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Alpine training close to home

Scaling a waterfall in the Finger Lakes with a local adventure company

Halfway up, I had some regrets. 

It was too late by then. We had rappelled down the face of a frozen waterfall, lowered ourselves seventy-five feet into an unknown gorge, and now the only way out was back up the waterfall. So, regretful or not, exhausted or not, arms like jelly or not, I had one choice: to keep climbing.

The leader of my ice climbing expedition was Rick French, owner of the South Lima-based company Pack Paddle Ski, and we weren’t climbing in the Adirondacks or Chamonix or the Himalaya.We were in our own backyard, a slate-fed waterfall off Conesus Lake, thirty minutes south of Rochester. French does lead excursions to more exotic locales in the Arctic and Nicaragua, but he knows experience is required first and the Finger Lakes are an unappreciated training ground. For decades, French has been teaching kayakers on the calm lakes, mountain bikers on the ridges between, and skiers and ice climbers on the slopes and frozen falls. Once they are ready for more, he is a reliable local guide for adventures further afield.

I thought ice climbing would be similar to rock climbing. I’m no big climber, but I’ve tried manmade walls with enormous jug handholds and generous footing. As a result, I developed plenty of unwarranted confidence I would be able to hold my own—excel, even—during my first ice climbing trip.

Not so fast.

I can now report ice climbing bears only a fleeting resemblance to traditional wall scaling. Don’t underestimate the drag of exercising in a bulky jacket, snow pants, and heavily insulated boots.You are laboring up a waterfall of ice, and the temperature is in the single digits.Your points of contact are so minimal, the tiny surfaces your crampon spikes and ice axe blades use to find purchase so small, you might as well be climbing with nothing but your finger and toe nails. Pulling yourself up requires the quads of a yoga instructor and the biceps of a carpenter who swings a heavy hammer above his head every day. Oh, one last thing: chunks of the wall are chipping away and falling on top of you as you go. (That’s not a problem you have at those man-made gym walls.)

These local adventures are possible because, beyond all else, French is a collector of people.With a broad smiling face and a memory for names and stories, he has found other restless spirits in Rochester and the Finger Lakes who volunteer for the thankless jobs of outfitting snow shoeing treks, prepping a flotilla of thirty canoes, or, in my case, running the safety belay ropes on a biting February day for a group of Boy Scouts and their fathers.

But French also has an interest in causes. “People can climb anywhere,” he says. “Everywhere has been explored. What’s different now is people want to give back.”After someone trains in the Finger Lakes and signs up to climb Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, they are likely raising money for a charity. Maybe they’ll go to Kilimanjaro and help a cancer survivor reach the top.

In addition to the social good these adventures can produce, there’s the thrill of overcoming the obstacles. The exhilaration of dodging chunks of shattering ice, of pushing yourself past your perceived physical boundaries, and making it to the top.

When I threw my leg over the last lip, rolled on my back and caught my frozen breath, I knew I accomplished something. Really accomplished something. Even though I couldn’t raise my arms above my head for an hour, I have rarely felt better.

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Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk, available in bookstores now. Follow him on Twitter @brian_castner. 

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