We clung like splayed bats to the curtains of cold, blue ice. Our toothy crampons and spiky axes held us, precariously perched on the frozen waterfall. Slowly, we picked our way, stretching overhead to hammer into the ice, scrambling for the next toehold.
“Look for a sweet spot,’’ said our guide from where he stood at the bottom of the massive folds of ice. “Find a place where there’s snow or an indentation to set your tool in.’’
We were learning to ice climb the frozen waterfalls at The Flume in Franconia State Park. After equipment fitting and some basic instruction, it was out of the warmth and into the cold. When we arrived at The Flume it was 15 degrees. That’s the thing about this sport: The best ice for climbing is usually found in dark, frigid places. Not surprisingly, New England boasts some of the best ice climbing venues in the country. Kinsman Gulch, Frankenstein Cliffs, Arethusa Falls, and The Flume in the White Mountains of New Hampshire draw ice climbers from around the world.
A few in our mixed group of young and old, men and women, made it to the top of the vertical sheet of ice, learning that the sport is more about grace than power.
“It’s so much more than ice climbing,’’ our guide said at the end of the first day. “It’s very personal; it’s pushing your limits, taking a risk. It’s a great metaphor for life in many ways: If I can just overcome this obstacle, I can make it to the top.’’
We were thinking if we just had a hot shower and some ibuprofen, life would be good.
Ice climbing, we discovered, is one heart-pumping winter outing! But, there are plenty more. In fact, New England adventure seekers don’t have to travel far for thrills. If you’re looking to jump out of your comfort zone this winter (C’mon, it’s fun!), consider these other adventures on the wild side.
GONE WITH THE WIND
“What is that?’’ our friend Angela Mangini said, pointing to a person tethered to a billowing kite, screaming up and down the snow- and ice-covered slopes of Mount Washington. We watched as he flew, touched down, hovered, and skied across the mountain. “That looks like a blast,’’ Mangini said. “And, no chairlift required.’’
More and more New England thrill-seekers are harnessing the power of the wind to take them up and down mountain slopes and across frozen lakes and ponds. It’s called snow kiting.
“Kites can lift you in the air; you can float or glide down slopes, and do acrobatic tricks and spins,’’ said Zebulon Jakub, a snow kiting instructor at the International Mountain Climbing School. “When you’re in the air, it’s almost like being in slow motion, with no gravity.’’
Ready to give it a try? Start with a lesson where you will learn to launch and land a small trainer kite and crash and relaunch the kite. (Of course, there is gravity and crashes are inevitable, all part of the adventure.) You will also learn how to use the wind and terrain. When you get the hang of controlling the kite, you are ready to snap into skis or a snowboard for liftoff.
“Snow kiting really is something that everyone can do, even if they have no ski or snowboarding experience,’’ said Jakub.
And, no lift ticket required.
DOG DAYS OF WINTER
It was utter, noisy chaos. The dogs were howling, jumping, nipping. We settled into the sled as the dogs yelped and tugged on the reins.
“Hike!’’ our driver said. And, in seconds we were in a different world. The dogs quieted and went to work, pulling us through a winter wonderland of snow-covered woods and babbling, ice-banked brooks, in the shadows of the jagged peaks of the Presidential Mountain Range. It was a thing of beauty, not just the scenery, but the awesome power and teamwork of the dogs.
“The most rewarding thing about sledding is learning from the dogs, getting in tune with them,’’ said Tom Bartlett, owner of White Mountain Sled Dog Adventures. “You become one, working together as a team.’’
First-time dog sledders typically ride along while a guide drives the sled. But, after a short lesson, and depending on conditions, you can take the reins. It’s much harder than it looks. A good driver knows when to get on and off the runners, when to lean right or left, when to stand on the brake to slow the sled, and the right commands to use to communicate to the dogs. It’s not something you will learn in a day or two, but even a short ride can leave a lasting impression.
