Ice climbing in the Catskills: history, anecdotes and an ice fest
















*All photos in this post are credited to Christian Fracchia. 


“Ice climbing in the Catskills might not be the feather in the cap but it can be a substantial experience,” says Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock and Snow and a mainstay in the tome of local ice and rock climbing history. The ice, which forms up for a season running somewhere between December and March, is located within the protected, 700,000-acre Catskill Park, a portion of which is owned by the state and designated as a “wild” region. When the ice forms, it runs along a band of exposed sandstone about the same level off the valley floor. It’s known for its moderate protection—you can’t just drop a screw anywhere—close-to-the-road accessibility, and relatively short pitches. But, as the area’s first guidebook author, Rick Cronk, says, “what it lacks in length it makes up for in difficulty.” Though it sometimes gets overlooked for the larger and better-known areas up north, the Catskills are modest, but quality.


But while people have been ice climbing in the Catskills for 40 years, the history is muddled—more personal anecdote than history. Perhaps the rigorous documentation of nearby rock climbing in the Gunks didn’t hold because the Catskills draws people from a wide range of areas, and is spread out with no central meeting point to share ascents—unlike the Gunks, whose gateway is New Paltz. Or perhaps no one seemed too keen on keeping tabs. I’m not sure, nor does it seem to matter now—but we do know that Rick Cronk, who first started ice climbing through the SUNY New Paltz Outing Club, was the first to start documenting anything back in the late 70s. 


When he became president of the club in 1973, Cronk, Bob Smith and a group of college kids and local climbers armed with plenty of psyche poached participation in a clinic in the Adirondaks (‘Daks) to learn the skills of front pointing. One day new-comers, the next they were leading.


 “I went from top-roping on Chapel Pond Slabs to leading the next day,” says Cronk.


Not long after, Cronk saw a blurb in North American Climber, a short-lived magazine produced by Paul Baird, a peripheral member of the Gunks' Vulgarians. The piece highlighted Joe Bridges, Jim McCarthy and Claude Suhl, among others, ice climbing in the Gunks and Awosting Falls.


“In a matter of days we were out chasing after ice in Peter’s Kill Falls or Awosting Falls; Outback Slabs had been done,” says Cronk of these now off-limits routes (no climbing is allowed on state park land). All these endeavors and exploratory missions lead Cronk to then-owner of Rock and Snow, Dick Williams, who told him about Stony Clove.


Today, Stony Clove is one of the most popular spots in the Catskills known for it’s single- and multi-pitch climbs (and infamous for top-outs that have loose rock and very little ice: “if the climb doesn’t get you scared, the top-out probably will” says Marty Molitoris, in a later guide). At the time, though, there were not many climbers other than Williams and McCarthy out there. Williams recounted a story to Cronk when he was on belay for Jim McCarthy, who had ice climbed all over New England. As the story goes, McCarthy took a short, but abrupt, fall not too long after heading up off the ground…but all Williams could focus on were the 12, sharp points coming his way.


“That was the last day Dick and McCarthy ever went climbing in the Catskills,” says Cronk.



But the story of a new zone for Cronk set the wheels spinning: Cronk, along with Sawicky, Sacks, Rosenfeld and others, were inspired by the story. More ice! They all hopped in Sacks’ van and drove up to the top of the notch, hopped out, tromped up the slope and started firing off pitches.


 “Over the next few years we were there almost every weekend doing the routes, repeating the routes and at that point we started looking at maps for waterfalls,” says Cronk. They slowly started ticking off what ice could be climbed.


By the early 80s, though, many of the core climbers from Cronk’s group had moved away. Cronk, Sawicky and Dave Chassin were still around, and one day skied out and dropped into Coal Kills Falls (what is now called the Black Chasm). There, they saw a large overhanging wall filled with columns and sheets of ice—they knew that would be the hardest ice climbing in the Catskills, to date. But the group, who had sharpened their ice climbing skills throughout New England, was ready. “Sawicky, Felix [Modugno] and I came back the following week,” says Cronk, “Mike lead Instant Karma and I lead The Mephisto Waltz.” 



