NORTH CONWAY, N.H. - Champney Falls sits in a box canyon a mile and a half from the Kancamagus Highway, just west of Conway. In spring the falls puts on quite a show, but by late summer it dries to an unimpressive seep of water that oozes over a mossy cliff on the flank of Mount Chocoura. When the mercury drops the water locks up, forming a 50-foot-high wall of dazzling ice pillars and daggers on one side of the canyon wall. Iridescent blue ice glows in the slot, whose floor is flat and full of ice climbers belaying each other as their partners ascend the steep lines. Champney is one of the region’s best ice-climbing schoolrooms and is often used by guides during the annual Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest.
Climbing steep ice and snow is not a new notion. Adventurers in this country have been pulling themselves up veins of frozen water for about a century, but poor equipment and lack of formal instruction discouraged most people from trying it. In the 1970s, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia and grandfather of North American ice climbing, unveiled new technology: redesigned steel picks that stick in the ice with ease. Almost overnight, ice climbing grew in popularity, fostering its own devoted community.