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A Beginner's Try At Ice Climbing In Southern New England

Paige Cox and I can relate. When it comes to climbing ice, we’re both freaked out. 

“It’s water and it melts. I’m terrified. But it’s going to be great,” Cox said.

Cox started rock climbing about a decade ago. And me? Well, this was my first time ascending anything that’s not stairs or a ladder or a hill. 

But the defiant spirit of climbers always appealed to me. And ice climbing seemed especially magical. The ropes, the picks, the intrepid hikers who bravely scale rocks transformed by the cold into otherworldly obstacles. 

Each winter, area climbers are drawn to spots like the Catskills in New York or the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But there are pockets of good ice in southern New England, too. 

On a day in January, our guide was Matt Conroy, an experienced climber who is general manager of a climbing gym in Fairfield

Before we met up, Conroy and I agreed to keep our exact location a secret. Just like mushroom hunters guard their favorite foraging spots, climbers are protective of turf, worried that if word gets out, spots will be overrun and ice will get destroyed.

Today, our approach to the climbing spot is tough. An uphill zig-zag around rocks and fallen trees. As we walked, the sounds of civilization faded, and reality transformed into a vision Paige Cox pulled from fantasy.

“Have you ever seen ‘Lord of the Rings?’ It’s very big boulders,” Cox said. “And it’s kind of cool, because all the rocks look like they’ve just had a layer of ice just put over it. Dripping all around all sides of the rocks. It looks really, almost, prehistoric.”

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Matt Conroy scouted the first pitch over ice-covered boulders.

We still have a big climb ahead of us. About 200 feet of hillside -- over boulders that could fill up a studio apartment. 

To get up there, we attached traction devices to our shoes called “crampons.”

Each foot had 10 spikes on the bottom for walking and two pointed forward for jamming into and stepping up those big icy rocks. We also used ropes -- a belay system that used friction to help pull us up. 

The climb was painful. I slipped. I banged my knees. The muscles in my arms burned. But eventually, I made my way to the top. 

“Well, we’re at the top of the first pitch,” Conroy said with a smile. “So the first rope length of climbing. There’s more, don’t you worry.”

Conroy tossed my rope down to Cox. It was her turn.

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Paige Cox is an experienced rock climber, but this is her first time scaling ice. She readies before starting up an ice flow.

“All right, Paige, you are on belay, you may climb when ready,” Conroy yelled.

Cox moved quickly. Before we knew it, she hung with her ice picks just a few feet below us. Conroy gave her some options for where to stick the tools.

“Your tool does not need to be in very deep to be effective,” Conroy said. “But when you’re newer you do tend to have a habit of lifting up the handle as you move up, which will dislodge the tool if it’s anywhere other than the deepest stick. So it’s just finding a balance.”

A few more sticks and she was there. After a few recovery breaths, I asked Cox how she felt. 

“Oh, I feel, actually, really awesome. And, like, I was afraid for no reason,” Cox said. 

But I’m still a little afraid. Ahead of us lies the final climb. A wall of ice that’s about 20 to 30 feet high. Conroy picked up his ice picks and quickly stuck them into the frozen wall, scaling it like a nonchalant Spider-Man.

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Matt Conroy is hit with ice and water during his climb. Conroy rated this pitch WI2 or water ice 2, which is on the gentler end of a spectrum climbers use for rating seasonal ice flows.

As he climbed, lumps of ice spouted water downward like holes punched in a barrel.

“Oh, you’re getting soaked, man,” Cox said. 

Conroy quickly made it to the top of the ice. The time was here: I was next. 

“Are you ready to get tied in?” Cox asked. “I think so,” I replied.

I flamed out spectacularly. Conroy and I broke it down as we walked back to the cars.

“Your first epic. Like, an epic is just when like, when things go wrong,” Conroy said.

In this case, a rookie climber who does a bad job tying his shoes. 

“The thing that went wrong is your boot came off and filled with water,” Conroy said. “You know, it’s a thing that happens.”

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
First-time ice climber and reporter Patrick Skahill, loaded with audio gear, has problems starting to snowball as his left boot begins to come off while he fails to gain purchase with ice tools during his ascent of an ice flow. Skahill was supported above by belayer Matt Conroy, who controlled the rope attached to Skahill to arrest any slips or falls. There were many.

Incredulous, I couldn’t help but follow up on that statement, “a thing that happens.” Really? 

“I’ve never seen that happen before,” Conroy admitted, smiling. “I’ll be honest.”

But this is why hiking with experienced climbers matters. After the boot flew off, Cox lent me some warm socks and made sure I was doing OK. And, collectively, we all decided to bail. It was getting dark. 

Conroy gathered the ropes and other gear, and he attached a headlamp to his helmet. As we walked back to the cars, he told me there wasn’t any reason to push it.

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Rock climber Paige Cox, vice president of the Ragged Mountain Foundation in Southington, is all smiles after making a final pull to conquer an ice flow on Jan. 21, 2020.

“We’re all pretty close to the edge at all times. You just don’t always realize it. You start to layer in things like ice climbing and being wet. And you bring that edge a little closer,” Conroy said. “It’s not a question of the extreme sport … It’s a question of, I want to climb this ice, but I want to do it in a manner that allows me to go home again.”

And home I went: bruised, tired and with frozen pants. 

But feeling safe and accomplished, thinking that maybe, one day, I’ll gear up to climb that wall again.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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