Outdoors South: Escapades on Ice

Taking part in an unlikely Southern sport yields big dividends on a crisp winter day.
Carlton Riley Smith

I'm a sucker to try anything once--especially if it's an activity that draws me outdoors and elicits an "Are you mad?" sort of reaction from others. I'll jump, ride, glide, or climb up or down anything once.

It's that rationale that got me up to North Carolina on a wintry day to do what would rarely occur to anyone living outside an alpine climate: ice climb. Being a rock-climbing enthusiast in a past (and fitter) life, I jumped at the chance after locating a guide in Asheville. Trying to ascend an icicle seemed nuts--which sounded just about right to me.

Southern ice climbing is something of an anomaly as conditions have to be absolutely perfect: a cold snap that stays frozen long enough to cool the ground and sustain ice formations. Given the right climate, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee can have climbable ice. And while snow adds a nice visual touch, it is by no means required.

So on a cold but clear morning, we hiked a couple of miles into Pisgah National Forest, with the rhythmic sound of snow crunching beneath our boots. I followed Stuart Cowles, an experienced mountaineering guide and owner of Climbmax, a climbing gym and guide service in Asheville. (By the way, this is the only way to go if you're looking to dabble in a sport that can be dangerous. Have someone who owns the appropriate gear and who is a certified guide take you.)

We stopped to suit up, and Stuart gave me a crash course in technique. I would strap steel blades (known as crampons) to my hiking boots and use two axes to dig into the ice. "If you get the ax stuck in the ice," Stuart explained, "try to turn your head away when you're jimmying it out. You don't want it to suddenly pop out and hit you in the face."

After putting on a helmet and piling on layers of fleece, nylon, and harnesses, Stuart pointed out the frozen creek we would climb. I was surprisingly comfortable with the prospect of it because the other two choices had been severely vertical--a frozen waterfall and a frozen rock face. Looking at the creek cut steeply into the mountainside, I sized up the worst-case scenario; a potential fall didn't look so much like a splat as a frantic buglike slide down its grade.

Stuart led the climb as I fed him the rope from an anchor station on the bank. This is known as belaying. The belayer ensures that the climber has enough rope as he or she ascends without giving the person too much slack. However, the most important part of belaying is to brace the rope in case the climber falls. Stuart stopped periodically to hammer in temporary ice anchors, which were literally just long screws. The ease and grace with which he motored up the face quelled the riot of doubt in my mind.

Next came my turn.

I began hacking my way up with the ice axes. I noticed that it came somewhat naturally, but my legs were skating out from under me. Once I learned to kick in the crampon blades, I stood on makeshift platforms while I attempted to wrestle the axes from the ice, which was made even more difficult by the fact that my head was turned to avoid smacking myself in the face with the ax.

Our climb was divided into three segments (pitches) where we gained more than 300 feet. Finally, I was able to take in the vista. Snow blanketed the ridges below, and I faintly heard the sound of the creek burbling beneath the ice.

In less than a week, warmer days would melt away the ice for a year or perhaps longer. My impulse to take the trip had been a gamble, but in beholding that breathtaking view, the whole experience came up triple golden bars. Gaining this vantage point was well worth dealing with axes, blades, and puzzled questions from friends.

After a long moment of silence, Stuart summed it up succinctly: "Ice climbing is heady, pristine, and quiet."

This article is from the February 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.