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New England Ice Climbing and Why It’s So Good

An interview with Ian Osteyee and 10 of the must-climb local routes

Adirondack Park, Keene, New York. Tucked in the northeast part of the state, near the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, home to the 1980 Winter Games, lie miles and miles of classic rock and ice routes that often rival the best found in Yosemite and Colorado. Some steep, but mostly vertical to less than vertical anorthosite rock in the Adirondacks (ADK) has fewer edges than many areas, but many cracks split the stone. Despite the muggy summers and brutally cold winters —which drive most climbers to tamer areas out west—some, including Ian Osteyee, call it home.

“It doesn’t have the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies but it has easier access. I’ve never gotten more pitches in a day than I do here in the ADK,” he said. Fifty-one-year-old Osteyee grew up in Lake Placid where he picked up climbing in the early ‘80s, back when there were few climbers in the Adirondacks. He learned trad and ice climbing from his high school teacher, Don Mellor. Mellor gifted Osteyee a rack of hexes and stoppers. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for the 14-year-old to lead 5.6s and 5.7s.

Osteyee started ice climbing using (in one hand) a Chouinard Piolet with a classic curve pick and a fiberglass shaft. In his other hand he carried a Forrest Mjolnir, a crude rock-and-ice hammer. He strapped rigid crampons to his Dexter leather hiking boots. Later, in the 90s, he used the top-end tools of the time, Petzl Quasars, which were still a far cry from those on the market today. “WI4s were terrifying,” he utters.

The combination of low-lying peaks and heavy moisture in the ADK means that ice routes here form with a frozen glaze that is so clear, at times, it’s possible to see the rock through it. These smears are what Osteyee learned to ice climb on and why today he excels at it. To keep from shattering frozen daggers or ripping transparent scabs from the wall, he’s developed a gentle swinging style. Where others whack the ice with their picks, his swing ends with a push from the elbow.

Osteyee has a variety of first ascents in the Adirondack’s from 5.3 to 5.10. Though he’s also been rock climbing for over 35 years, it’s his ice routes that he’s most proud of. Three of his favourite first ascents are Wilheim Jorge WI5+ M6 in 2002, Simian WI5+X in 2011 and Ruination W6X in 2013. “Wilheim Jorge is the most ADK style-route I’ve done,” he said releasing an extended laugh. “Thin glazed ice chimney protected by sparse rock gear. It’s just terrifying – I do it every year.”

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He’s a sponsored athlete who is supported by Blue Water, Rab and CAMP/Cassin. Since 2009, Osteyee has worked closely with CAMP and helped them design the X-All Mountain and X Dream tools and the Blade Runner crampons.

As a teen, Osteyee attended high school in Lake Placid His English teacher, Don Mellor, was a top, local climber and he introduced Osteyee to climbing. He started playing hockey but gave it up for climbing. After Mellor turned him onto the sport, Osteyee became singularly focused; he’d ride his bike most afternoons to the local McKenzie Pond boulders to build power and technique.

As climbing consumed his life more and more, Osteyee connected with other experienced climbers including strongman Pat Purcell. “That was good and bad,” Osteyee continues. “Pat and the others were out for themselves and their projects, which meant I often got tied to a tree as a belay slave. With them, I was always climbing above my comfort level, every time it was desperate.”

To give himself every advantage he could, Osteyee eventually bought three Friends (sizes 1, 2 and 3) and got sticky rubber shoes to replace his hard-soled ones. As for the shoes, “Some of the old dudes would sneer a bit like it was cheating,” he said. “Same with the Friends.”

In the late ‘80s Osteyee followed Purcell up Positive Thinking, the classic WI5 put up by John Bragg and John Bouchard in 1975 at Poke-O-Moonshine in the ADK. “If you did Positive Thinking even once before the ‘90s people would whisper about it as you walked past,” he said. It’s a three-pitch line with a less-than-vertical first pitch. Pitch 1 is thin and has fickle conditions, earning it a rating of anywhere from W4+ to W6. Since his first time up the route, Osteyee has climbed it every year for the last 20 and he’s the first one to do it every season. He also guides it and he’s free-soloed it, “but only once,” he said.

Osteyee’s specialty is ticking off the thinnest of thin ice lines, with some resembling frozen rain stuck to a black wall of stone. And he doesn’t stick to New York; the whole Northeast is his kingdom. He commonly drives several hours to neighboring states. “New England is a special place and it may be the best ice climbing area in the world. It’s cold, it’s dark, and there’s a ton of water,” he said.

