I recently took Winter Climbing 101 with EMS Climbing School in North Conway, NH where I learned a lot, expanded my mountaineering comfort zone and had a great time!
Winter Climbing 101 is a full day instructor led class that teaches the basics of mountaineering such as ice axe technique, crampon use and ice climbing skills. It is taught by certified outdoor instructors and the “classroom” is at some of the best ice faces in the northeast like Frankenstein Cliffs or Cathedral Ledge.
Winter Climbing 101 is a great way to expand your winter comfort zone and to build the skill base that is needed to safely navigate cold alpine environments. Below I will walk you through my experience with this class.
Getting Geared Up
All classes meet at the North Conway EMS to introduce fellow students/ instructors and to get outfitted with gear.
The EMS Climbing School section looks like my dream garage with endless cubbies of gear, a small rock wall and plenty of space to put gear on. I checked in and met Charlie, my instructor for the day, along with my 3 classmates. EMS maintains a strict 4 to 1 student to instructor ratio to ensure enough personal attention.
|getting to know the class|
Charlie introduced himself and helped our class get to know each other. He then began to outfit students with the plastic mountaineering boots, climbing harnesses and helmets that we would need for a day on the ice. EMS offers use of this gear for no extra charge. This is a tremendous benefit for two reasons. First, the high cost of mountaineering gear is a barrier to entry for this sport. Second, getting outfitted by a professional lets students see how to use and size the gear.
|Charlie shows us how to fit gear|
Charlie was very careful to explain how to properly fit climbing harnesses, boots and ice axes. He also took great care to explain what we would learn throughout the day. Now we certainly looked like mountaineers, with all of our gear, so we hit the road for the 5 minute drive to Cathedral Ledge.
Learning to Walk and Other Mountaineering Skills
|setting the day’s agenda|
We arrived at Cathedral ledge to find plenty of ice, temperatures in the 30s and almost no snow. Charlie took a moment to ask what we wanted to get out of this class. It turns out that everyone in the class had an interest in climbing Mount Rainier so he slightly modified the curriculum to accommodate our goals. We started our day by learning how to put on crampons and walk in them; which is much harder than it sounds.
|learning the french technique|
Plastic mountaineering boots do not allow you to bend your ankles or flex your feet to walk uphill. This is particularly challenging since you want every point of your crampons to grip the ice as you climb. Charlie had the answer. He showed us how to essentially side step uphill, with proper ice axe placement, to do what is called the French technique. We also learned how to hold an ice axe and that it is always held on the uphill side.
|safe ice skills|
Charlie made sure to teach us the critical tips to ascend safely. This includes taking small but firm steps and ensuring that the ice axe is providing support with each step.
These concepts were new to everyone in class and we all looked a little awkward at first. Charlie had us practice ascending and descending a few steep slopes around the ice faces of Cathedral Ledge. It felt weird to use crampons on bare ground but the technique was exactly the same. We no longer feared the razor sharp spikes, aka crampons, attached to our boots. Before long we all looked like mountaineers who had been using the French technique for years.
Climbing the Ice
By 11:30 am we were ready for the ice climbing portion of the class. Charlie explained how to set ice anchors and set up ropes for top rope climbing. He also showed us the all important figure 8 knot which ties the climbing rope in your harness. Once we had that down he showed us how to belay other climbers to prevent them from falling.
|climbing and teaching|
He then climbed the ice to set up the ropes. He must have been confident in our skills since he let the students belay him. Along the way he demonstrated how to place your boot on the ice face to use as much of the crampon as possible instead of just front points. If you use front points for too long your calves will be exhausted. He also showed us how to swing our ice axes to get the best possible ice placement.
|using my front points|
Then it was our turn to climb the ice. We each took turns climbing and belaying. I learned that there is no substitute for experience and probably relied on my front points a little too much.
I had complete faith in my fellow student’s belaying abilities as I descended. Everyone took a turn climbing and then the day was nearing an end.
|self arresting with no snow|
Before we headed out Charlie made sure to demonstrate each variation of self arrest. This is one of the most critical mountaineering skills where you use your ice axe to quickly stop a fall. There was not enough snow for us to try it but it was helpful to see the technique.
My fellow students and I realized how fast the day flew by as we headed back to the car. We all agreed that in an extremely short period of time we vastly expanded our mountaineering comfort zone and gained real world experience with the tools of climbing. Charlie made sure to get our feedback and answer any questions we had.
The EMS Climbing School curriculum is top notch but the school really sets itself apart with its instructors. Charlie was not only a certified outdoor expert but he also had a great sense of humor and was fun to be around. He was able to teach a very serious topic in a fun way; that takes a lot of skill.
If you want to hike in the winter then do yourself a favor and take Winter Climbing 101. This class will provide you with the basic skills that you need to safely enter the realm of mountaineering.
Disclosure: EMS provided New England Outside with complimentary admission to Winter Climbing 101 in exchange for blogging coverage. However, New England Outside is in no way required to provide EMS Climbing School with a favorable review.