The Ice Man
Climbing guide Ian Osteyee
by Brandon del Pozo
I received my first pair of ice axes as a wedding present in 2002. They were yellow and used and bore both rust and a certain color of nail polish that distinguished them from others. My wife and I tried them on the ice at Pitchoff, in the Cascade Pass, on Route 73. They hurt like hell. The shafts were straight, so when the ice bulged or you misjudged the angle of your swing, you bashed your knuckles. Leashes secured the axes to your wrists, but they cut the circulation to your hands, which soon grew cold and then numb. You were, after all, clinging to a wall of ice.
Numb hands and bruised knuckles drove me away from the sport until a friend convinced me to give modern axes a try. Curved shafts keep your hands clear and afford an angle of attack that makes strikes stick. There are no leashes: you let go of a planted ax and shake out your arm when it’s tired or numb. Better tools were such a game changer that after one try I went to The Mountaineer, in Keene Valley, and bought a pair. To my surprise, the sales pitch was about buying the less expensive axes made by CAMP, an Italian company. I was incredulous. “You won’t find a better ax,” the salesman insisted. “The guy who designed them lives down the road. Ian Osteyee.” I had heard of him. He was the owner of Adirondack Mountain Guides, he was well-known in the local climbing scene, and he apparently had a hand in designing some of the best ice tools around. I wanted to meet him.
I finally crossed paths with Ian last winter. I was climbing in Chapel Pond Canyon, southwest of Giant Mountain. I was bleeding from the bridge of my nose. It was my first climb of the season, a sedate slab of ice, but I had yanked an ax out too fast and it hit me. “Strong like bull, smart like tractor,” Ian said with a smile. I was climbing with a mutual friend so the ribbing was collegial. He had correctly sized me up: a barrel-chested climber who defaulted to muscling through. Later I watched him fly up Laceration, a vertical wall of ice with no place to rest except near the top. His speed and moves reminded me of a ninja scaling a castle wall in darkness. The only limits were his reach and balance.
Ian, 48, got his taste for climbing the High Peaks from his English teacher, Don Mellor, at Northwood School, in Lake Placid. Don is a prolific climber and wrote the definitive book on Adirondack climbing. Ian remembers him passing down knowledge about routes and techniques in the ’80s as if he were enrolling listeners in a sacred oral tradition. After studying at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Ian grew restless and left for the Marines. He refers to his time there obliquely. By the mid-’90s, he returned and worked for various guide services. In 2003, he hung out his own shingle.
His home evokes a sense of place that is quintessentially Adirondack. It has a shop off the garage, where he maintains his equipment, and a mudroom arrayed with supplies for day trips and global expeditions. The house is set well into the woods, but a stone’s throw from a popular trailhead. As we settle down in front of the stove in his living room, he laments about the noise and the crowds, but then catches himself, realizing that a climbing guide depends on a visitor’s fascination with the hills. “I just wish they would hold out for a toilet,” he says, gesturing towards the road where many hikers freely relieve themselves. It’s a point that’s hard to argue with.
Nobody who has been climbing for more than three decades can get away from the continental divide between its practitioners. “I started climbing in the ’80s when it was still for outsiders. People’s idea of it came from The Eiger Sanction,” Ian recalls, referring to Clint Eastwood’s outlandish 1975 ice-climbing espionage thriller set in the Swiss Alps. “Everything we knew about it was from word of mouth, from a few guidebooks, and it all looked westward. The scale out there amazed us: it was all tall ice and expansive settings. It made the Northeast feel small, and that gnawed at us.
“In the Adirondacks climbers would put up new routes, and they would assume there was no way they could be as hard as the climbing in the Rockies. So we’d rate them accordingly. Then visitors from out West would come and climb our routes. They’d curse how hard they were. They thought it was a conspiracy, that we were sandbagging them. But we weren’t. It was pure inferiority complex. We’re getting over it. When I went out West for the first time in the ’90s, it was all ‘hero ice,’” he says, referring to ice that’s soft and thick and easier to climb. “The hard ice of the Adirondacks had prepared me well.”
