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Ice Climbers Put to Test on New Hampshire’s Huntington Ravine

March 17, 1990

MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. (AP) _ After diving from a charging avalanche the day before, Peter Lloyd stood by an 800-foot waterfall of bluish ice, readying for one of the deadliest climbs in New England.

That Huntington Ravine has claimed more than a dozen climbers since the 1960s didn’t deter Lloyd from driving 450 miles from New Brunswick, Canada, to what some consider the best ice climbing in the East. Some weekends, climbers wait in line for a crack at the ice.

It has been eight years since the last fatality, and more than 20 years since three climbers were swept away in an avalanche that dropped them over 1,000 feet into the dead quiet of the rocks and snow below, said rescue and climbing experts.

There are no secrets in Huntington Ravine, where climbers perform for all to see. Voices can carry half a mile and the clinking of metal on ice is heard long after climbers disappear amid rocks or into the mist that often shrouds the mountain. Climbers said it is this mix of danger and beauty that draws them back.

″Fear is part of it,″ Lloyd said. ″The adrenaline gets going and you feel you can do anything.″

The ravine, a natural amphitheater, cuts a wide wedge into Mount Washington less than a mile from the summit, where some of the coldest temperatures on the continent have been recorded. Among the ravine’s many gullies, which flow cold mountain water in summer, is Pinnacle Gully, ″definitely the most dangerous area to climb″ in New England, according to climber Rick Wilcox.

Wilcox, who runs a climbing school in North Conway and wrote a guide to climbing in New England, has climbed mountains around the globe and plans to assault Everest next year.

Wilcox said some consider Pinnacle Gully and other Huntington climbs intermediate. But after factoring in the fluky Mount Washington weather, the three-mile hike from Route 16 far below, and ice that can flake away in slabs the size of plywood sheets, the climbing is not for beginners.

″The environment is the thing that can be really nasty,″ he said. ″On a nasty day you’re lucky if your eyes don’t freeze shut.″

But on a clear day one can glimpse the ocean beyond the mottled and snowy mountains rising into the winter sky like pieces on a giant chess board.

And because the access trail is right off the highway, a climber can have pancakes at Glen Junction in North Conway in the morning, climb all day, and get back for pasta at Marcello’s for dinner.

″You can be a lawyer in Boston and even if you don’t have a lot of time off you can have a hell of a weekend climbing and be back in Boston for Monday morning,″ Wilcox said.

As caretaker of Harvard Cabin in the ravine, Ted Dettmar spends his days skiing, climbing and cutting wood for the frigid Mount Washington nights. The two-story, unlighted cabin is rough-hewn and splintery, but also comfortably saturated with over two decades of climbing stories and adventure.

Relaxing in the cabin, Dettmar said the first ice climbers in the country came to Huntington during the 1920s armed with mammoth, waist-high ice axes, dressed in tweeds and ties and resembling lost prom dates more than thrill- seekers.

Before the advent of crampons and modern ice axes, these gentlemen adventurers climbed without ropes by chopping stairs in the ice - a time- consuming and risky business.

″Those guys in the 1930s climbing with virtually no equipment were pretty far out there,″ Wilcox said. ″If they fell they would go a long way.″

Ropes, ice screws and other climbing equipment have reduced the danger, but will never eliminate it. On or off the mountain, climbers had stories of falls, pain, and death.

Wilcox fell the equivalent of a five-story building before his ice screws held and stopped him. ″Proper use of the equipment is why I’m here today,″ he said.

Terry Lawrence, who sprained an ankle in a 30-foot fall last year, lost a friend in Canada when the friend’s climbing partner fell onto him. The two tumbled 3,000 feet, Lawrence said quietly.

Back on the ice, Mark Stephens, from England, kicked his crampons into the ice and pulled himself up with his axes, progressing steadily upward in what would become a five- or six-hour climb.

″Ice 3/8 Ice 3/8,″ Stephens yelled as Lloyd covered his head and a pinwheel of ice the size of a dinner plate whizzed past and shattered on a rock.

″It’s raining, it’s pouring...″ Lloyd sang.

″Ice climbers are not boring people,″ Wilcox said, listing a high pain threshold and calmness under pressure as required attributes.

″The banking and business and all the things we do every day are what stress me out. Most people think it would be the other way around, but I sleep better in the mountains than I do at home.″

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