Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ice Climbing at the Asbestos Wall

I am really feeling like I’d like to get more into ice climbing.

Perhaps I should have said this before my last post about ice, but better to say it late than never: I know very little about ice climbing. The last thing I want is for someone who actually knows a lot about ice climbing to stumble upon these ramblings and come away thinking that I regard myself as some kind of real ice climber because I’ve toproped short, picked-out beginner walls on four occasions in my life. Obviously, I know I am a beginner. In offering my thoughts I hope to offer a beginner’s perspective on ice, and not much more.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about my day with Vass at the Asbestos Wall in the Catskills.

As the day approached, I watched the weather, hoping it would stay below freezing this time. On my last ice climbing day the temperature had spiked up into the mid-forties, leading to very wet and potentially worrisome conditions. This time around there appeared to be no problems in that regard. The high for the day was projected to be just 14 degrees, which is less than the ideal temperature, since when it is so far below freezing the ice can be brittle and chip off in plates when you stick your axe in it. But at least I could expect that this time it wouldn’t be so difficult to stay dry, and I wouldn’t have to worry about melting chunks falling on our heads.

I proposed to Vass that we check out the Asbestos Wall, mostly because I believed it would be easy for us to set up top ropes. Neither of us was planning on leading. I of course have never led on ice, and while Vass has the screws and used to do it, our trip was going to be his first time on the ice in at least three years. So he just wanted to get a feel for it again and told me he’d prefer it if he didn’t have to lead.

I had never been to the Asbestos Wall, and in fact had never really considered trying it before because it has a reputation as an overcrowded nightmare, full of loud, inconsiderate gumbies hogging routes and hacking the ice into oblivion. It is also a very sunny wall and the ice tends to bake and get that milky/cloudy appearance that can signal poor conditions (hence the wall’s name). But since we were heading up on MLK Day, which is a Monday and a workday for many, I hoped it wouldn’t be too crowded. And with a forecasted high temperature well below freezing, this sunny area seemed like just the ticket.

When Vass and I arrived we immediately saw why the wall gets so crowded. The approach is incredibly easy. The ice is visible from the parking lot and the slope beneath the climbs is neither steep nor unpleasant. And although the sections of the wall aren’t terribly high—the tallest ones are maybe 40 feet, tops—they are generally vertical, with very few ledges or broken-up sections. Add to these virtues the ease of access to the trees atop the cliff and the place becomes a beginner ice climber’s dream come true.

All of this is provided, of course, that you have enough room to climb without fear of getting a rope dropped on your head. We met a woman at the wall who had tried to come the previous day (i.e., Sunday). She said her party had given up after being at the wall for less than an hour because they found the crowded conditions so miserable.

But on this holiday Monday we had no such issues. The woman I just mentioned was part of a group of three. There was a guided party and I think two other pairs at the wall all day. We found plenty of ice to share with this small group of climbers and had ourselves a great time. We set up ropes on three different sections of the wall over the course of the day, and at each section we were able to pick out three or four different lines to climb. We had no trouble getting a section of the wall to ourselves any time we wanted it. There were ample signs of the wall’s popularity; most of the climbs we chose had obvious pick markings, and some would have benefitted from some time alone to recover. In the most extreme cases there was evidence that fragile lower sections of the wall had been kicked out by clumsy, rough climbers who came before us. But there were some fat columns we climbed on which there was no evidence of prior climbers, most likely because these particular sections have so much water flowing through them that holes fill in and freeze over very quickly. We tried to find the least hacked-up lines we could, and took care not to cause further damage to any of the more fragile features we found. We had a fun day, one I’d repeat without hesitation. Even though the temperature was quite low we were in the sun until the late afternoon, and had no trouble staying warm, which of course presents another issue with this wall on warmer days, when it must be difficult to evaluate whether the ice is in good condition.

So I would recommend the Asbestos Wall highly, but only to beginners, and only on a weekday, and only when it is quite cold. It really is a sign of how popular ice climbing has become that you can find five parties at this wall on a weekday. I would guess that a decade ago you might not have found so many parties at this wall over an entire weekend. Now, it seems the weekend crowding is so bad that this wall becomes unbearable.  Even during the week, I can’t imagine what this wall would offer a solid leader on ice. There are better, longer, less-crowded climbs within a very short distance of this wall. But for easy access to steep toprope climbs, it’s pretty hard to beat.

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