ice climbing
Heather Steeves, of Westbrook, belays ice climber Juliette Sutherland, of South Portland, during a beginner climbing lesson led by Equinox Guiding Service at Camden Hills State Park. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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Ice gets a bad rap. 

Sure, it comes in handy to chill our lemonade in the summer and keep our beers cold on a weekend camping trip. But during a Maine winter, ice is often spoken about in unpleasant tones.

Ice makes us fall down, after all. It coats our windshields, brings down power lines, and sends our cars sliding through intersections we weren’t intending to slide through. 

It’s powerful stuff. 

But we can use its powers for good this winter, and feel pretty powerful ourselves, by learning to climb it.

Noah Kleiner of Equinox Guiding Service
Noah Kleiner, owner of Equinox Guiding Service and an experienced climbing guide, demonstrates the proper use of climbing gear during a beginner ice climbing lesson at Camden Hills State Park. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Ice climbing does feel daunting to some beginners (all those sharp objects and the tall walls of ice tend to elicit an immediate fear response), but it can be a really fun – and really safe – sport, even for novices with little to no climbing experience.

Equinox Guiding Service, based in Camden, offers beginner ice climbing lessons all winter (ice-dependent, of course). Owner and climbing guide Noah Kleiner has been showing first-timers the ropes for years and offers full-day and half-day ice climbing trips all season when the conditions are right. While Camden Hills State Park is Equinox’s basecamp, they also lead climbs in Acadia National Park and Grafton Notch State Park. 

Much like rock climbing, ice climbing gives regular, feet-on-the-ground people an opportunity to scale rock faces like gravity-shirking superheroes. You’ll be surprised what you can do with axes in your mitts, especially when an encouraging guide leads the way.

Mountaineering boots
Tools of the ice-climbing trade include harnesses, locking carabiners, mountaineering boots, and crampons. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

We might not be all that graceful at ice climbing to start – we’re nervous, too delicate with our swing, and our form is all wonky – but we can still put in a pretty good showing, even if we’ve never climbed much of anything before. And we’re in good hands when we climb with experienced guides like Kleiner. 

For starters, they know all the good ice spots and they pay keen attention to ice conditions to ensure it’s safe for climbing. The sport has all sorts of safety redundancies and equipment, too: ropes, harnesses, locking carabiners, helmets, and belay devices. 

Plus, swinging an ax and landing into ice the first time makes you feel mighty cool. 

Juliette Sutherland, of South Portland, begins her climb at Camden Hills State Park. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
Juliette Sutherland, of South Portland, begins her climb at Camden Hills State Park. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

But before you begin your ax-wielding rise up the ice, you need gear. And probably some instruction. 

During a guided ice climb with Equinox Guiding Service two winters back, my group and I met Kleiner on the side of Route 52 at the Old Carriage Road trailhead at Camden Hills State Park. 

There we put on all the climbing essentials, which Equinox provides: helmet, harness, mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes. You’re responsible for wearing warm layers and bringing a healthy sense of ice-ascending enthusiasm. 

The ice we sought, known as Left Cataract, was a one-mile hike into the park. It’s a craggy and handsome cliff of rock, with ice spilling down like a flow of vanilla icing oozing down a layer cake.

First-time ice climber Emily Reece makes her way up the ice at Camden Hills. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
First-time ice climber Emily Reece makes her way up the ice at Camden Hills. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Kleiner 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 ax like we meant it.

While we practised kicking and swinging, Kleiner set up the ropes for our climb. Then it was time for us to give ice climbing a go.

For most of us, those first few swings were clumsy; the ax pick didn’t land correctly, so we’d swing again, and maybe again until the pick dug in. We kicked the front of our crampons into the ice and stepped up, swinging and kicking and climbing.

The beginner-friendly routes Kleiner chose for us weren’t too steep to start but grew steeper as we climbed and our confidence grew. Two in our group climbed right to the top on their first attempts. I did not.

Beginner ice climbers watch from below at Camden Hills State Park.
Beginner ice climbers watch from below at Camden Hills State Park.

While I felt bold and in control closer to the ground, once my awareness turned to how far from the ground I was, my nerves got the best of me and I wanted down. Immediately. I suspect that happens a lot with beginner ice climbers.

In those moments, Kleiner is quick to provide support and talk you through it. He reminded me to breathe. He suggested I move a little to the right and pointed out good spots to place my ax. “It’s not much farther up!” he’d yell. “You got this!”

It doesn’t hurt to climb with a group of fellow beginners who’ll cheer you on from below, too. 

We spent a few hours exploring different routes and challenging ourselves to get just a little bit higher each time. But whether you reach the top of each route or not, an experience like this leaves you feeling like an ice-climbing star. 

You’ll depart from your adventure with a newfound appreciation for winter ice, too. 

Except, of course, when it’s coating the sidewalk just waiting to knock you off your feet.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

Equinox Guiding Service rates range from $90-$185 for a half-day trip and $140-$350 for a full-day trip, based on group size. FMI: equinoxguidingservice.com.