Stone-cold focus: Staff writer learns the ropes of ice climbing

Matt Shove of Ragged Mountain Guides belays The Day's Jenna Cho as she climbs a wall of ice in Barkhamsted's People's State Forest on Feb. 17.
Buy Photo Peter Huoppi/The Day Matt Shove of Ragged Mountain Guides belays The Day's Jenna Cho as she climbs a wall of ice in Barkhamsted's People's State Forest on Feb. 17.

I felt like a badass as soon as I picked up the ice tools and strapped on the crampons.

Never mind that I had no idea what I was doing with the tools, or that it took me about 10 minutes to put on the crampons. I scrambled more than hiked up the Lighthouse Trail at Peoples State Forest in the northwestern Connecticut town of Barkhamsted, panting under the weight of my snowboots, snowpants and seven layers of clothing.

I was going on an ice climbing excursion, and, in my mind, it would be an elegant affair-precise swings of the ice axes and clean digs of the crampons into ice. I would wow my guide, Matt Shove of Ragged Mountain Guides, with my athletic prowess and natural instincts on ice.

But image alone won't get you far, and I quickly realized that the reality would be very, very different.

First, it was cold. Twenty degrees cold. I hate being cold. (I must have decided this was a good idea while sitting in a warm bed, coffee in hand.) I began to wonder what the greater challenge of the day would be: staying warm or Arctic-Spiderman-ing up a sheet of vertical ice.

Second, if you've never done any kind of outdoor activity out in the cold in bulky winter clothing, it's like this: One second you're overheating under all the layers and wishing you could take your hat off, if only you weren't wearing a pair of gloves inside fat, clumsy ski mittens that you can't get off easily. The next, you stop moving and your hands go numb, and you desperately yearn for a full-body dunk in hot chocolate.

I exaggerate. I actually had been looking forward to giving ice climbing a try since fall. I'd been shocked to learn that you can, in fact, ice climb right here in Connecticut. Other spots in New England might have more ideal winter conditions for this most winter of sports, but I was drawn to the idea that a sport that appeared so extreme was actually quite accessible. And that you could make a day trip of it.

I brought Peter Huoppi, The Day's director of multimedia, to document through video what would undoubtedly be a feat of unparalleled athletic skill. In the group outing were two other novices, including a Navy diver from Ledyard and a consultant from New York City.

Checking ice conditions

We met Shove at his company headquarters - his Manchester home - on an early Sunday morning in February. Shove, 33, who is certified by the American Mountain Guides Association, started the outdoor guiding company in 2009 and had recently returned from a 10-day backcountry expedition and the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest.

He knew his ice, and he said Connecticut had plenty of good ice. You just had to keep a close eye on the weather and make sure conditions were suitable for climbing.

"The ice is a surface, just like snow," he said. "It goes through a constant freeze-thaw cycle, just like snow. And so the crystal structure of the ice changes dramatically, even day to day sometimes."

It turns out ice climbing is a close cousin to rock climbing, and the gear Shove outfitted us with was familiar: harness, helmet, belay device, carabiner. New were the winter boots and the sharp edges of the crampons and ice tools.

Shove takes his clients climbing where he deems conditions will be best, so I didn't know until just a couple of days before the excursion that our location would be Peoples State Forest, a park I'd never heard of before but immediately fell in love with for the name alone. In Connecticut, Shove also takes ice climbers to, among other spots, Beacon Falls in the Naugatuck Valley and Canaan Mountain in Litchfield County. New England, he said, offers some of the best conditions in the country for ice climbing.

"We just have really reliable ice climbing here because we have wet seasons," he said.

But because Connecticut isn't as cold as, say, New Hampshire, the ice climbing season is shorter - roughly Jan. 1 to March 1, whereas in the Mount Washington Valley, the season might run from mid-November to mid-April.

"I would say the difference is the temperature tends to be warmer," Shove said of ice climbing in Connecticut. "So you don't have to wear as much clothing, which makes you a little more nimble. It's more fun because you're not totally freezing your butt off."

Vertical progress

Properly geared up, we headed into the forest, stopping halfway up the trail to put on our harnesses, crampons and helmets. Shove showed us how to use one ice tool as a crutch to climb up and scamper down (I mean, carefully walk down) icy patches on the trail.

If I had just been out hiking, I might have walked right by the ice wall we were about to climb. The ice was a little skimpy - it would ideally cover the entire rock facade, Shove said - but it would still serve its purpose. In fact, a couple of ice climbers had beaten us there, and a couple more would come by over the course of the day.

Shove made the whole thing look easy. He found a pocket in the ice that could hold his weight, then swung his ax cleanly into it. The teeth bit into the ice with nary a loose chunk flying off the wall.

Swing, swing, dig toes in. Stand. Repeat.

In practice, it was a clumsier endeavor. The best "off-the-couch ice climbers," according to Shove, tend to be carpenters, because they're used to swinging a hammer. The rest of us could only hope for a precise swing on the second or third try. By then, I'd expended so much energy I wanted a break. Except I couldn't just let go and hang out.

I was roped in, so I never worried about falling to my death. But losing my grip and foolishly grasping at air to get back on the ice? Peter has those takes on film, but you, reader, will never see them.

Instead of clean digs into the ice, there were shallow crampon scrapes on the ice, like a cat trying to scale a sliding glass door.

But eventually, miraculously, I would find a crevice to sink my ax into, and it would feel solid, like a good handshake, and I would make vertical progress, and then, hey, look, I was at the top and ready to be lowered back down.

By the fourth climb, I was beat. I stopped minding the rules and haphazardly made my way to the top. I just wanted to be done.

Even with poor technique, though, reaching the top was immensely gratifying. Because I could have spent the day indoors, hating the cold.

Cory Nelson, left, and Jenna Cho climb the ice at People's State Forest in Barkhamsted on Feb. 17.
Buy Photo Peter Huoppi/The Day Cory Nelson, left, and Jenna Cho climb the ice at People's State Forest in Barkhamsted on Feb. 17.
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