Once the temperatures dip, the Green Mountain State turns from its rich summer greens into an icy mecca of frozen waterfalls and wintery landscapes. Road cuts turn to ice walls, and that small trickle of water over moss-covered rock at the crag is now transformed into a pillar of ice.
This transformation signals the time for climbers to drop the chalk and tight-fitting, rubber-soled shoes in favor of insulated boots, crampons, and ice axes. Nestled between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks, and within a two-hour drive of the White Mountains, Burlington is the perfect spot to access the best ice climbing the Northeast has to offer.
To ensure you get out on great ice, Andrea Charest, local ice climbing guide and co-owner of Petra Cliffs, shared her thoughts and some insider tips on the best spots to ice climb close to town. Here are five areas you won’t want to miss.
1. Smuggler’s Notch, VT
One of the largest and most popular areas for ice climbing, Smuggler’s Notch is about a 50-minute drive from downtown Burlington. It’s situated between Stowe Mountain Resort in Stowe and Smuggler’s Notch Resort in Jeffersonville, off of Route 108, which closes in the winter between the two resorts. For the best ice climbing, drive to the Jeffersonville side—the approach from this side is a lot shorter to most climbs, and the descent from the top of the Notch only takes about four-minutes on skis. This approach brings you to a lot of choice climbs.
The two to three-pitch, Jeff’s Slide, will be on your right, and you can scope this climb out from the road. It’s a 3+ climb with the potential to go harder the further right you go. Depending on which line you take, you can hit a bolted anchor in the cave at the top or set natural gear. The views from the cave are pretty amazing. You can also head a little further up the road to the 2-pitch ENT Gulley. Be prepared for some low-angle, short mixed climbing, and a squeeze up a chimney through a little hole. This route has tree anchors. You can also check out Grand Confusion, which usually runs at 3+, but can be 4 in harder conditions. This is two pitches of big, fat, pure ice. Finally, Hidden Gulley is a long, all-day alpine climb.
Insider Tip: Smuggs is a Little Alaska, so be prepared. The weather can be serious, and the climbing is full-on. It has a very alpine, remote feeling about it, but also has a great variety and you can find everything from steep or mixed to laid back. In big snow years, and with wind loading, avalanches are a concern, so be sure to review the conditions before heading out.
2. The Quarry, VT
Just 30 minutes from Burlington, in Bolton, the Quarry is the best place to top-rope steep ice. There are two levels at the Quarry, both of which have very short, easy approaches. The lower level has a handful of 30 to 40-foot climbs that are usually pretty fat. They are easily top-roped and great for beginners or those looking to get in some quick climbing after work.
The upper level is also easily top-roped and has a 100-foot steep grade 4 climb. This is unique in the fact that there aren’t many steep climbs that can be top-roped; it’s a great place to practice if you aren’t quite ready to lead the more sustained, steep stuff just yet. To the right of this climb, you will also find a handful of steep mixed climbs, which will test your skills even if you are an experienced ice climber. The only downside to the Quarry is that it gets pretty crowded on the weekend, and there aren’t that many climbs, so best get there early or head over during the week.
Insider Tip: Please respect the landowners in the area and don’t try to drive up the road to the Quarry. Park down by the Telecom booth—room for 2-4 cars—or park at Smilie School and walk up to climb.
3. Lake Willoughby, VT
Slightly further afield than Smuggs or the Quarry, but well worth the trip, is Lake Willoughby, one of the preeminent ice climbing areas near Burlington. Two hours outside of town in Westmore, Willoughby is not for the faint of heart, but rather a great spot for experienced climbers. The wall of climbs along Mount Pisgah overlooks the frozen Lake Willoughby, and as you haul yourself up the steep approach and start climbing, you can see the wind whipping across the lake and hear the ice creaking and groaning. There are more than 25 climbs here with many variations each, and most are two pitches, if not more.
When looking at the wall, climbs are easiest from right to left. Starting furthest right are the Tablets—three sections of grade 3 to 5. For the most part, the Tablets are pretty mellow: two-pitch, low angle with fat ice. There is an option to increase the grade, though you don’t have to. This is the best place to head if you are just getting comfortable on ice or warming up for the harder stuff down to your left.
If you are looking for more of a challenge, then you have come to the right place. Try the classic Promenade (5+), the Last Gentleman (4), or Plug and Chug (5/5+).
Insider Tip: Take the old cliche here to heart: Work smarter, not harder. Bring poles for the approach and the walk-off as they can be steep. Be sure to bring your down belay jacket. It can get pretty cold and this will cut the wind and keep you warm.
4. Adirondacks, NY
Take the ferry across Lake Champlain and head to the Chapel Pond area of Keene Valley—about two hours from Burlington including the ferry ride and drive after. The 2 to 3-pitch, grade 3 Chouinard’s Gully is a must-do with great views. Or check out the North Face of Pitchoff in the Lake Placid area, which has varied climbing from fat and moderate to thin and steep. There are both single and multi-pitch climbs here.
Insider Tip: If you decide to head to the North Face of Pitchoff, ski in on the Jackrabbit Trail. It’s a mellow trail and very peaceful, and will take you about 20 minutes.
5. Black Dike, Cannon Mountain, NH
The Black Dike is probably the most classic ice climb in New England, and probably the Northeast. Hidden on the far left side of Cannon behind the famous 5.7 rock climb, Whitney-Gilman, the Black Dike is an epic three pitches. Depending on what time of year you go and what the weather has been like, this climb can be super thin or pretty fat. Regardless, it’s pretty stiff and usually runs at grades 4-5. Because this is such a classic climb, it’s also very popular, so be sure to get there early or shoot for a weekday.
Insider Tip: If the Black Dike has multiple parties waiting to climb, check out Fafnir (5+) directly to the right. It’s a great 3-pitch climb that won’t disappoint, but will definitely make you think. Also remember that the weather on Cannon has its own mind, so what you may be experiencing in nearby towns may be very different than what you find at the mountain. Be sure to dress appropriately and bring lots of layers.