Osteyee credits Jeff Lowe and Alex Lowe for pushing the standards in the ADK and showing New Englanders what was possible in their home turf. This includes Jeff Lowe’s 500-foot Gorillas in the Mist at Poke-O-Moonshine from 1996. “These routes are what opened everyone’s eyes; they didn’t look possible,” he said. “After FAs like Get a Job, Sting Rey, and Ice Storm, we all had a new eye for what was possible.” Osteyee got the second ascents of both Sting Rey (WI6X) and Ice Storm (WI5+ M6). (Gorillas in the Mist has only been repeated once by Alex Lowe and Randy Radcliffe, right after it went up. It has yet to see a third ascent as the route has only come back in condition a couple of times, and Osteyee was out of town. Despite only seeing two ascents it’s in the book Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Tick List.)

Osteyee is also a master craftsman of the tools he needs for his cutting-edge climbing. Since traditional stubby ice screws are too long to protect many of Osteyee’s ephemeral lines, back in 1999, he began hacking them in half, sawed-off shotgun style, to make “Super Stubbies.” These micro-screws are 4cm to 6cm in length, the length of a small single chain-link. Once cut, he re-toothes them by making a crude X with a Sawzall and shapes the points with a Dremel tool. Though he’s not confident in their holding power, he once built a belay out of Super Stubbies (and a poor cam) in a corner and called it bomber. And he once even took a half-fall, half-swing onto one and it held. However, he’s yet to test a Super Stubby with a full-impact lead fall and he hopes he never will.

When routes are too thin for Super Stubbies, he relies on fishing small cams and nuts into cracks and he clips bolts from summer rock routes. He can often see these bolts sticking through the ice. But when the ice is too thick or cloudy, finding the bolts can be next to impossible. On several occasions, he’s relied on one of his long-time climbing partners, Mark Meshinelli, to direct him toward likely bolt locations. Osteyee has even carried a small metal detector on his harness.

When it comes to thin conditions, he said, “the flow may appear to be three-feet wide, but only the foot in the middle can hold your tools. But you can balance on the sides with crampons. If you’re not delicate, you’ll blow up all the ice in your reach and you’re stuck. It’s very pensive, slow climbing and you make your first swing carefully as it’s your best chance not to fracture the ice.”

“With a good set of crampons you can stand on anything. With tools, you need a half-inch of ice, but I’ve climbed less, but then there’s no guarantee it won’t break or pop. On half-inch or more, the ice can be beautiful, so long as it’s not old, cold or sun-baked. You have to remain calm and climb well.” He adds, “Being 100-foot runout on thin WI5 and 6 is nothing to joke about.” Osteyee’s many routes are listed in Don Mellor’s guide Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climbers Guide.

After high school, Osteyee tried college but it wasn’t for him. He dropped out after two years and joined the Marines in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In 1995, after completing his duties with the armed forces, he finished college at State University of New York Plattsburgh where he studied history. After that, he settled back in the Adirondacks and immediately started with rock and ice guiding. Shortly after, he became lead guide at Rock and River in Keene.

After seven years, in 2003, he opened his service Adirondack Mountain Guides. “I decided to guide on my terms,” he said. “I developed a small guide service that doesn’t take out big groups. It’s not guiding for the masses.” To take his rescue and technical skills to the next level, in 2005 Osteyee became the first climber in the ADK to have an AMGA certification when he completed the Rock Instructor certification.

Today, though the guide service is open all year, Osteyee works only part-time. Osteyee has recently also started pursuing surfing. Since 2010, the sport has occupied several months of his life each year as he travels to different surf breaks. When we talked in September, Osteyee and his wife, Shyloah Nilsen Osteyee (they married in 2008), had just returned from a summer-long surf and SUP trip along the coast of North Carolina. Shyloah works as a schoolteacher, which gives her summers off. For the past decade, they’ve spent every summer on the water. They also surf the swells found in winter in Maine, a four-hour drive from their home in Keene.

But from November through March, Osteyee still watches the weather for ice forming conditions and hunts for new routes. As soon as it’s cold and wet out, he drives around for hours to see what is in and what will soon form. Ice climbing has also taken Osteyee abroad. He has first ascents in Nepal, including the 600-metre WI5s Shaugdro, Arjun’s Playground and Bolognese. However, his most memorable climb in Nepal was 700-metre WI5 Losar. He climbed it with blind mountain athlete Erik Weihenmayer.

