2016 Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest

Arethusa Falls, up close and personal.
Last weekend, the Mount Washington Valley saw its 23rd annual Ice Fest.  As I mentioned in the last blog, this three day event is hosted by International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway.  Ice Fest is a celebration of ice climbing, mountaineering, and the ethos and culture of these pursuits.  While the festival has been growing since its inception, climbing frozen waterfalls and craggy mountains can still seem relatively abstract – even to those who are no stranger to outdoor recreation.  At any rate, I was able to attend Ice Fest on Friday.  Here’s my story.

I showed up outside International Mountain Equipment at 8 am.  While IME and IMCS are different entities, they are run out of the same building because some of the leadership and personnel are involved with both the shop and the school.  I sat in my car for a while, watching winter enthusiasts flock toward the doors.  Brightly colored jackets and packs were everywhere.  Eventually, I grabbed my gear and got out of my car.

Sponsors, demo gear, and a lot of climbing enthusiasts.
Inside IME, a line was snaking through the store so people could check in and fill out some paperwork.  After making it through the line, I was directed upstairs.  Tables were set up in a circle on the second floor, each staffed by one of the festival sponsors and covered with climbing gear.  The instructors for the different courses were scattered around the room as well.  I checked in with my instructor to get some beta for the day ahead.  He suggested I take a lap around to chat with the sponsors and demo some gear.  I saw boots, gloves, helmets, and everything in between.  Crampons from Camp and Petzl, boots from La Sportiva and Scarpa, ice tools from Black Diamond and DMM, jackets from Mammut and Rab, backpacks from Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Patagonia…among plenty of other toys.  Plus, TONS OF STICKERS!  Because really, everyone loves stickers.  I digress.  I have my own gear, but I decided to demo a pair of modern ice tools.  I just had to provide my name and they were mine for the day.  Before long, everyone in my course was geared up and ready to go.  We figured out where we were headed and how best to carpool, and took off around 9 am.

I’ll skip the course itself for now and describe the rest of my day.  After the course, we got back to IME around 4 pm.  A food truck was stationed outside for refueling.  The sponsors were still at their tables upstairs, collecting demo gear and answering questions.  Before long, IMCS fired up a microphone for a fun swag dump.  They threw out t-shirts, hats, koozies, and more.  After that, there were more selective giveaways: to the participant that traveled the farthest to get to there.  To the most enthusiastic person.  The two most enthusiastic people then had a showdown: which could do a classic backpack butterfly coil the fastest, with a 360 degree spin and 10 pushups while wearing the coil added for good measure.  That more or less wrapped up the daytime events.

At 6:30 pm, the doors opened at the Theater in the Wood, a few miles up the road, for the evening presentation.  The food truck had relocated to the theater and Tuckerman Brewing Company had set up inside to provide refreshments.  There was also a silent auction for a lot of quality gear in support of the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant.

The evening’s entertainment was a fellow named Nick Bullock.  Nick is a prolific Scottish climber with caustic wit, well-timed colorful language, and a penchant for telling fantastic stories of things gone wrong.  He explained bivying in a cave halfway up a monster climb in the Canadian Rockies without a sleeping pad or sleeping bag.  He derisively described his decades-younger climbing partners and scorned their youthful speed. He described a grizzly bear attack – a Smartcar with fur and teeth.  All in all, Nick provided many laughs. 

Saturday and Sunday saw more courses, and another presentation on Saturday night.  Although I missed that presentation, a pair of hardcore ladies named Jewel Lund and Chantal Astorga described successfully tackling what can only be described as an unimaginably ridiculous route up Denali.

Arethusa Falls Trail
Okay, now jumping back to the Ice Fest courses.  Last year, I took Ice Climbing for Rock Climbers and it was a great introduction.  I had climbed with friends before, but it was nice to get some formal instruction.  This year, I took it a step further and opted for the Steep Ice course.  The Friday course was taught by a fellow named Bob Baribeau and only had four participants.  The small group made for what felt like a very personal experience, and the group itself was great too.  Aside from me, there was a former dirtbagger from South Carolina (very experienced on rock but less so on ice), a biochemist from Boston (who went to the same college as me and evidently lived a block away), and an engineer from Sterling Ropes (one of the companies that helps sponsor the Ice Fest).  Our group went to Arethusa Falls, a popular climbing area in Crawford Notch.  Arethusa Falls is also a popular destination for hikers in all seasons.

Standing on Bemis Brook...
Being as this is meant to be a trail conditions blog, here’s the scoop on the Arethusa Falls Trail as of February 5th.  There is a parking area right off the road and another one set farther back.  Both are clear, but the far area is a bit icy.  After crossing the railroad tracks and heading south for a few hundred feet, the trail heads uphill and into the woods.  On the trail itself, there was generally an inch of powder on top of ice.  Light traction would have been useful, but we were all bare booting.  Being involved with trail construction and maintenance in the warmer months, I tend to notice trail structures when I hike.  There were some nice looking log check steps, a pair of bridges, and a handful of waterbars (that are working well enough).  The last bit of the trail heads downhill to the waterfall, 1.4 miles from the parking area.  Arethusa Falls are the tallest non-seasonal falls in the state at roughly 140 feet – give or take some depending on who you ask and how they measured it.  The falls are wide too, and impressive in all seasons.  We were greeted by a variety of shades of ice, ranging from blue to gray to yellow.  The falls were tall, broad, and bulgy.  There were a few holes in the center, but a variety of routes were possible.  Two groups were already climbing in the center.

Now, onto the climbing.  The first time I climbed on ice, my friend helped me strap on crampons and handed me two ice tools. “Kick kick, swing swing.”
“That’s it?" I asked, gawking at her.  “That’s my climbing lesson?”
Unsurprisingly, there is much more to ice climbing than that.  And indeed, last weekend Bob taught us how that method, while simple, is inefficient and unsustainable for more challenging terrain.  I won’t give away too much of the wisdom Bob imparted – it’s better coming from him or one of the other instructors.

Before getting too close to the falls and the climbers who were already halfway up, we stopped to don our helmets, harnesses, and crampons.  We checked and double checked everything – straps, buckles, and the like.  Bob set up two top ropes, gave a couple introductory safety reminders, checked our carabiners and knots, and quietly watched each of us on our first climb of the day.  After identifying a few common areas of improvement for the four of us, Bob had us do some training exercises.  Among these exercises were climbs using no ice tools and using only one tool, to emphasize the importance of good footwork.  Bob also introduced us to ice screws, one of the primary tools for protecting and anchoring ice climbs.  We learned about the theory behind the screws, identifying locations for screw placement, the placement procedure, and cleaning them (removing them from the ice).  Around midday, it started snowing.  Finally!  Although it was relatively warm, probably 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, there was at least a wintry ambiance.  And indeed, it’s finally feeling like winter around here.

Tip: if you don't wipe off your camera lens after taking it out of your pocket, you might end up with blurry pictures.
Arethusa Falls Trail for hiking, ice climbing, or anything else is on AMC Map #3 for Crawford Notch and the Sandwich Range.  You can find the hike in the AMC White Mountain Guide.

We are available here at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center by phone at (603) 466-2721 every day from 6:30 AM to 9:00 PM or by email at amcpinkhaminfo@outdoors.org.  To make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts, please call (603) 466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm. Come spend a weekend at the Joe Dodge Lodge and have adventures in Pinkham Notch!

Happy Adventuring!
AMC Backcountry Information Specialist

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