As the sport became more popular, the Adirondacks came out of the shadows of its taller cousins. “There isn’t a better place to climb that’s as accessible,” Ian says. “Everything out West is an expedition: it takes half a day to get to the trailhead from the nearest town, and then half a day to reach the ice. As big as the Adirondacks are, so much of what’s great to climb is just a stone’s throw away. You can drive half a day north from the city and be deep into one of the biggest parks in the country. Once you’re here you can wake up and be on the ice in an hour. It makes for a great cragging culture.”
I ask him to describe the perfect guided trip for a novice climber. “We’d start with developing good form,” he says. “You don’t want to gain a lot of height and find yourself a little exposed and realize you’re struggling. So the first step is becoming an efficient climber with good technique and good balance. It would be on low ice with breaks, keeping warm and saving energy.
“Then we would climb some Adirondack classics. People come up here and see all of these natural features and when they realize they can climb them it’s a thrill. Roaring Brook is tall and dramatic and the waterfall is live behind the ice. We’d climb that, and then walk across Chapel Pond to Chouinard’s Gully. Both of them overlook the pass from a good height. Climbers see the tiny cars and people below and realize they’ve accomplished something. Plus, it beats waiting on a lift line.”
As Ian talks about Chouinard’s Gully, an irony occurs to me: it’s named for Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. It was one of the routes he put up on a trip to the Adirondacks in 1969. He was trailblazing then, using short axes with drooped picks and rigid crampons that made ascents faster and safer than before. The equipment was revolutionary, yet it is the same gear that today’s climbers consider totally obsolete.
I ask Ian how he helped CAMP design its axes. “I would climb with their tools,” he says, “then go to my workbench and make changes, mating the best pick angle to the best blade design, figuring out the perfect curve for the ax. It’s colder here than at most climbing destinations, so the ice is harder. We ended up with the best tools for the Adirondacks, and if they work in the ’Dacks, then they will work everywhere else.” This, from a man who has climbed in the Himalayas. Six years on, CAMP’s X-All Mountain and X-Dream ice tools endure as top choices in the High Peaks and beyond. Its Blade Runner crampons, which have a front point configuration influenced by Ian, are the only ones many professional guides will use, if looking at their feet is any indication.
As you drive through the narrow passes of the Adirondacks in winter, some of the gullies and frozen waterfalls stick out, and others only present themselves in glimpses. There will be climbers on many of them. Ian may be one of them, if he’s out guiding. If not, he’ll be on literal thin ice. Much of what he climbs for his own satisfaction these days would be unclimbable to most: nubbins of ice an inch or two thick, barely strong enough to hold a pick or rest a crampon on. Ian even designed a special ice screw, the “super stubby,” to protect climbers on the thinnest of ice sheets. Half the time his axes are jammed into cracks in bare rock between patches of ice.
How Ian and his peers push the envelope on tools they designed and climbs they pioneered makes you realize that no matter how good you are, there is always thinner ice and smoother rock. If providing the full range of climbs is the true measure of a destination, then what the Adirondacks offers will never be exhausted.
Cold, Hard Facts
Don’t make anything your life depends on at your workbench. The Mountaineer, in Keene Valley, and High Peaks Cyclery and Eastern Mountain Sports, in Lake Placid, are stocked with good equipment and expertise.
Ice climbing is dangerous and doing it without the proper training, equipment and precautions invites serious injury or death. Only the gradual accumulation of supervised experience will prevent this fate. Certified guides like Ian Osteyee (www.adirondackmountainguides.com, 518-524-4997) provide just that.
Route 73 from Exit 30 on the Northway to Lake Placid is the epicenter of Adirondack ice climbing. Other places in the park are just as varied and dramatic, but no other
linear stretch has a better combination of variety, vistas, services and access. The Mountaineer sponsors the Adirondack International Mountaineering Festival (www.mountaineer.com), January 13–15, which has guided group climbing in the area.
Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide (2006), by Don Mellor, is the classic inventory of the park’s ice climbs.
Brandon del Pozo wrote about Cycle Adirondacks in the 2016 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors.