rope management skills, so it was interesting to watch Peter prepare the rope before we started climbing. He used a process called stacking, where you uncoil a rope loop by loop before you use it to minimize the chance of it balling up into a tangle.

Once that was done, we tied the ropes into our climbing harnesses and I belayed him as he climbed the first pitch. Peter set protection along our route using slings and carabiners tied to small trees. At the top, he set up a seated hip belay with his feet braced against a rock in front of him, and then the other student and I climbed the first pitch on different ropes using ice axes and crampons.

Climbing Efficiently

On this first pitch, I really tried to think about how I could improve my climbing efficiency by swinging the axe as few times as possible to save my energy. I carefully watched the other student, also named Philip (Phil for short) who was climbing with me, to see what route he took and how he climbed it. When it was my turn, I tried to climb up the length of my axe like a handrail instead of just pulling myself up by the handle. It’s harder to do in the moment than it looks. I also tried to pause with my crampons resting on horizontal ledges, instead of standing with my front points in the ice, to keep from getting too tired.

This whole mantra of  climbing efficiently makes complete sense to me, especially with my teaching background in whitewater kayaking, where we teach students how to channel the river’s energy to move around on the water instead of using up their own energy. It’s obviously different in mountaineering, but the principle is the same. The aesthetic is to find the ease in the route to maximize your efficiency and speed, while weighing the time needed to set up extra protection.

Peter leads on the second pitch

Peter leads on the second pitch

Group Time Management

On our second pitch, Peter took the lead again, but required a short belay on a gnarly section of the ascent. We managed to set this up and tear it down quickly, but it gave Phil and I some insight into the communication required between climbers and the types of delays that can snowball during a climb, if everyone is not on their game, working together.

After Peter set up an anchor in the trees, Phil and I ascended sequentially on separate ropes. Again, sequential climbs can be safer, but have a higher cost in the time required to set protection for each climber and switch from one to the next. They’re also limited by the length of your rope, which can necessitate more pitches and their corresponding anchor and belaying overhead

Roped Team Protection

On our third pitch, we all tied into one rope, so we could move up the slope more quickly. Peter led, I got tied in second and Phil went last. Peter showed us a Cow’s Tail Loop, which is a sequence of knots used to tie off the middle climber in a rope which gives them more lateral freedom of movement than if they’re tied directly to the main rope.

Using one rope, we were able to cover a lot of ground by providing protection for each other based on our ability to break a fall with an ice axe. I wish though that our third pitch had been a little longer, because I was overwhelmed trying to keep the line taught between myself and Phil, while climbing.

Munter hitch friction knot

Munter hitch – friction belay knot

The Descent

So here we are, 700 feet up a frozen waterfall, when Peter asks me to apply the anchor and belay techniques we’d learned so far and set up protection for our descent. Earlier in the day, Peter had shown us the Munter Hitch, a simple friction knot that is very easy to run line though but that provides excellent friction to brake a fall, so I choose that. We’re already tied into a tree, so we have a good anchor for the first pitch. We tie Phil in and he descends easily.

On the next pitch, we switch roles and Phil belays me while I descend first. This is a trickier pitch, requiring a detour around some steep ice and brush, so Peter sets up some directional protection with an ice screw to guide us around it and keep the rope clear.

Peter sets directional protection for the descent

Peter sets directional protection for the descent

Finally, on our third and final downward pitch, we just climbed down in the trees adjacent to the slope. We were running out of time and getting cold. Once down, we reclimbed the first pitch for kicks and then drove back to EMS in North Conway, calling it a day just after 4 PM. We’d been climbing for over 6 hours and had absorbed a dizzying amount of information in one day. I’m writing it all down here, so I don’t forget it.

Advice for Future Students

If you’re planning on taking Mountaineering 201, make sure you dress warmly, including a pair of heavier water proof mountaineering gloves. Make sure you also bring a thermos of hot cocoa, coffee, or tea with you and some fatty food to munch on all day. If you’re not moving constantly, you can really get chilled.

In terms of fitness, the amount of effort and physical stamina required to climb moderate angle snow and ice is not that great and if you can snowshoe a few miles you should be fine. The most physically taxing element of the course is being outside in cold weather, on ice, and in the wind, all day.

Philip Werner - Ice Climbing

The Sectionhiker in action

Finally, you should not consider Ice Climbing 101 or Mountaineering 201 as adequate training to become a serious ice climber or mountaineer overnight. While these EMS classes provide an excellent introduction to the breadth of basic skills required for these sports, they do not provide the experience necessary for you to safely use the equipment or techniques introduced, without additional supervision and mentoring. I honestly don’t think the climbing school emphasizes this enough or provides enough guidance on the next steps a student should take to develop their skills after taking these classes.

If you are interested in finding additional training or people to practice ice climbing or mountaineering with, I strongly recommend that you contact the local chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club or a group in your area of interest. These organizations have courses and trips for new or intermediate students to gain more experience, meet other like-minded people, and get connected to the local climbing and mountaineering community.

We are blessed with fantastic climbing and mountaineering opportunities in the White Mountains and the entire Northeast. Enjoy it.

Disclosure: EMS has provided 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 is not obligated to give the EMS Climbing School favorable reviews.

One comment

  1. trick to keeping warm is to carry a belay that goes over yr harness and outer shell when stopped

    so when yr active you wear less … when stopped on goes the puffy

    same concept with gloves

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