Ice sometimes gets a bad rap. Sure, it comes in handy to cool our lemonade and coolered snacks in the summer, but during a Maine winter, ice is spoken about in unpleasant tones.

Ice makes us fall down, after all. It coats our windshields and turns our roads into skating rinks (although, it should be said, ice on actual skating rinks is awesome).

But winter ice can be something you look forward to – seek out, even. There is that aforementioned ice skating (ice skating!). And there is also ice CLIMBING.

Ice climbing with Equiniox Guiding Service in Camden. Shannon Bryan photo

Much like rock climbing, ice climbing gives us regular, feet-on-the-ground humans an opportunity to scale rock faces like gravity-shirking super heroes. Put some crampons on our boots, a couple of axes in our mitts, and we can do anything!

Well, okay, we might not be all that graceful or great at it to start, but we can at least put in a pretty good showing, even if we’ve never climbed much of anything before.

Based out of Camden, Equinox Guiding Service offers ice climbing trips in the winter. (In warmer months, Equinox offers rock climbing trips, too. I had the pleasure of rock climbing with Noah a couple of years ago: Rock climbing in Camden with Equinox Guiding Service.)

Co-owned by experienced guides Noah Kleiner and John Sidik, Equinox is in the business of getting people onto the ice (or the rock, as the case may be). And while it’s true that ice climbing does feel more daunting (all those sharp objects + walls of ice = immediate fear response), it can be a really fun – and really safe – sport, even for novices with little to no climbing experience.

Noah Kleiner, climbing guide and co-owner of Equinox Guiding Service, leads the way to The Left Cataracts in Camden Hills State Park. Shannon Bryan photo

For starters, guides like Noah know all the good ice spots, and they pay close attention to make sure the ice is safe for climbing. And ice climbing has all sorts of safety redundancies and equipment – ropes and harnesses and locking carabiners and helmets and belay devices. So you’re good there. (As with any outdoor sport, there’s always a level of risk, but climbing ice isn’t remotely as scary as it sounds when your first hear it.)

And the feeling of swinging an axe and landing into ice the first time – well, it feels very badass.

But before the axes swing, you’ve got to get geared up and find some ice.

Noah’s truck full of gear. Shannon Bryan photo
Some pre-climbing side-of-the-road entertainment. Shannon Bryan photo
Guide Noah Kleiner introducing the group to crampons. Shannon Bryan photo
A little crampon help from our friends. Shannon Bryan photo

During a recent guided ice climb with Equinox Guiding Service, we met Noah on the side of Route 52 at the Old Carriage Road trailhead at Camden Hills State Park. There we all filled out the obligatory waivers and started putting on our gear: Climbing boots, crampons, harness, helmet. (All the climbing gear is supplied. We dressed in warm winter layers – snowpants, coats, hats, gloves).

Hiking in on the Old Carriage Trail. Shannon Bryan photo
Ice, meet crampons. Shannon Bryan photo

Then we hiked about a mile in – on a pretty trail that was coated in ice – to find our climbing destination for the day: The Left Cataracts.

This spot is so dang pretty. Ice spilled down from the layers of rock like a lava flow of vanilla icing oozing down a layer cake. It looked beautiful. But also meant we needed to be careful with our footing (three cheers for crampons).

Arriving at The Left Cataracts. Shannon Bryan photo

Noah walked us through all the equipment – how to make sure our harnesses were tight around our waists, how to properly knot the rope, how to kick our toes into the ice and keep our heels down, how to swing the axe light we mean it!

Learning the gear and practicing our swings. Shannon Bryan photo
Noah demonstrating how the belay device works. Shannon Bryan photo

While we practiced kicking and swinging, Noah set up the ropes for our climbing. Then it was time for us to give it a try.

Noah taught us how climbers should indicate they’re ready to climb, “On belay!” and how the belayer responds, “Belay on!” He showed us how to actually belay, too, keeping our eyes on the climber and our hands always on the rope, taking up slack as the climber climbs.

And we started climbing.

For most of us, those first few swings were clumsy – they didn’t land correctly and so we swung again, bits of ice flying as the axe made contact and dug in. We kicked the front of our crampons into the ice and stepped up, swinging and kicking and climbing.

The routes Noah chose for us were beginner-friendly, not too steep except in parts near the top, so the going felt confident. Two in our group – Juliette and Holly – powered right up like they’d been ice climbing for ages. Heather and I hesitated more as we got higher up. I felt great most of the way – bold and in control – until I realized how high I was. Then I wanted down. I think that probably happens a lot with beginner ice climbers.

We spent a few hours getting to know a few different routes here, trading off between climbing and belaying each other. Cheering each other on the whole time.

In those moments of “I want down” or “I don’t know where to go,” Noah did an excellent job of talking us through it – telling us to breathe or to move to the right or that “It’s not much farther up – you got this!”

Juliette and Holly reached the top of everything. I did not. And it didn’t matter. We all felt like ice climbing stars.

After lunch we moved to another area not too far away, where the ice was decidedly steeper. By this point my hands were tired (apparently I’d been giving my axes a death grip – probably due to nerves) and my knees hurt because I’d unwittingly been ramming them into the ice as I climbed (ah, beginners), but I still went for it.

Again, I didn’t make the top. But others did, because they rule.

By the end of the day, we were all pleasantly drained – it was a cool and unique winter adventure where we got to challenge ourselves and maybe even surprise ourselves with how high we could go. We got to kick and swing axes in a way that felt exciting and cathartic at the same time.

And we got to look some ice in the face and tell it, “We’re not afraid of you.”

Except, you know, when it’s all over the driveway just waiting to knock us off our feet.

Ice Climbing with Equinox Guiding Service

Equinox Guiding Service offers full-day ice climbing trips all season when the conditions are good. Climbs take place at various locations in Camden and cost $110-$265 per person, depending on the number of people in your group. For groups of 10 or more, the rate is $75.
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