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Super weekend for ice climbers

Hundreds of climbers from around the country take part in annual ice festival

By Erik Eisele

CONWAY — For many, this weekend is about one thing: the Super Bowl. For them it's wings and nachos and the big game on the big screen.
But not everybody.
Each winter a dedicated cadre of outdoor enthusiasts save this weekend to get as far from the couch as they can. Instead of the game, the first weekend of February is a pilgrimage to the Mount Washington Valley. It's a migration in search something wild: vertical ice.
2-1-ice-fest-1-laura-barisThis Friday, Saturday and Sunday marks the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest, a climbing festival that draws hundreds of climbers from around the country to North Conway. Participants come to climb on Cathedral Ledge, on Mount Washington and in Crawford Notch. They line up for routes with names like Repentance and Damnation, and then they come back each night to reconnect, share stories, see old friends and meet new ones. It's a tradition that goes back two decades now, and it shows no sign of slowing.
"So many people climb in isolation," said Brad White, the owner of International Mountain Climbing School, which puts on the festival. For one weekend a year, he said, more than 250 people descend on the area, and ice climbing is transformed. Instead of an individual activity or something done with one or two partners, it becomes a shared experience. "It really fosters this huge sense of community," he said.
This weekend is a chance for first-time climbers to meet the superstars of the sport. While football fans will have to be content seeing their favorite players on TV, participants in Ice Fest will get a chance to meet and shake hands with the climbers on the cutting edge. Some of them, like Freddie Wilkinson, Kevin Mahoney and Bayard Russell, have roots right here in the Mount Washington Valley, but Ice Fest draws top athletes from Colorado, Washington, and as far away as the United Kingdom.
"They're really on the cutting edge," White said, and "[participants] get to put a face to all the names. They get to meet all these people."
Not only that, they get to hear about their latest ascents in Alaska, Pakistan, India and Patagonia, and they get to go out climbing with these people — the rough equivalent to spending a day tossing the football around with Joe Flacco.
It's understandably popular, and White says he has people who come again and again. "They show up every year," he said. "I have people who call me in October."
Even record-high temperatures can't derail things. The ice took a beating on Wednesday and Thursday, but "at this point the wheels are in motion," White said. "We're just going to have to pick and choose our locations.

This year more than 70 people are going out with guides on Friday and Sunday. Saturday, meanwhile, is the busiest day — guides are taking 110 people climbing. Some will just be learning how to walk in crampons. Others will be trying to get in as much vertical ice as can be crammed into eight hours. Others will be learning about avalanches, and still others will be practicing skills for traveling on glaciers.
"There's a lot going on," White said, and that doesn't even include the people who skip the clinics but come for the demo gear and the slideshows. "We always add another 50 or 60 who come to the parties."
It's not uncommon to have 250 or 300 people at the evening events, he said.
That's a lot different than the first Ice Fest 20 years ago, according to Rick Wilcox, the owner of International Mountain Equipment.
"It was like, maybe 30 guys," he said. There were 10 guides and at most 40 at the slideshow. But that didn't last. "It grew very quickly," he said.
What is unique, however, is that, although it has grown, many of the people at that first Ice Fest in 1994 (including White) are still involved. Gear has changed, fashions have shifted, even the Old Man in the Mountain has fallen, but the people, the core of what keeps Ice Fest vibrant, remains. Perhaps that is what keeps people coming back.
So if you are on your way to a Super Bowl party this weekend and you happen to pass Cathedral Ledge or drive through Crawford Notch, don't be surprised if you see brightly-colored dots working their way slowly up the ice. It's just the ice climbing Super Bowl. The kickoff was Friday, and the clock won't run out until sometime Sunday afternoon.

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