Written for New Hampshire Women Magazine
You wield your axe into the wall of thick ice and listen for its impact. “That’s a good stick,” you mumble. Focusing on how the ice responds, you ask yourself, “did it fracture? Is my tool placement solid? Is my body balanced?” You steady your breathing to remain focused and calm. Hearing the clanging of the screws and carabiners on your harness quickly reminds you of the careful consideration you have given to selecting each and every one before your journey began. You retrieve a sharp screw from your selection and place it strategically into the ice. Moving upwards, you clip the rope into the screws as you go to provide protection if you fall. The higher you climb the more improbable it all seems – but you make it to the top and your exhilaration is palpable – leading you to imagine your next adventure.
For many of us, the sheer thought of scaling mountains of ice is unfathomable, but for seasoned climbers and instructors, Alexa Siegel and Laurie Watt, it is the best time for self discovery, growth, and peace. “I first started climbing at age 14 in an indoor climbing gym 10 minutes from my house,” says Siegel. “The second I stepped into [the] rock gym, I was instantly hooked on the sport. I quit all other sports overnight, spending all my time at the climbing gym.”
For Laurie Watt, the thrill of climbing came later on in life. “I was not exposed to rock climbing until well into my 40s,” explains Watt. “However, my family did spend some time in the mountains. I had an uncle who was hiking NH’s [4,000 foot mountains] in the 60s and 70s. He took me on several hikes and overnights that ignited my love for mountains. It just lay dormant while I went to college, got married, had a family, and developed my career as a [physical therapist]. It was a huge gift to return to the mountains and remember how much I love being there.”
For both women, rock climbing led to their experiences in ice climbing. “I started ice climbing in 2016 at the age of 51,” explains Watt. “I had been a few times in the years before that, but the winter of 2016-2017 was when I began a series of education in climbing.” For Siegel, ice climbing started over a decade after she started rock climbing. “While I’ve been a rock climber for about 18 years, I only got into ice climbing about nine seasons ago,” says Siegel. “Ice and rock climbing are very different, though some general rope and movement skills overlap. The graceful gymnastic movements and airy falls that drew me to rock climbing are quite different from the upward progress of moving on ice. But, both offer the opportunity to constantly challenge yourself on new terrain and to build lifelong partnerships.”
When asked, Watt also describes the difference in movement between ice and rock climbing. “Now that I have experience in both rock and ice, I can say that while the rope systems are similar in the two disciplines, I think the movement is quite different. In ice climbing, your body stays very “square” to the ice. In rock climbing, your body and limbs move in a much greater range of angles and positions. And, obviously, the medium is also quite different.”
So, what exaclty makes ice climbing such a sport of passion? “Climbing demands so much of you physically and mentally. It requires you to be completely present,” explains Watt. “You have to interpret the medium (rock or ice), find the path up the route, sense and process the information from your body in terms of balance and weight shifting – all at the same time in a risky situation. Climbing demands true integration of mind and body. And, because of this, I think it is an incredible medium for self discovery.” Siegel explains how she loves the movement of [ice] climbing, “especially with the wild places ice forms as a backdrop — and the partnerships and connections developing as a climber creates along the way.”
With experience comes wisdom and these women have it in spades. When asked to describe her most beautiful and challenging climb, Siegel is quick to answer. “When I first started climbing, I always eyed Dropline at Frankenstein Cliffs in Crawford Notch,” she says. “An unmistakable feature, Dropline is a steep tube of ice that forms reliably. Though I’d climbed longer and more difficult climbs, something about the setting and exposure of the route intimidated me.”
Seigel continues, “I was nervous, yet excited to start up. It was my turn to take the lead up the steep column of ice. I tried to relax and focus. I paused at a thin section where the narrow column touched down. I hesitated, wondering if I was ready to commit. After a few long, deep breaths, I launched climbing cautiously and gently. Passing by the column, I tried to reset as best I could and finish the climb. My partner was cheering me on below. The feeling of joy filled me and I smiled at the top. The challenge is what makes ice climbing so great. The process of believing in and pushing yourself is addictive. Though I have climbed more difficult or longer routes, this one, for whatever reason, still resonates.”
Watt recalls two separate climbs, deeming Twenty Below Zero Gully in Lake Willoughby, Vermont her most challenging, explaining that it has the largest concentration of hard ice routes in the continental United States. “It is an imposing huge cliff of steep, vertical ice,” she explains. “Leading routes here is a huge milestone in an ice climber’s development.”
Note: Leading is when the first climber goes up a route and tows the rope behind.
“This was my first time leading at Lake Willoughby and the longest and steepest route I had led to date,” she says. “The mental piece of this was the most challenging. I had to maintain sharp focus and attention for a long time. While I had followed routes here with the security of a rope above me this required me to keep my fear in check for the time it took to lead the pitch. It was physically and mentally draining. I realized after the first pitch (a pitch is generally the length of rope and routes are divided into pitches or sections), that I had exhausted my reserves so I made the decision to go down. This experience inspired me in two ways: it reinforced how important the mental challenge of climbing is and that I could manage it well for a while. It also taught me to recognize where my mental limit was, to respect that, and to still manage the descent safely.”
Watt says her most amazing climb was Golsjuvet in Hemseldal, Norway. “This route is in a beautiful, deep canyon with steep ice covered walls,” she explains. “This particular vertical, steep route had formed with what we call ‘cauliflower ice’ – mushrooms of ice blobs on small stems supporting them. This featured ice requires different techniques. Instead of swinging and planting your tools and crampons anywhere, you must hook your tools on the stems and gently place your feet on tops of the mushrooms. The climbing is more gymnastic and technical requiring different movement patterns, greater balance and thoughtfulness. The ice really demands you interact with it more on its terms and adapt to the contours. It was inspiring as it was the first time I had encountered this kind of ice and opened my mind to a whole new kind of movement. I have to be creative, flexible, and open to interacting with the ice in a whole new way.”
