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.
New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley is one of America’s climbing epicenters. It is surrounded by towering peaks, granite monoliths, and steep walls, many with world-class routes. With climbs of all difficulty levels and a handful of schools offering instruction, it’s the perfect place to learn the sport. And it’s the perfect place to celebrate ice climbing with an annual festival, which will take place next weekend, Feb. 3-5.
Nineteen years ago, the first ice climbing festival in North America opened here. Spearheaded by Rick Wilcox, owner of International Mountain Equipment in North Conway and part owner of its affiliated International Mountain Climbing School, Ice Fest began as an opportunity to network with other climbers. Wilcox describes it as “a celebration of the sport,’’ a weekend where devotees gather for three days of climbing, slideshows, and happy hours. Today Ice Fest has grown into an annual event drawing people from all over the country and beyond. “We’re following in Chouinard’s footsteps,’’ said Wilcox. “It’s a life pursuit.’’
A former climbing guide and Everest summiteer, Wilcox, 63, purchased International Mountain in 1979 and later acquired the climbing school that was run out of its attic. He was one of the first to take on some of the region’s most challenging ice climbs 30 years ago and continues to operate regular international treks to Africa and Asia.
Wilcox’s equipment store resides in a former pizza place on North Conway’s Main Street. The first morning of Ice Fest the shop bustles with activity. Climbing guides and their students don plastic boots and sharpen crampons, the toothy cleats used by climbers to kick their way up hanging icicles. Razor-sharp ice axes are strapped to loaded backpacks; fuzzy ropes are coiled and slung over shoulders as adventurers prepare for a day in the frozen world.
Ice Fest’s primary draw is its clinics. Options range from beginner lessons to mastering steep ice, from avalanche awareness to guided summit climbs of Mount Washington via technical routes. Nationally renowned climbers such as Kevin Mahoney of Mountain Hardware and Mark Synnott of The North Face take advanced clients up routes with only spotty ice, so-called “mixed climbs,’’ where they must use tools to hook tiny rock edges to ascend from ice blob to ice blob. These mixed climbs represent the cutting edge of the sport.
When the sun sets, tales of thrilling climbs and far-flung expeditions blend with free beer and promotional booths hosted by sales representatives from leading outdoor manufacturers. Each night celebrity speakers present slideshows. The late Alex Lowe, a former North Face athlete and one of the sport’s most gifted climbers, presented at Ice Fest in 1996, and although his tales of mile-high cliffs on Baffin Island stirred the soul, it was his climbing that made his visit famous.
One morning, Lowe and a partner got to the canyon that encases Champney Falls before the students arrived. Going up the fat ice on one side of the canyon would’ve been simple for Lowe. Instead, he turned his attention to the adjacent, nearly-blank wall. He eased his way up the cliff, encountering a seemingly impassible section of stone. The only onlooker was Maury McKinney, former International Mountain Climbing School co-owner who left the school a few years ago to pursue a career in swim instruction.
Lowe paused, dipped his head, and uttered a phrase that would later become a motto for Ice Fest: “It’s time to climb.’’ With that, he floated up the cliff like a spider on a web, completing what was at the time one of the hardest climbs in the country. Lowe died a year later in an avalanche in the Himalayas.
Not all climbing at Ice Fest is outdoors. Four years ago Ice Fest added an indoor competition on the two-story artificial rock wall at local Cranmore Mountain Resort. Alternating rock climbing holds with purchase gained by setting ice tools into bolted-on sheets of artificial plastic ice, competitors race the clock to swing their way up the pre-set route. This innovative competition has differentiated Ice Fest from others that have sprung up in places like Ouray, Colo., and Cody, Wyo.
Three years ago I climbed Champney Falls. A half-dozen ropes wound up and around trees, suspending student climbers as they smashed their way up the broad, candled, frozen waterfall. I carefully pecked my tools into the wet ice, moving up gingerly on the vertical medium. I kicked my crampons into the corrugated surface, clipping my rope into the toothy screws I placed in the ice as I ascended. My forearms grew tired, my calves strained as I pulled my way up.
Just before I pulled over the lip of the waterfall I extended my arms and hung to rest my body. My heart was pounding as I clung to the face 40 feet up in the air. Below on the canyon floor McKinney was belaying a client, directing him to drop his heels, straighten his arms, and improve his form. I turned to the steep rock wall behind me, noticing the subtle weakness climbed by Lowe years before. I shot a glance at McKinney, who caught me staring at Lowe’s route. I refocused and flipped my tools over the edge of the ice. As I pulled my body over the last challenge I heard McKinney’s calm voice below me: “It’s time to climb.’’
If you go...
International Mountain Climbing School
North Conway, N.H.
Early registration encouraged.
Where to stay
North Conway has a variety.
94 River St.
Within walking distance of IME.
Where to eat
Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery
3378 White Mountain Highway (Route 16)
A perennial favorite among climbers. Be sure to try the brisket and chili.
Brian Irwin can be reached at email@example.com.