Imagine 40 mile per hour winds, blowing up towards the sky, carrying ice crystals and light snow with it, small twisters ripping through the trees and onto the open slope of snow above. We postholed through a rain crust on top of soft snow 1.5 feet thick leading to frozen ground with sticks and leaves encased in ice. Slowly making our way through the breakable snowpack, we finally arrived at firmer snow and were able to move quickly upslope. The sun was bright and the clouds hung gently, then powerful gusts carried them off into nearby valleys. It was November 13th and it felt like the middle of winter. Welcome to Smuggs, Vermont’s alpine playground. Chocked full of gullies, faces, corner systems, buttresses and roofs where, if not careful, you may get lost in it all. Elephant’s Head Gully was our objective that day, looking for early forming ice to sharpen the skills before the bulk of the season arrived. While Elephant’s Head Gully is only rated WI3, a modest rating in the scale of ice climbing grades, the usual heinous weather conditions make even “simple” routes infinitely more challenging to push through.
Smuggs is loaded with classic ice and mixed routes – “Elephant’s Head Gully, Ragnarock, Blue Room, Dave’s Snotsicle and Grand Illusion”, to name a few. These are the keystone crown jewel routes that put Smuggs on the map making it a destination ice climbing zone. If you haven’t been on one of these, make sure you find a way to climb one, because there’s a reason they are classics…
Conversely, there are some obscurities that remain secluded in the shrubbery amongst the steep cliffs and hillsides. ENT Gully is a popular route, often a beginning ice leader’s first multi pitch route, due to its simplicity in route finding, often reliable protection, and pure fun factor. However, few know about the alternate finishes and variations that lurk in the spruces to either side of the gully, one of which is literally a squeeze chimney that you might fit through, but no guarantees.
My very first time climbing in Smuggler’s notch was not on ice, but on boulders. Smuggs is known for its immense volume of boulders, the quality stone, and cool temps through the summer due to its higher elevation. I didn’t know much at the time about all the other fantastic climbing opportunities that Smuggs had to offer, but I would soon find out.
January of 2018 was my first time ice climbing. I was enrolled in an “Intro to Ice Climbing” course at Northern Vermont University (formerly Johnson State College), as a part of the Outdoor Education major. The course was 3 days spread out over a few weekends, and each day seemed colder than the previous one. Day one: Workout Wall. This go-to easy access crag hosts a couple short moderate routes to get folks started and learn fundamental movement techniques, with steep and challenging pillars on the left end. A perfect place for beginner climbers and for those looking to refine their skills. Day two: North Amphitheater. This crag requires a longer approach, yet it yields great ice flows with fun features and longer routes than the Workout Wall. It’s another great place for those who have never ice climbed before. Day three: Mystery Wall. The capstone to our course, and a deep dive into steep ice at an easily accessible roadside flow (also known as Frank’s Creation). Short but challenging steep pillars characterize this location and tested the group’s newly learned movement techniques.
Since being introduced to ice climbing, I developed a genuine passion for it. I never knew it was possible to be enamored with the feeling of being cold, yet I found myself in that position. Ice climbing is not only about swinging tools and kicking your feet, it starts long before that. It’s a process that I fell in love with. It starts with an early wake up, organizing gear, managing ropes, climbing, staying warm, eating, hydrating, and breaking it all down, all in an attempt to maximize daylight hours during some of the shortest days of the year. It’s a shared experience- friends, guides, or guests, from the early morning light to the hike out, or a hot meal once the sun sets, the whole process of a day out is wholesome and soul-filling.
When all is said and done, Smuggler’s Notch holds some of New England’s best and most diverse winter climbing terrain and sits quietly in the quaintness of the Vermont landscape. So, if you like maple syrup, cows, flannels, wood fire stoves, and truly amazing ice climbing, come check us out at the Smuggs Ice Bash.