The first few swings of the axe land awkwardly – too light and tentative.
“Really give it a good swing,” one of the guides says. “Show it who’s boss!”
A few more attempts follow – each more intent than the last – and then the axe lands in the ice, grabbing hold with a satisfying sound. Oh yea. I AM the boss.
I’m not all that experienced a climber of any kind – rock, ice, jungle gym – but learning to ice climb just sounded cool. Intimidating, too. In my novice climber’s mind, ice seems delicate and unstable, like it might shatter beneath me at any moment, which makes the idea of climbing it even more daunting, in that scared-excited way.
There’s a whole world of things I don’t know about ice and climbing, which is why guided climbing trips with outfits like Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School are so fantastic. They supply the gear and expertise to keep us safe, which means we get to focus on having a good time and swinging those axes like champs.
My ice climbing excursion was part of a whole-day, multi-part experience, which started with ice climbing and ended with yoga, wine, and hot soup and was put together by Maine Yoga Adventures. (NOTE: The 2019 version of this event is weekend-log, from Feb 8-10. Find out more.) Our day started at the Acadia Mountain Guides home base on Main Street in Bar Harbor, where we signed waivers (but of course) and got our gear: harnesses, helmets, and boots.
It just so happened that we were on Mount Desert Island during a bit of a winter warm spell – a fact that, as you might guess, has an impact on area ice. Having scouted out conditions in advance, our guides decided to switch our destination, nixing the ice formation on Dorr Mountain and instead going with the ice-covered cliffs just off Sargeant Drive.
Climbing on ice on the side of the road sounds weird – but this is a sweet spot. There are barely any cars on the road this time of year, so you don’t have to worry about a constant parade of traffic (although a few cars did cruise by and the drivers seemed as delighted to see us climbing there as we were to be there climbing). Plus you’re overlooking gorgeous Somes Sound, with views of mountains in the distance and a ice-covered cliffs right in front of you.
Our guides, Pat and Dick, walked us through all the basics – getting our crampons onto our boots, how to hold the axe near the base of the handle and swing it with purpose, how to keep our pelvis forward and our heels down as we climbed. Pat showed us how to belay, too, and how to back-up the belayer. Each of us was going to have a chance to do all the things.
Because ice conditions weren’t ideal for an all-day climb, we spent the second half of the day snowshoeing.
“Perfect,” I thought. “An easy-going snowshoe after all that climbing will be just the thing!”
And for the first few minutes, it WAS easy-going.
And then it got steep.
The climb (and the huffing and puffing) was worth it, though, because the views from Dorr Mountain are stupendous.
Ice Climbing with Acadia Mountain Guides
228 Main St, Bar Harbor
Rates vary based on half-day or full-day climb, the number of people in your group, the number of guides. And Acadia Mountain Guides goes all over – Acadia, Camden, Moosehead Lake region, Bangor area, the White Mountains,
There’s a Half Day Ice Climbing Taster that’s perfect for beginners (offered in Acadia and Bangor), as well as a full-day Introductory Ice Climbing Experience (offered in North Conway, Sunday River/Grafton Notch, Sugarloaf, Acadia National Park, and Camden). Intermediate guided climbs also available.
All the climbing gear is provided – helmet, harness, boots, crampons, axes. You’re responsible for wearing appropriate clothing (layers!).