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Shannon Bryan

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Out Going with Shannon Bryan
Posted: February 23, 2011

Give 'em the axe: Ice climbing in Grafton Notch

I’ve seen icicles plummet from third-story gutters, losing their glassy grip against gravity with a long fall and a glistening explosion.

I’ve felt an ice patch thrust my feet out from under me, nature’s prankster sending me backside to the ground with a breath-expelling jolt.

Ice was, in my opinion, a harbinger of tailbone hurt. A temporary cold-weather fixture, no more reliable than a cloud of smoke.

The thought of climbing some up-ended glacier was out of the question. It was unfathomable. It was…inevitable.

[John Patriquin/staff photos]

Last Friday I headed into the wooded confines of Grafton Notch State Park in Newry with mountain guide Jon Tierney, director and owner of Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School. He gave a lesson in the fine art of ice climbing, which I wrote about at length (seriously, the story uses a ton of words) for this coming Maine Sunday Telegram.

From the figure-eight knot tying to the swing of the axe, I learned it all (as did Carolyn Sprague of Concord, NH, another novice along for the climb).

Our first climb was a moderate incline, a splendid blend of ice and snow.

I mimicked Jon’s swing, though the nose of my tool struck the surface awkwardly, sending ice chips scattering. I swung again, this time with more effort, and the tool planted. I gave it a tug, testing it’s stability. My ice climbing confidence was tightly packed into a few centimeters at the end of a metal blade.

Quite used to kicking things (door jams, myself) digging my toes in proved an easier feat. I worked to keep my heels down to prevent calf strain and ensure the toe spikes were able to dig in. With a swing and two steps, I was off the ground.

At the top, I let an accomplished “woohoo” echo out over the tree tops.

Our second climb was all ice and and noticeably steeper. With an axe in each had, I made my attempt one extremity at a time: axe, axe, kick, kick.

The ice was frozen into rolling bubbles down from the precipice below. And here and there a short, sheer wall went vertically. I’d been making happy progress for a few minutes until Jon reminded me to take it easy, relax my grip now and than to prevent tiring out too quickly.

So I paused.

I then realized my precarious location and how distant solid ground seemed. My legs, either fatigued or nervous or both, shook under me. My body mirrored the ice in front of it – frozen, still and unmoving. “I think…Yes, I think this is as far as I’m going to go,” I yelled out.

So I didn’t make it to the top.

But I’d wielded axes and jagged boots. I’d dug my toes into frozen water and climbed skyward. I’d gotten personal with a land-locked iceberg that most passersby would simply photograph.

Rates for ice climbing in Acadia, Camden, Clifton and North Conway vary based on the ratio of climbers to instructor and the length of time (full day versus half). But a full day for two people will run you $140, half day for two people $90, which includes the equipment and the instruction. Quite the bargain, I’d say. All the rates.

FMI on Acadia Mountain Guide:

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