On a good day, ice climbing is like exploring a crystal palace. Ice hangs in columns, curtains and chandeliers. Sunlight reflecting off snow on the ground gives an almost heavenly glow.
``I love ice,'' says Lisa Feldman of Avon as she trudges through shin-deep snow along the Naugatuck River in Beacon Falls. Her climbing partner, Adam Shain of Fairfield, peers through the trees searching for giant icicles on the rocky valley walls as they walk.
But this is not a good day.
The early morning sun is hidden behind clouds by the time Feldman and Shain reach the base of a 165-foot curtain of ice rapidly thawing into a waterfall. The crystal palace is crumbling.
Icicles fall around the climbers with the sound of smashing china and shattering wine glasses. The chandeliers have melted into fangs. Water drools off the icy teeth hanging above the climbers.
On a bad day, ice-climbing is hell frozen over. Cold, cursing climbers hang from spikes stabbed into ice about as thick as a layer of paint and wonder if their shivers are from fear or from the ice water running down their sleeves and into their armpits.
``We walked all the way out here,'' Shain says with shrug. ``I guess I should check it out.''
Shain turns his back to the not-so-frozen waterfall and pulls a harness and a pair of medieval-looking ice axes from his pack. He straps a set of spikes called crampons to his boots while Feldman piles two ropes at the base of the falls.
A few years ago, people who hung from skyscraper icicles were considered the lunatic fringe, even by other climbers. Rocks, at least, don't melt while you climb. Mountaineers hacked their way up frozen waterfalls only to practice for the ice-climbing they knew they wouldn't be able to avoid in the high mountains.
But today, the constantly changing nature of frozen water is part of the charm. As technology makes the sport safer and more comfortable, waterfall ice-climbers are making their way into the mainstream.
Gore-Tex jackets and carbon-fiber helmets protect climbers against falling chunks of ice, the cold and the water. New technologies have armed the climbers with improved equipment that makes falling less dangerous.
Local climbers once felt they had to get to the big ice of New Hampshire or the Adirondacks of New York to find something worth climbing. Now they realize that although the ice in their own backyards is short, it is plenty steep. Today, dozens of Connecticut climbers prowl the woods of their home state for smears and slides of ice that may harden to the perfect condition for climbing for only a day or two each winter. That's just another part of the challenge, to find the perfect ice to climb. When the ice is thin or doesn't hang all the way to the ground, impossible-looking ``mixed'' routes require rock climbing with ice tools when there is no ice to hang on to.
``It's never the same climb twice,'' Shain says before chopping the curved picks of his ice axes into the bottom of the falls, kicking in with the front points of his crampons and standing up into the world of vertical ice. ``That's part of the fun.''
In just a couple minutes, he is 40 feet above the ground, examining a rotten curtain of ice. The sounds his tools make when they strike tell more than words can about the condition of the ice. It sounds as if he's making breakfast, and that's not good. The ``clinks,'' ``snaps,'' ``crackles'' and ``pops'' all tell of weak, brittle ice.
Feldman, feeding rope to Shain from the ground, keeps her eyes on Shain and her ears pricked until a reassuring ``thunk,'' the sound of an ax sinking into dense, thick, pliable ice that climbers call ``plastic,'' echoes in the valley.
``There it is,'' says Shain as he hangs from the strap attached to his ax and grabs from his sling of hardware an ice screw, an 8-inch tube of threaded titanium that takes him nearly five minutes to twist into the thickest part of the ice. He clips his rope to the screw with a carabiner -- a metal snap link. In theory, the screw in the ice that his rope is attached to will stop his rapid descent if he falls.
``Well, that's worthless,'' he says as he clips his rope into the screw. A well-placed screw in the strongest ice might hold a falling climber. In this stuff, it's not likely.
``But it makes me feel better,'' he says.
``The last time Lisa and I climbed this,'' he says, as if telling the story will distract him from his current predicament, ``the sun came out and was shining on the screws. By the time Lisa climbed up to the them, they had melted out, and she could just pull them out with her hands.''
At the final curtain, Shain runs out of options. The sun has rotted the right side of the falls into thin layers of ice that run with water. The left side has the consistency of a Sno-Kone. He places another screw, then thrashes his way up a groove in the curtain. At the top, he ``dry tools'' by stabbing and snagging his picks on frozen moss and edges of rock.
``That was spicy,'' he says, grinning, as he steps onto the top of the falls.
Shain ties his rope to a tree to anchor himself at the top of the cliff, then peers over the edge at Feldman.
``You sure you wanna climb this thing?'' he shouts down.
Feldman, already tied into the ropes with her axes in hand, just looks up at him and waits for the ropes to come taut so she can start up.
First published Feb. 15, 2001
WINTERTIME IN CONNECTICUT