The Parson’s Pond Ice Fest


Bayard on White Rabbit, put up by Keith and Silas, one of the coolest climbs we’ve ever repeated


“I wonder if Keith is dead,” someone said. We (well, Dustin) were still driving north, having taken the ferry to Newfoundland the night before. Dustin Cormier’s eyes pointed forwards, finding the driving line so the trailer wouldn’t fishtail in the slop; the trailer being filled with two snow machines and three cases of beer and all the ice climbing stuff: items important exactly in that order.

Bayard Russell sat in the backseat, his socked feet wrapped around selzer cans, iPhone chargers, potato chip bags, a pillow, a down jacket. We read signs out loud as they slid past in the thin light, their words crusted over by the brown sludge that piled up on the roadside and passed for snow.

The outside air was arctic cold. The kind that hit your nostrils the minute you got out; the kind that was getting harder to come by; the kind that made you really not want to climb grade six ice. In the passenger seat, I scraped patterns into frost coating the front window and peered out as the landscape skimmed past my little peephole.


Port au Choix lighthouse. You just need a few paint colors for Newfoundland.


Up in Parson’s Pond, Keith’s snow machine was broken. We’d bought him new spark plugs in Corner Brook but he hadn’t texted in a while and everyone else was out exploring. We imagined him out there in Hokas and faded jeans and a PBR hoodie, a socket wrench grasped by a frozen hand outstretched in the scant snow. It was a low snow year.

“You guys,” I countered. “Keith is a valued member of the Mountain Rescue Service. I doubt he froze to death in the parking lot.” Dustin and Bayard laughed, which was good. I needed them to laugh. If you tagged onto a Newfoundland trip and didn’t bring your own truck or snowmobile you had better be real funny. Though I guess Newfoundland is plenty funny in its own tangled way.


Looking out into the town of Portland Creek, north of Parson’s Pond  


History has a way of crashing onto these shores, as if the place can’t help it. I imagine the Newfies–be they Beothuk or Scots or Irish or Mi’kmaq–have always wanted to be left alone, more or less. Caribou lope past gas stations and Tim Horton’s restaurants. Lobster traps and fishing trawlers, abandoned for the season, lie buried on beaches coated in ice like industrial spray foam. The sea ice undulates, dancing with the tide before freezing along the shore. 16th-Century Basques or aircraft passengers from 9/11 planes or Vikings or Titanic search parties or reclusive novelists all end up here, which might seem like a strange mixture. If you’ve ever visited the place, though, it all makes perfect sense.




Crazy blobs of spray ice; a Dustin for scale


In the old winters, when this deep slicing cold settled for longer, you or the caribou could walk across the sea ice to Labarador instead of taking the ferry to Nova Scotia. As the cod jobs evaporated the knot of Newfies that stayed tightened like a prusic on a rope, and towns like Parson’s Pond are getting older and smaller.

Bayard yawned. Dusty pointed at a white spot off the highway in a land comprised of little else. “The snowy place,” he said reverently. I was glad to be here with these two. Beneath Bayard’s folded casualness was a fast-twitch athlete born to ice climb. He loved saying how out of shape he was while he sprinted up WI5 holding a casual conversation.

Then there was Dustin, who was made for trips like this. I couldn’t think of a Newfoundland problem–broken snow machine, plummeting morale, breaking trail–that didnt’ have a Dustin solution. Dealing with an overheating sled with patience for weeks? No problem. He seems to be good at pretty much everything. I think I burn most calories by laughing on trips with these two, which is good, because Newfoundland ice climbing is too ridiculous to take seriously.

Electrical poles covered in ghostly rime rejoined the highway. We were nearly there, which meant we could check and see if Sidle was alive. He was–very much so–and swearing at his snowmobile through an ice-encrusted beard, wearing his Hokas and blue jeans.

“I TOLD you guys he wasn’t dead,” I gloated.

“Sled’s fucked,” Sidle growled as we pulled up. He was grumpy on the face of it all. But I think somewhere deep down there was nowhere he’d rather be than tearing apart a snowmobile on a strip of gravel parking lot abutting a vast and sublime wilderness.

That night Ryan and Alden and Silas returned and soon everyone clustered into our little rental cabin. So many familiar faces felt like an ice fest, all crowded in, swapping climbing stories and snowmobile stories and anything in between.

Everyone had been hard at work already. Our plan, on the other hand, was simple and diabolical. We would lie in wait, drafting our buddies’ efforts like Tour de France riders, waiting for cut trails and ice pick holes and drilled v-threads to strike. To train, we began a strict junk food diet designed to keep us warm. Sometimes this required discipline–stopping to grill hot dogs on the shores of a frozen lake, for instance. But we were diligant. We ate fish and chips until it came out of our pores. We ate fish and chips until the truck cab smelled like a Cheapside market stand. We ate fish and chips until wait staff began to recognize us and shake their heads sadly. Then, we were ready to ice climb in Newfoundland.


“The difference between a good alpinist and a great one is will,” Mark Twight wrote. I think what he’s trying to say is: build that hot dog fire, even when you don’t want to.


On our first climbing day the weather hovered around zero in town, and we worked our way up a sunny WI5 on the Barrens wall, spying a line to come back for. The new one looked like a New Hampshire route: a hanging dagger dangling in the middle of a chimney. It had probably never been climbed.

For every plate of fish and chips we devoured, though, Ryan, Alden, Keith, and Silas climbed a cool new route, or two or three.

“They’ll burn themselves out soon,” we assured one another between gulps of cheap beer and gobs of vinegar-soaked french fries.


Bayard on the Barrens Wall


Dustin on the Barrens Wall


The next day I took the rack after Bayard had led us up a tricky little mixed corner. It was good to be climbing with two old friends, mostly just laughing and freezing our butts off. Bayard made his usual wild, confident movements and swift piton placements. The chimney dagger loomed above the belay; I took the rack and wriggled past it, being the skinniest. I dove into a cave halfway up the route. It was tight and I burrowed farther in to give my friends room until my parka looked like it had offended a wolverine. I led up the next pitch, the wind piping through the parasol of ice guarding the top. The wind was nuking now, sending slithering snow down the parasol, whipping ice crystals that stung my face. Indeed, we might have died of exposure if it weren’t for all the fish and chips. After getting around the parasol I built a belay and stared out away from the wind and towards the landscape. It looked like JWM Turner had run out of all the colors in his studio except a couple of greys and blues and just said, “fuck it, I’m gonna paint anyway.” The barrens gave way to the frothing sea ice and then the dark sea yielded to the srim of cloud.


The worst route in Newfoundland. Photo by Bayard


Myself not climbing up so much as out. Photo by Bayard


The route was not very long and maybe it would have been good by New Hampshire standards, but not by Newfie ones. Joe Terravechia had probably walked right past it, not even bothering.

“Congratulations!” I screamed through the wind as my companions came up. “We just climbed the worst route in Newfoundland!” Then we rappelled as fast as we could, thinking of a name, which still eludes us, though I have suggested both “Parasol Gully” and “Standard Route” ad nauseum.

Everyone’s got different motivations for climbing. But what gets me leading ice climbs is the possibility that, if I do a good enough job, Bayard might let me drive the Skidoo. I said nothing, just squeezing my eyes shut and hoping.

“Michaelchuck,” Bayard yelled above the idling sled when we got back down to Parson’s Pond. (A certain subset calls me Michaelchuck) “You take us home!” And indeed, as I climbed into the driver’s seat, all that crappy climbing was paid in full.

The old sled purred as I guided it across the pond, the spedometer sitting between 30 and 40. To my left I spied another sled streaking past us. It was Silas and Keith. Silas might be a famous mountain guide now but he has plenty of Maine left in him. The plume of loose snow kicked up behind them as they blitzed past. The Skidoo Grand Touring’s skids chattered and bounced off the bullet-hard pressure ridges of Parson’s Pond; I tried to keep up, bracing against the swirling cold, but it was futile. Scraps of wind carried whatever the hell Bayard was yelling back towards the barrens.

We took Sidle for a drive the next rest day, (“This is what you guys do, huh? I like this.”) the truck wandering northwards on the forlorn coast, past fishing shacks buried in drifts of snow; past merignues of sea ice congealed on boulders; past gas stations and hotels abandoned in winter; the steely glint of endless ocean beyond the stunted trees threaded by caribou. Trudging towards a lighthouse in wind-blown snow, we turned around. Then we got fish and chips.


Bayard topping out the parasol. Note the chunks of rime pelting him, which is not from an ice tool swing but from the wind


Everyone getting ready


The next morning, layered in oil-streaked puffy jackets, everyone got ready outside together in the glow of predawn snowmobile lights and the pale, rising winter sun. Later we frontpointed with Ryan and Alden up a steep slope scoured bulletproof by the wind. They were headed up yet another amazing new route, while we angled towards one of Keith and Silas’ new routes. Bayard landed the first pitch, weaving around blobs and parrying between pillars while Dustin and I traded stories and belays, swinging our arms to try and keep our hands somewhat warm, though cold air howled through our layers as if we wore nothing.


Ryan, Alden, and Dustin getting to the back of the pond. (“Bakadipand” in Newfie). Shenanigans.


“If it’s not fun, we’ll stop doing it” became our motto: a slippery slope for an ice climbing trip


Dustin and me in a belay cave. Photo by Bayard


On the next pitch I spiralled around a pillar, backstepping onto rock and big, forgiving blobs of ice, pretending I was climbing at the Hanging Gardens at Frankenstein instead of way out here, away from the crowds and on the border of true, wild nature. It reminded me of why I had become an ice climber in the first place. Keith and Silas had put up a classic.

If you look closely you can see Alden and Ryan rappelling in the middle of one of their new routes (lefthand flow, 2/3rds of the way up the wall)

As we rapped, our blood retreating toward our cores, we pinched ourselves–or would have, if we could have felt our hands–considering our fortune at experiencing something like that with such good friends. A few days and chippie baskets later, when we idled across the ferry and back onto the mainland, it was hard to believe that home was really just a drive away.