In February I was lucky enough to be asked to attend the Mount Washington Ice Festival in New Hampshire. Heralded as one of the premier climbing events in the country, it is intended to be a celebration of ice climbing and winter mountaineering and invites all abilities to come, climb and be social. A great opportunity for those attending to network, socialise, try new gear and participate in multiple day courses, one-day technical clinics and privately guided climbs - only later did I find out that I was expected to coach one of these clinics. Lucky for me it was mixed climbing so I managed to wing it.
If you have never been to or, like I, never heard of The Mt. Washington Valley, I would say it has to be one of the finest waterfall ice and mixed climbing destinations in North America, with three and four pitch crags just two minutes from the road, crags just five minutes from town and good food and drink on your doorstep.
Although my attendance wasn’t strictly just for pleasure, and I was expected to work a little each day, I still hoped to squeeze in a bit of personal climbing here and there, so at the introduction evening I asked the locals for the top ten ticks and was pointed to a couple of classics on Cathedral Ledge, particularly Remission a WI5+ with a mixed first pitch and a steep Ice pillar at the top. Sounded great to me and I was told if you can get someone to take a photo of you on the steep ice at the top then it looks stellar. Super hero territory.
Bergelmir on, I was ready. My partner for the day was my host in the states Dana Seaton and although a talented rock climber, was by his own admission not a winter climber. This was great for me as it meant I got to lead every pitch. Two pitches up as I readied myself for the main event I heard a familiar accent drifting across from the route to the right. It was British, as far as I knew there was only one other Brit attending the meet and that was the Alpine Photographer Jon Griffiths.
“Jon is that you?”
“Yes who’s that?”
“Ah ..Hi Dave”
What were the odds, I was on the most photographic route in the area and by pure chance the best Alpine photographer on the planet is in the ideal spot. Champion!… I practiced my hero poses!!
“You ready to get some good shots?”
“You need more time, I can wait” I straitened my helmet, polished my axes
“No …I don’t have my camera .. or my phone”
I won’t repeat what was said next.
The evenings at the festival are full of interesting events and social occasions, I even got to spend a very amusing and inspiring hour or so watching Jon present about the occasions he didn’t forget his camera.
With the festival over and my fight booked I grabbed the opportunity for a quick trip to Snake Mountain in Vermont. Bolted, steep limestone with icicles, this was too good to ignore. So with a borrowed pair of fruit boots and my local crag master I got myself boxed stupid.
A couple of days later I found myself sitting in a snowbound Boston Airport wondering if my flight was ever going to leave. It had been snowing since I arrived and most of New England was now covered in 5ft of snow with a huge storm approaching.
I called my airline to check that we would still be flying that night.
“Icelandair always fly, sir” was the reply I got. And sure enough they weren’t wrong.
You see, shortly before the Washington Ice Fest was announced my friends Adam Crook, Neil Griffiths and I were invited back to the land of Fire and Ice by ISALP (Icelandic Alpine Club) to attend their annual meet. Neil and Adam had arranged to take to some new recruits in the form Sean Wilkinson and Cassim Ladha and as the meet coincided with my return from the States it seemed rude not to stop off on the way back. Some hours later and fighting with time zones and jet lag I found myself in the back of a 4×4 hurtling through wilderness of Iceland once again. It was good to be back.
Iceland has rough and rugged beauty that never ceases to leave me speechless and although I loved my time in the states it felt like a fresh breeze had blown away the clean cut and almost predictable geography of New England leaving me with pure wilderness. The dawn and dusks here often spill their pallets of pink and purple almost celestial rays upon the craggy mountains as they jut proud and steeply from dark and foreboding fjords. Fjords that in turn entice you toward their shores as sirens would entice sailors of old. Be warned my friends, here be monsters.
Luckily for us though the venue for this year’s meet was Bildudalur on the shores of Arnarfjordur in the westfjords and the only thing more abundant than ancient monsters (four individual types have been spotted along its shores) in Arnarfjordur is ice. So much so that this small area had already been the venue for the ISALP annual meet before back in 2009. This is unusual as in Iceland their idea of a meet is not one of heading off to an area to repeat the classics, and have a social drink or six. Far from it! In Iceland you climb new lines everyday no matter what grade, WI3 to WI6+ it’s all still available for those that want it. Happily they do still like a drink!
Our host Sigurður Tómas Þórisson or Siggi for short is a key member of ISALP and as keeper of all new route information, talented ice climber and all-round nice guy he’s a good man to know if you want to climb in Iceland.
Siggi’s thankless and in my opinion endless task of keeping tabs on all new routes climbed in a country the size of the UK that seemingly drips with ice was how we first made contact. On our first trip in February 2014 he was of course the guy we reported all our new routes too, and having only met briefly in Reykjavik before our return to the UK it was great to finally get the opportunity to tie in to a rope together and have some fun. Or as it turned out on one occasion to receive a lesson on how to link steep icicles into one glorious line with what seemed effortless ease. A friend of mine recently said “it doesn’t matter how many hard mixed routes you do, you can still get spanked by WI5” until that crux pitch I didn’t know what he meant.
Siggi promptly named that route “Warlock” and gave it WI5+. Having just done a well-established classic New England WI5+ I think he under graded a little, but what would I know!
The Meet itself was a great success and somewhat similar to our meets consisting of climbing during the day, demoing kit, presentations, beer and good food. One remarkable difference was that people battled the increasingly difficult elements on the first night to complete the 6, 7 & even 8hr drive from Reykjavik to Bildudalur. Travel here is not for the uninitiated and digging out 4×4’s from back country roads can become standard if you get caught out. Just what I needed after my time in snow bound New England doing the same thing each day.
Climbing in Iceland can vary immensely, as it’s such a young island the rock is generally unstable but areas of good solid rock that might take protection can be found in certain areas an last year we did put up good Scottish styled mixed routes. However if it’s the ice you are after and untouched ice in particular then you will not need to look far as either side of every road in the Westfjords has potential lines. If your particular road doesn’t then turn right into the next fjord, you will find what you are looking for there.
In contrast to New England, Iceland needs just a little more effort all-round but the rewards are made all the sweeter for it with routes range in size from 30-40m to 150 – 200m and most are never more than 30mins from the road. During our time there the Brits put up 8 new routes ranging between WI4 and WI5+….. just in that small area alone there is so much more to do.
Thanks to Dave Garry for the words and to Cassim Ladha for the images. Dave forms part of the Jöttnar pro team