“People are surprised by the power of the dogs and at their ability to harness that power,’’ said Bartlett, who has been offering dog sledding tours for more than 18 years. “Some people have taken their first ride with me and gone on to become racers themselves.’’
BODY SUITS AND BRAIN FREEZES
A stiff, cold wind blew snow across the sand as we carefully hopped the ice-covered rocks lining the shore. Temperatures hovered in the teens. A group of heavily bundled-up spectators watched as two lone surfers battled the frigid, frothy waves. Are they nuts? we thought. Apparently not. For some hardy souls, surfing New England waters in winter isn’t crazy at all. In fact, they think it’s the best time to ride the waves.
“Imagine a day with perfect waves, sunny skies, and offshore winds . . . and no one else out there but you,’’ said Peter Pan, owner of the Peter Pan Surfing Academy in Narragansett, R.I. “That is one of the great benefits of surfing in New England. The nasty winter weather chases out the poseurs.’’
Pan, who offers surfing lessons throughout the winter, outfits his students in thick neoprene suits, boots, and mittens, so when they initially step into the water, they are warm and dry. When the wipeouts come, it’s a different matter. “Yes, water seeps into the suits,’’ Pan said, “but once the body temperature warms up the water, the student generally warms up enough to continue.’’
Still, even Pan admitted it takes some courage and endurance. “When the ocean drops to freezing, duck diving under mountains of whitewater can cause wicked ‘ice cream’ headaches, and render you useless,’’ he said.
OK, maybe just a little crazy?
NORDIC FAST TRACK
There is the classic cross-country ski outing: a good workout gliding at your own pace through the woods. And, then there is skijoring. This sport combines mushing with cross-country skiing, for a speedy romp through the woods. Skiers are tethered to their dogs with a towline, and then let canine power take over. In theory, that is.
“Whoa, WHOA!’’ our friend Judie Churchill screamed as she and her black lab, Charlotte, zoomed by us. She was balancing on skinny cross-country skis, while Charlotte pulled her across the snow-covered field - fast. Charlotte eventually got the message, and stopped. “That was a rush,’’ Churchill said, catching her breath. “Way to go, Charlotte.’’
It was our turn. “Go!’’ “Mush!’’ we shouted. One dog took off in a burst of energy. The other was more interested in rolling in the snow.
“Skijoring is a challenging sport - especially the first time you try it,’’ said Jim Blair, Vermont Skijor Champion and owner of Eden Mountain Lodge in Eden Mills, Vt. At Eden Mountain, guests bring their own dogs to learn alongside the lodge’s team of experienced huskies. “This is really the easiest way for dogs to learn - from each other,’’ he said.
After a quick lesson, you are off, screaming across the packed trails crisscrossing the 3,000 protected acres surrounding the lodge.
If nothing else, your dog will love you for it.
What to do
Ice Climbing at Eastern Mountain Sports
1498 White Mountain Highway
800-310-4504www.emsclimb.comIce Climbing 101 beginner course, including all equipment and instruction, costs $275 for a one-person private lesson, or join a group for $150 per person.
Dog Sledding at White Mountain Sled Dog Adventures
978-649-0476 www.whitemtnsleddog.comHalf-day, three-hour dog sledding trips are $325 per sled. Full-day, six-hour trips cost $450 per sled.
Winter Surfing at Peter Pan Surfing Academy
74 Narragansett Ave.
A one-hour private lesson, including wetsuit, equipment, and instruction, costs $65.
Snow Kiting at International Mountain Climbing School
2733 White Mountain Highway
North Conway, N.H.
www.ime-usa.com/imcs/The Snow Kiting Discovery Program is $275 for a private, full-day session and $175 for a half day. Semi-private sessions (one instructor and two students) cost $175 for a full day and $140 for a half day. Group rates with three students or more range from $95 to $140 per person for a full day.
Skijoring at Eden Mountain Lodge
1390 Square Road
Eden Mills, Vt.
A skijor lesson with your own dog costs $395.