Ice climbing is a magnificent sport of its own right. But before becoming a standalone practice, it was first a discipline of mountaineering, that noble pursuit of higher grounds for its own sake. The alpine origins of ice climbing shine through every aspect of the sport, from the French, German and Italian words to the mountain names that gear manufacturers give their products. One cannot practice ice climbing for long without getting curious about its ancestor mountaineering. So what exactly is mountaineering?
From the boardrooms of fortune 500 companies to the Olympic teams, perhaps the world’s most successful people are mountaineers at heart. Mountaineering is the ultimate manifestation of ambition. It is the wish to go higher because higher exists. It is to aim for the topmost point you can see and to make the distance from you to there zero. To the alpinist, if you’re not hungry, you packed too much food, if you’re not thirsty, you packed too much water, if you’re not scared, you packed too much gear, and if you reach the summit, your goal was too easy.
More concretely, mountaineering or alpinism is the pursuit of climbing mountains. It takes many forms, from multi-week expeditions to remote Himalayan destinations to single-day climbs. Summiting the kind of mountains we have in most of Quebec would usually be considered hiking, however certain routes of certain mountains may require alpine techniques and equipment. More traditionally, alpinism is practiced in high mountain ranges like the Alps, the Rockies, the Andes or the Himalayas. But it’s possible to get a taste for the sport close to home in the Presidential range of the Appalachian Mountains.
At just about 2000m, Mount Washington is the highest mountain in the U.S. Northeast, and it tops anything we have in Quebec. Its profile is largely rounded like most of the Appalachians, but its peak is more prominent than its neighbour’s and it features several ravines with steep couloirs rising through the tree line and towards the summit. There you can experience an alpine setting and a decent challenge. Hanging from your ice screws halfway up a frozen vertical gully, exposed between rock and ice to the rushing winter wind, you can get a good taste of the world of mountaineering.
I was in Mount Washington at the end of April. At that time, the snow in Montreal had mostly melted and buds were starting to germinate. But not in Mount Washington! While spring picked up in Montreal, Mount Washington was still buried in snow. Tons of it! Literally. After walking the short 4km walk up the wide, well-treaded, and gently-rising path that rises 560m from Pinkham Notch visitor center to Harvard Cabin, we picked out a lean-to and set up camp. The snow reached the top of the lean-to! That’s at least one and a half meters of natural, non-manufactured snow!
To be fair, that year saw an unusual amount of snowfall in the U.S. Northeast. And the word had gotten out. Mount Washington was packed with backcountry skiers who came to ski in Tuckerman’s Ravine. The approach felt like a highway. Once I saw the Ravine, I understood why. It was one gigantic bowl of pure white snow reaching all the way to the top and covering almost all the rocks across the roughly 300m-wide bowl. A little lineup of skiers making their way up on foot snaked up the slope while those who had reached the top skied gloriously down this giant playground. Several gullies lined the ravine which would have made for good ascents, but we were headed to another ravine.
We left our sleeping bag and non-essentials at the lean-to, but with two ice tools (ice climbing picks), a mountaineering axe (ice axe), an entire alpine rack, a rope, crampons, snow pickets, along with a plethora of minor things like webbing and cordelette, and all the standard winter wear, each of our packs still weighed a ton. Because most of this gear is big and metallic, mountaineering involves heavier packs than other outdoor pursuits.
We got to Huntington Ravine and suited up: crampons, harness, rack, rope, and helmet. We picked a couloir and began our ascent in two rope teams with twin ropes each. As we made our way up the snow and ice we laid protection where we could: snow pickets in the snow, chocks and cams in rocks and ice screws in ice. Of these, ice screws are the most pleasant to work with. They are convenient to carry, extremely reliable and relatively easy to place and remove. The worst are snow pickets, which are annoyingly hard to place and even harder to carry.
The protection serves as a safeguard in case of a fall. As the leader climbs, he places this protection and clips the rope into it. He is attached to one end of the rope, while the other feeds through the protection down to his belayer who pays out rope as he climbs. Should the leader fall, the belayer locks the rope (using a belaying device) such that the leader, after having swung around the highest piece of protection, is held up by the rope. When the belayer has no more rope to give the leader, the roles are inversed. The leader clips into protection and becomes the belayer. The former belayer, at the bottom, begins to climb. As he does, he picks up the protection that his partner previously placed while his partner takes in the slack that is formed as he climbs.
We followed this pattern all the way to the top, where the legendary Mount Washington winds almost literally blew me away. It is here that in 1934 the strongest gust of wind was ever recorded on Earth (372 Km/h) and while we were far short of that today, it was still very windy.
We made our way down by another path and found our lean-to by the light of our headlamps. The next day we had fun practicing some basic manoeuvres in Tuckerman’s Ravine while watching the breakneck backcountry skiers swish, speed, and occasionally tumble down the slope above us.
This kind of weekend is accessible to many, and in particular those with ice climbing experience. Mountaineering of any kind should never be practiced without adequate preparation and knowledge. For information on guidance and training, contact l’École Nationale d’Escalade du Québec.