Weihenmayer, who went blind at age 14, climbed the Nose on El Capitan in 1996 and stood on the summit of Everest in 2001, was the first blind climber to reach the highest point in the world. He’s also an avid rock and ice climber. He lives in Golden, Colorado and climbs all over the world, including long, frozen waterfalls found in the Canadian Rockies. Back in 2002, Weihenmayer came to the Northeast for a presentation and looked up his old ice climbing friend and co-founder of The Himalayan Cataract Project, Geoff Tabin. Tabin connected Osteyee with Weihenmayer and the two have climbed together since.

For their first outing, on a cold February day, Osteyee and Weihenmayer hiked up a steep talus climber trail cut through tight trees and downed branches to reach the 400-foot flows at Lake Willoughby in Vermont. To keep the pair on the same path, Weihenmayer gave his partner a bell for the approach, and Osteyee hung the alarm on his finger and tapped low-lying branches with a trekking pole to help his partner follow him. Osteyee started breaking trail slowly, but when he realized Weihenmayer was right on his tail, he picked up the pace. He sped up again, soon reaching full velocity; Weihenmayer stayed right on him the whole way.

Racking up at the base of the The Last Gentleman WI5, Weihenmayer replied to his partner’s query about how he’d manage to take out screws. He said jokingly that he couldn’t take them out, and was accustomed to climbing with guys who didn’t place many. This was a put-on; he’d been ice climbing and cleaning screws for years, but Osteyee didn’t pick up on his humor. Following his partner’s suggestion literally, Osteyee ran the rope out to the belay.

As Weihenmayer neared the anchor having not removed a single screw, Osteyee recalls his partner saying, “Are you crazy, man? I was kidding when I said don’t put gear in.” After a good laugh, they finished the route and then climbed the wall again via the more difficult Promenade, a steep WI5+. They soon became regular climbing partners and the same season, Osteyee took him on a four-day whirlwind tour of the Northeast, including the Black Dike in New Hampshire and Pinnacle Gully on Mountain Washington. “Climbing with him, you’re spoiled. He’s so fast and confident,” Weihenmayer said. “It’s like he was born to be on ice. He’s like a secret weapon. After that first outing in Vermont we were traveling the world, climbing ice faces. I just feel so lucky to have connected with Ian over the years. He’s the guy I hope I climb with when I’m 75.”

Osteyee adds, “Some of my favorite adventures have been with Weihenmayer. I really enjoy climbing with him. We’ve climbed in New Hampshire, Alaska, Scotland and Nepal, and Canada.” He whispers to emphasize his final point, “He does not hold you back. He’s that strong.”

In 2008, Osteyee, Rob Raker, and Weihenmayer traveled to Nepal to climb the 15-pitch Losar near Namche Bazaar. On Day 1, they made it up 12 pitches before bivying on sloping ledges directly below the crux and finished the next day. “The last two pitches are real – steep mushrooms,” Osteyee said. “You have to be on your game up there. It’s like Polar Circus on steroids.”

Autumn is training season and for Osteyee this means doing a strict routine of push-ups, pull-ups, military presses, and dips between sawhorses. He has a backyard ice training woody that’s four-feet by 16-feet high with holes drilled in it for mono points and ice picks. He trains on it for hours at a time. He’s had this routine since the late ‘90s. This and early dry tool climbing let him start the season fit and ready to nab whatever might come in first. Many of his routes have not seen a second other Osteyee himself, who will do the same line again and again.

“We always do some adventure in the winter,” Osteyee said. “For sure, what I have coming up is looking at routes that have or have not been in condition and go and try them. Some stay in condition for as little as one day before melting. Out here you never know what’s gonna pop up.”

10 Must Climb New England Ice Routes

The Cilley/Barber WI4, South Basin, Maine
Dracula WI4, Frankenstein, New Hampshire
Standard Route WI3, Frankenstein, New Hampshire
Positive Thinking WI5, Adirondacks, New York
Black Dike WI5, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire
Way In The Wilderness WI5, Painted Walls, New Hampshire
Willey’s Slide WI2, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire
Last Gentleman WI5, Lake Willougby, Vermont
Pinnacle Gully WI3, Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Repentance WI5, Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire