For quite some time, my husband and I had wanted to climb two major routes on the Frankenstein Wall in a single day. The task of climbing two long ice routes in a day may not be such a feat for North Conway locals, but for me this event would mean setting up a strategy of climbing that would not tax my injured shoulders. To reduce injury, I agreed to lead the softer bits, while my husband agreed to shorten the length of our pitches, and reduce his use of ice screws without compromising safety too much.
February had come and gone leaving March as our window of opportunity. Hiking across the snow covered railroad tracks, we soon came upon the blackened trestle and stopped to have a look up at the icy amphitheater. Pegasus was in fine nic, but below us a sharp wind stirred through barren trees. We were alone, indeed we had lucked out having the iced-up walls of Frankenstein all to ourselves!
My shoulder had been given me trouble for a few years, the frigid January ice tours had not helped with the stiffness, the piercing wind brought on the night-pain. To prepare for our climb of Dracula, we had climbed hard lines in the Flume. I love the Flume Gorge for its stark beauty, but the chill from the river had more than once penetrated my bones. Climbing was not the only factor for my shoulder pain, painting large canvas landscapes hasn’t helped either. I tend to use lots of big, bold strokes when painting Plein-Air and my November painting of Big Sur’s, ‘Rocky Point’ pushed my shoulders to their limit.
Nearing our first ice objective, I whispered to myself to hook with my tools, get on my feet and keep my neck-muff on from approach to descent.
We roped up at the base of perhaps one of the most impressive flows offered in the entire area. Standard Route drops just over 300 vertical feet and offers, several high quality independent lines. Directly above us the ice conditions shone a spectrum of primary pigments, artic whites with veins of mystic blue. I slipped into my harness and noted that my gear looked a bit tattered. This late in the season and with almost 50,000 vertical feet of ice climbed since December, our soft-shell pants and jackets had what looked like a random pattern of stab wounds. Hefting the lead rope, I noticed that it seemed a tad light.
“I had to cut a chunk off from both ends.” My husband said raising an eyebrow, “One end was nicked by an ice tool, the other end had to be cut for rap anchors. My guess is that we have at least 45 meters between us.”
Standard Route went in four exciting pitches. This was partially due to the length of the pre-cut rope and the need to reduce the number of throws between pitches. My mantra was to save shoulders at all cost. Coming out of the cave held my attention, the sudden exposure was like a shot of espresso, with chocolate of course! The exit of the route could have gone left which would have reduced our effort, but the direct finish looked too good to miss. At Grade WI4 the sting in Standard’s tail got us wanting more.
My husband had already climbed Dracula several times and although I had never seen the gothic horror up front and personal, I had seen a few photos of it. After traversing the top rim, we descended into the Hanging Gardens, ate a bar, and ambled across to the base of the beast. My first impression was that Dracula was steeply menacing. The route, a wild Transylvania curtain of icicles and columns, looked as if Vlad the Impaler himself was frozen in its icy tomb. In 1897, Bram Stoker penned that Dracula’s throat had been sheared through with a Kukri, and that a Bowie Knife had been thrust into his heart. Yikes!
Pumping my ice tools, I felt confident that I could vanquish the Count if need be, but had wished that I had stuffed a few cloves of garlic in my jacket pocket for good measure. Next time!
Racking-up, the fading light filtering through barren trees, casted a somewhat ominous mood. Uncoiling the forty-odd meters rope, I nodded the ‘ok’ and my husband launched up the first pitch. His intent was to break Dracula into two steep pitches; this would again minimize the effort placed on my shoulder and offer me a chance to enjoy the climb. The first bit started out with a steep right-facing corner of potted-out ice, I managed to hook most of the pitch, and within no time, was braced up against a slopping belay ledge. Lou stemmed the second section, placed a single screw, and huffed his way past an insane bulge of overhanging icicles.
My turn came soon enough. As an artist, I see the color of ice in perhaps a different and unique dimension. For instance, when I began to stem, I noted that the blue-grey shaft of ice to my left was less bonded than the ice I chose for my ice tools. My crampons bit well, but there was a grainy sound as if a weak striation of wet-black stone was fighting to be unveiled. Nearing the top, I staggered my tools and stemmed wide. Bracing myself to throw, the sun suddenly crested the horizon, and with its’ descent came a sudden chill and the casting of a cape-like shadow. I hung there for a moment, my husband still out of view. A silence fell below me, a frozen breath oscillated as if waking from a semi-trance.
Had the vampire awakened???
– Maggie Renner Hellmann & Lou Renner