I've hiked to the summit of Cascade Mountain too many times to count, and started avoiding hiking it in recent years as hiker traffic there has increased so drastically. What do you do when the trails are too crowded? Find a less crowded route.
In order to keep expanding your comfort zone, and perhaps to prevent boredom, you have to keep pushing your limits and challenging yourself. Keep trying new things, harder things. So this month, I somehow allowed Ted and Joe to talk me into my first multi-pitch climb, and an ice/mixed/slide climb at that! I haven't climbed ice in two years, and I'm kind of terrible at rock climbing. I haven't been on a rope since a harness fiasco at the rock gym a while back, and a winter day with a single-digit high was less than appealing. But! The weather was otherwise sunny, no snow moving in, the roads were clear, and the nighttime temperatures well below zero in the Adirondacks would keep other climbers from getting an early start, allowing us time to take our time. Ted once said I shouldn't be afraid of the Trap Dike on Mount Colden because he felt it was well within my comfort zone, and he turned out to be right that I'd find it "a delightful playground of rocks." So when he insisted I'd enjoy this climb, I decided to give it a shot.
One thing you learn about ice climbing as a party of three is that it's not fast ascent. Not in the way hiking or trail running is. The concept is straightforward; lead the first pitch, build your anchor, belay everyone up, repeat. The reality is not as clean. It takes a good chunk of time to get your gear sorted out and your equipment on. Ropes drag, get stuck or frozen, anchor building can get interesting, communication isn't always easy, plus there's the fact that everything just seems to move more slowly in the winter. The result is that much of your time is spent waiting. Unlike summer rock climbing, during the winter, you feel every minute when you're not moving if you're not properly dressed. Early on, I made the mistake of looking down at Ted at the base of the falls, and in that moment, I realized how high I'd climbed already. I decided then that if I was going to make it up, I'd need to focus on what was right in front of me, and avoid looking up or down. It's way too easy to psych yourself out when you're hanging from a rope on an ice cliff. With the encouragement of my fearless leaders and an unexpected friend, Andy, who climbed up behind me with another group, I muscled up the technical part of the climb.
Above the waterfall, we stowed one of the ropes and roped together to simul-climb a couple shorter, easier ice obstacles interspersed with hiking. Even this was slow-going, as the terrain was uneven, filled with buried rocks, ledges, downed trees, and often deep snow.
As we reached the bottom of the slide, it was becoming clear that we weren’t hiking out in daylight, and that this would end up being one of the most physically challenging ascents of my life. In the summer, the slide is a steep, gritty, and often wet, rock slab with numerous loose rocks. In the winter, it is about 400-450 feet of glorious low-angle ice with a good rest ledge near the middle. Despite the good shape it was in, it still took nearly the last bit of my strength to get up it, with my calves borderline cramping with every step, my arms exhausted from swinging those axes.
There was no real time for celebration though, the sun was setting fast and we still had a solid bushwhack to reach the summit. Only one other group followed this route all the way to the summit, as most people just rappel after the technical ice. It appeared that their group must have split up at some point, as the tracks in the snow diverged. Joe took what ended up being the easier, faster route to the summit, and of course, Ted and I chose the more convoluted path. When we finally reached the top, it was just dark enough to dig out the headlamps, and the wind was picking up, giving me brain freeze as it hit the side of my head. We hurried down off the rocks and into the trees on the hard-packed, maintained trail for a quick snack before half jogging our way back to the trailhead. A two hour drive home, and our adventure was complete.