Mike Cross leans out from a dead vertical column of blue-tinged ice to peer ahead. The ice above bulges out beyond vertical. He quickly looks down at his belayer, double checking that the rope is tight and takes a huge breath. Then, with quick but confident moves he pulls a boot out and away from the ice, hanging on his two ice axes, their lethal-looking picks buried in the ice. Cross moves his foot up 18 inches and lightly – almost delicately – kicks his metal-spiked crampon into the ice. He repeats the move with his other foot until he is crouching, his body in a tensed X.
Cross suddenly pulls out one of the ice axes, at the same time moving from his crouch to standing straight up. His reach now longer, Cross gracefully swings his freed axe above his head, and with a snap of his wrist, pops it into a slight depression in the ice. Ice crystals, explode out from the wall to form ephemeral diamonds, flashing in the weak winter sun. The tool makes a satisfying deep “thunk,” almost two feet above where it previously resided. Replicating the move with the other ice tool, Cross is on the bulge, the crux of the climb.
His belayer, carefully watching the action and playing out the rope as Cross ascends, shouts up, “Nice move, Mike, you got it now!” Cross grins briefly, before looking back up the ice and slowly continuing his ascent.
Ice climbing is a relatively new sport, one that grew out of alpine mountaineering. As climbers began to ascend steeper and increasingly daunting peaks and faces, snow gullies and glaciers became more appealing routes. Climbers evolved their tools and style to take advantage of the new medium. Hobnail boots began to be replaced by crampons, the metal spikes attached to climbers’ boots. Axes that were little more than three-foot-long, straight poles used for balance, became shorter, with dangerous-looking teeth cut into their business end. Once climbers realized how effective the new tools and techniques were, it wasn’t long before they began to use them on the ice of frozen waterfalls, and anywhere else there were cliffs and winter temperatures.
The Finger Lakes region, and Ithaca in particular, have world-class ice and, more significantly, accessible ice. No other place has the variety and amount of ice one can walk to with a cappuccino still hot. Ithaca and the Finger Lakes could be – should be – the ice capital of the Central Northeast.
More Ice Needed
Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of the great ice in the region is legally open for climbing.
Hundreds of local ice climbers would benefit greatly if more local ice was accessible. Instead of having to drive up to the Adirondaks in the winter, they could recreate in their own backyard public lands (and perhaps eventually some private lands, too). Not only would healthy recreation be provided, local dollars would be kept in the community.
However, it is not just climbers who would benefit. Residents, visitors and the local economy would also be winners. In 2004, local climbers highlighted ice climbing at the inaugural Light in Winter Festival, held in Ithaca. The performance and demonstration drew an estimated crowd of over 200 people, with little advertising, and on a cold January Sunday. As shown by this exciting public display, ice climbing is a unique and fascinating spectator sport. Ice festivals across the country attract thousands of spectators every year. The Finger Lakes economy could benefit from similar tourism dollars, right at a time when hotel rooms stand empty and restaurants are quiet.
Because it occurs on a renewable resource – frozen water – ice climbing is a non-impact sport. It is environmentally friendly. It doesn’t displace any other recreational activities, it helps create a new one, and it does so in the cold of winter when residents and visitors need activities to get outside and stay healthy
Probably the biggest barrier to opening up ice climbing is the fear of liability. However, there has never been a reported successful lawsuit in the state of New York against a property owner for an injury or fatality suffered by a climber (ice or rock). Legal mechanisms exist to protect land managers and private land owners. Liability concerns are overblown and misplaced, and ice climbers are busy trying to educate the relevant parties to communicate this fact.
Ithaca already has a reputation as a great outdoor town. It was rated as one of the 10 best towns for mountain biking in the country, and one of the best college outdoor towns in the country (both in Outside magazine and USA Today). Combine ice climbing with mountain biking, gorges, wineries, the lakes, and fall colors, and you have a full-season adventure tourist destination. Perhaps soon the locally ubiquitous “Ithaca is Gorges!” t-shirts will be supplanted by t-shirts proclaiming “Ithaca Ice Is Nice!”
by Todd Miner, Cornell Outdoor Education
Dr. Todd Miner is the Lindseth Executive Director of Cornell Outdoor Education, the largest, most comprehensive collegiate outdoor education program in the nation.