It is said the best teachers emerge from knowledge, passion, and compassion. This is certainly the case for Watt and Siegel who have both earned extensive credentials to become guides in the sports of ice and rock climbing. Watt explains that she is an American Mountain Guide Associate (AMGA) Certified Single Pitch Instructor and AMGA Apprentice Alpine Guide. “I also have my Wilderness First Responder Certification and AIARE Level 1 and Rescue Certifications (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education),” she explains. “It took me two years of climbing and apprenticing to earn my [Single Pitch Instructor] certification. I really have no idea how many hours of climbing I have done, but a gross estimate would be close to 4,000 hours – rock and ice.”
Watt also leads the Women’s Program at Mooney Mountain Guides located in Concord. “Historically, climbing has been dominated by white men,” Watts explains. “This is slowly changing and there are great efforts and programs being developed to improve access for underrepresented groups, including women. There is lots of research and information supporting the value of women-led, women-only groups. The Women’s Program at Mooney Mountain Guides is designed with all of that in mind. The programs, which include rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, and winter camping, are geared for beginner and intermediate climbers and mountaineers.”
Siegel’s credentials are equally as impressive. “I am an American Mountain Guide Associate (AMGA) Certified Single Pitch Instructor and a Wilderness EMT,” she explains. “I am Level II American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) certified and a team member of New Hampshire’s Mountain Rescue Service.”
People may think they are either not strong enough to climb, or perhaps even too advanced in age. “I have taken out people of all shapes and sizes,” she explains. “There is a direct correlation between physical fitness and enjoying your day. Rock climbers will adjust easily to ice climbing fitness, and folks newer to the sport should have good cardiovascular fitness and overall strength.”
Watt adds, “for a beginner, you really just need to be fit enough to walk up a steep hill for 30 minutes. Beginners can usually climb a whole pitch within their first day out. As you progress and climb steep and longer climbs, it is important to have good core stability and strength, good shoulder strength, and stability and good grip strength. As I tell many of my beginners I work with, I cannot do pull ups, but I can use good technique to climb very steep ice.”
How do you instruct people to climb when fear so often overwhelms us all? “Overcoming, or rather, working with fear is the main thing I do while guiding,” explains Watt. “There is always fear – fear of injury, fear of failure, fear of judgement, fear of heights. As a guide, I need to try and decipher which fear is the greatest obstacle for each climber and then work with that. As we work with the rope systems, we can allay some of that fear as climbers become comfortable with and learn to trust the ropes. By creating a supportive environment we can allay the fear of judgement. Fear of injury [and] falling is a survival mechanism and a valuable one. It is unrealistic to think we can make that fear go away – evolution has ingrained that one. Rather, we can decide how much attention we pay to it. If I am on a secure rope and I trust my belayer (the person on the other end of the rope), I can try to focus more on the next move, the next hold, the technique, or view. Fear can be paralyzing. Climbing teaches us to move forward in spite of fear.”
Both Siegel and Watt agree they have seen an increase in women enjoying the sport of climbing. “In the past few years, I’ve certainly noticed an increase in women participating in the sport,” Siegel says. “Perhaps this has to do with better women’s specific gear and more female role models, but I’d like to think it has more to do with getting the message across that gender or race shouldn’t be a barrier to pushing oneself and having a great time outside, no matter the season.”
“I think there have been a lot more women involved in rock climbing than ice climbing,” Watt explains. “But this year especially, I am seeing more women out ice climbing. As in many areas of our culture, women’s groups are springing up and climbing is no exception. Many women are wanting to step into the position of leading and more independence as a climber.”
Both women also share another interesting link – backgrounds in healthcare. Laurie Watt spent years as a physical therapist and notes this greatly enhances her experience as a climbing instructor. Siegel has recently entered the world of nursing in North Conway, yet is frequently still called to the world of climbing.
“My training as a [physical therapist] allows me to quickly assess how a person’s body works as they are walking up to the climb, or as they start climbing, where they might have range of motion limitations, what are their patterns of movements, what are their strengths and weaknesses,” explains Watts. “This allows me to provide more specific cues while they are climbing that will work with their body. I am able to know exactly which muscles need to work to swing an ice tool or shift body weight and how to activate them so I can describe that in great detail to a guest. My PT knowledge has also helped me develop training programs for climbers and mountaineers. The guests who are looking to tackle bigger objectives have to work up to the task, so I help them develop a plan to reach their goal. [It’s] helped me manage the stresses of climbing on my own body and avoid major injury.”
Though Siegel’s job as a nurse is extremely strenuous, especially during the COVID-19 crisis, she is still called to climbing, and sometimes instruction, on her days off. “I look forward to climbing on my days off. It is a great way to get outside and connect with friends,” says Siegel. “The focus required during climbing is a type of meditation that leaves me refreshed and exuberant.”
She continues, “a day working outside is often a nice change of pace. I like working with women and helping them climb at a higher level. Every once in a while, I still work for Cathedral Mountain Guides. The most difficult thing in choosing to become a nurse was giving up my work as a guide. When I do guide, the rewarding aspect comes from maintaining this connection to my community.”
Before you take part in ice or rock climbing, get the proper instruction from certified teachers and guides. To learn more about the women’s program at Mooney Mountain Guides, visit https://www.mooneymountainguides.com/. For more information about Cathedral Mountain Guides, visit https://www.cathedralmountainguides.com/.