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Smuggs: Everyman’s Ice Fest

More than a hundred climbers from the Northeast and Canada gathered for the fourth annual Smuggs Ice Bash this January. [Photo] Keese Lane

Editor’s Note: In January, Alpinist sponsored the fourth annual Smuggs Ice Bash. Vermont’s only perennial ice-climbing event, the weekend festivities brought together more than a hundred climbers to Smuggler’s Notch from around the Northeast and Canada. Learn more about the event in the January 11, 2010 NewsWire.

Alden Pellett works on a new route, Scotch and Water (WI5 X, 300′). [Photo] Keese Lane

The Pro

Aaron and I had just finished our final pitch of the day. The sun held onto the horizon as I set the V-thread and prepared to descend. It wasn’t until Aaron breathed, “There’s a climber over there,” that I noticed the figure in red.

The climber was swinging his way up a frail streak of ice. A daunting bulge towered above him. His line of choice would have appealed to only a handful of ice mutants–it was certainly not anything I’d seen in the guidebook. We paused to watch. The man in red moved side to side, looking for his line. His body was poised to advance yet relaxed, as though time would crack the ice riddle for him. When darkness fell, we abandoned our vantage point and abseiled into the thick woods below, hurrying back for beer.

That night at the Brewski bar I was handing out coupons for free PBR and exchanging the day’s stories when a small man in a familiar red shell walked through the door. Aaron and I were standing close enough to hear someone ask him, “You do something new, Alden?”

Aaron and I turned to each other and shared a knowing look. Alden Pellett is a local photographer known for his wild routes and solo link-ups. He murmured a reply and made for the fried food and beer. Later we learned that we had watched him and his partner Jeremy “Rowdy” Dowdy on a new line just right of Cloak and Dagger (M6 WI6-). Scotch and Water (WI5 X, 300′) describes the route’s turf hooks and thin ice. Lead onsight and protected by slung icicles and a pair of good cams 60 feet up, the new climb follows thin slab ice into a triple corner system. The crux comes 25 feet above the cams, and the belay for Pitch 2 was built with stubbies in a chest-size ice blob.

Two weeks before, Pellett linked three Adirondacks classics without a rope: Positive Thinking (WI5-), Central Waterfall Wall (WI5/5+) and Power Play Direct (WI5). The link-up took him four hours, including ascents, descents, driving from Poke-O-Moonshine to Chapel Pond–and some socializing.

Bob Timmer has lost motion and strength on his left side but still climbs. He also hosts a weekly climbing club on the rock and ice behind his cabin. [Photo] Keese Lane

The Faithful

On the first day of the festival, I watched a man fumble for a ski pole and limp toward the cliffs.

Bob Timmer has lost most of the motion and strength on his left side from inoperable tumors on his brain and spine. So most people never guess that Bob used to solo WI5 or that his name graces nearly every page of the local ice-climbing guidebook. Or that he still climbs and hosts a weekly climbing club on the rock and ice behind his cabin.

I joined a small crowd that watched as Bob grabbed his tools and stepped up to a steep wall of ice. He would set his right tool high, use his left tool to hook a ‘biner attached to his left boot, and drag his uncooperative foot up to its next placement, letting his crampon teeth scrabble and catch on the ice. Often he let go of his left tool to palm the ice for balance. It looked incredibly difficult, and it was surely harder than it looked.

To struggle on top rope after years of soloing, I thought, must require a commitment as heady as watching your screws disappear below your boots.

When Bob lowered, a reporter approached him, awed by his tenacity. Bob told him that he would keep climbing “until they throw me out.”

Alden Pellett works his way up Scotch and Water. [Photo] Jeremy Dowdy

The Reporter

The young reporter shivered and glanced below his frontpoints. A thin rope tugged at his waist. The ground far below filled his eyes with panic. Others spoke in foreign phrases: “Look for hooks.” “Keep the heels low.” “Swing step step.”

The reporter was supposed to be interviewing and taking notes, not ice climbing, but we insisted he try firsthand. He’d taken a few practice swings, and we’d assured him the rope was strong. But now his hands burned, feet fumbled, and, to him, the rope felt very thin. I watched his body stutter. The adrenaline had him. But he couldn’t stop. We told him he had to reach the top.

He did, skillfully. But when we lowered him, his eyes showed something more. He said he’d had enough, but I knew he’d had more than anyone else. While the rest of us played with new tools, experimented with body positions and attempted hard lines, the reporter had done something elemental. He had left the ground for the first time. And the memory of fear would not soon leave his veins.

Alpinist would like to recognize all this year’s Ice Bash participants. Special thanks go to Bert Severin of Sunrise Mountain Sports, for organizing the festival, and to its sponsors: Black Diamond Equipment, Petzl, Kayland, La Sportiva, Mammut, Climb High and Outdoor Gear Exchange.

To read an interview with Bob Timmer, check out the link in the June 4, 2008 Readers’ Blog. Local news coverage of the event is available at

Burlington, Vermont local Matt McCormick presented an impressive slideshow at the Ice Bash about rock and ice climbing in the Adirondacks. Look for a special online feature from Matt on next month.

Height of Land publisher Jon Howard tries ice climbing for the first time. The powder hound just couldn’t part with his alpine skiing boots. [Photo] Keese Lane