As the early 80s rolled around, Cronk, who was getting out less and less, began to compile information from climbers throughout the region with the hopes of publishing a small pocket guidebook. He posted fliers, with tear-off, phone number strips, in mountaineering retail stores throughout the regions—all the way to New York City—to try and compile as much information about first ascents as possible. He got five replies back. Regardless, he published the pocket guide with the info he had in the winter of ‘82.


Development continued from the late 80s and onward into the 2000s. New climbers started tackling the ice where others had left off: climbers like Gottlieb, Felix Modugno, Rich Romano, among many many others that go unnamed. More ice was climbed, and no one spoke much about it. It wasn’t until a decade later that any additional other documentation came along.


Marty Molitoris, who started climbing in the Catskills in 1992, moved to the area from Pennsylvania where he was working at a gear shop and guiding part-time. Once in the area, he founded his guiding company, Alpine Endeavors, and frequently took clients ice climbing in the Catskills as well as rock climbing Gunks. 


“I was just out there exploring with friends or clients,” says Molitoris. But he, more than perhaps anyone else at the time, was there all the time. He knew the mountains as good as anyone else. To the point that one day Gottlieb suggested Molitoris write another guide to Catskills ice climbing. “Gottlieb gave me the initial kick,” says Molitoris. “Every now and again he’d say, ‘when’s the guide coming out?’”



Molitoris self-published his first guide in 2003, with a second edition in 2004. There were issues—for one the perfect binding on the first edition turned out to be less than perfect—but he got the self-publishing thing figured out in the process, which he remembers as a fun project for himself. He wasn’t concerned with history either; it was too muddled. Within his guide were simply route names and descriptions. Few, if any, first ascentionists were credited or dated.


“That’s how it developed,” say Molitoris.  “Not many people really recorded stuff.” He reasoned that since it wasn’t North Conway or the ‘Daks, it got slightly overlooked and no one kept track. Trying to record the history, for Molitoris, would be a whole different can of worms. “I just left it out,” says Molitoris, “and put things in an ever-changing document on the website, so people can call me and say, ‘yeah, I did that.’ I thought that’d be the better way to go.”


Though there was less and less unclimbed ice, mixed climbing debuted when, according to Christian Fracchia—a local climber who moved to the area in the early 2000s—the visiting climer Jeff Lowe came to the ‘Daks during an ice festival and established a mixed route. “Everyone's eye's popped out of their heads,” says Fracchia. “It started a mixed revolution which took off throughout the Adirondacks and New England, but never went anywhere in the Catskills. It was always thought that rock was too loose.”


But then, in 2005, some bolts went in when visiting ‘Daks climbers established some mixed routes.  The whole thing took off. “People started exploring and a group of maybe 10-15 people started going bonkers and put up tons of routes. It was also ushered in by several back-to-back poor ice seasons,” says Fracchia, who along with climbers like Chris Beauchamp, Ryan Stefiuk, Dustin Portzline, Doug Ferguson (and still others unnamed) went out to establish new routes. As it turns out, the short and steep rock with moderate ice of the Cats lays host to incredibly difficult mixed climbs, like Hydropower, which visiting climber Matt McCormick did in 2010. At M9 WI5, it became the hardest mixed route in the area. That sealed the deal: mixed climbing in the Catskills, once thought to be too loose for it, was ripe. Though the Catskills’ mixed climbing still holds new routing potential, it doesn’t come without its dose of controversy. Like the Gunks, the area is steeped with a long history of traditional ethics and a mindset of preservation—and arguments still goes back and forth today. For some, like Cronk, “ice is nice and will suffice.”



Though the Catskills’ ice climbing has been written about in magazines—like in the links above or this story in Climbing—the Catskills will never be an epicenter for international climbing, nor will it necessarily be cutting edge. It is, however, just right for the area and it has something for everyone. That’s why in 1995, Rock and Snow started an ice fest, which Molitoris and Alpine Endeavors soon took over. Now in its 17th year, the Catskills Ice Fest, which starts today and runs all this weekend (January 30-February 2, 2015), will include clinics for various ability levels, slideshows—like Saturday night’s show by Doug Millen from at Rock and Snow—and more. Like the Catskills themselves, this ice fest is a modest affair, with little fanfare of the juggernauts of the winter festival world. But, somehow, in the Catskills, that’s just the perfect size.