Don Mellor has been scaling Adirondack ice for 38 winters and he’s still wary. Climbers can slip on the glistening walls. Ice can crack and give way. Mistakes can be costly.
“I’m alive because I’m a very negative thinker,” Mellor said on a recent morning after scaling Pitchoff Quarry Wall, a 75-foot rock face covered with cascades of giant icicles. He had pulled himself up with bladed ice tools that look like small, high-tech scythes. Spiked crampons gave him toe-holds and a student below held his safety rope.
“I always figure something is going to go wrong, so I always have a back-up plan,” Mellor said. “I’m running about five back-up plans all the time.”
Mellor, 62, began ice climbing in the make-your-own tools era and has since introduced the sport to generations of students at a Lake Placid prep school where he is a teacher and counselor. He wrote the book, literally, on ice climbing in this rugged region, “Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide,” and occasionally helps rangers rescue fallen climbers. Mellor is among the small cadre of veteran climbers who know winter routes up Adirondack rock faces like the back of their gloves.
“I think he’s had a huge impact on the climbing community,” said Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown, who mentions Mellor’s role in pioneering routes, rescues, guiding and even climbing ethics.
Like a lot of ice climbers, Mellor is a rock climber who keeps busy in winter. But it’s a different kind of climbing: rock routes are unchanging, while ice faces shift with freeze-and-thaw cycles. Mellor likens rock climbing to ballet – climbers test their gymnastic ability as they reach out and find toe-holds. Mellor calls ice climbing a “thug sport,” heavily dependent on arm strength. The climber is always battling fatigue.
“I think in a lot of sports you like the pain-pleasure dichotomy,” he said. “And ice climbing can get uncomfortable. It can get scary.”
Or worse. He once fell about 100 feet down a dome after he inadvertently cracked open ice under water pressure with his tool. He was soaked, but avoided injury.
Not everyone is so lucky.
A Canadian climber fell more than 100 feet to his death on Poke-O-Moonshine in 2002 when the ice he was attached to broke off. Earlier this year, Mellor helped rangers in the High Peaks rescue a 40-year-old climber who suffered serious leg injuries in a 100-foot fall. Just three hours earlier, a 51-year-old man fainted during a climb.
Mellor tells his students to get their pulse down and control every move. Don’t fixate on the ledge up above, look at the ice in front of your face.
“I say, ‘Stop and look. Make it really static, not fluid at all, not nice and beautiful but stop and static so you can see what’s going on,”’ he said.
Mellor has written about the “renegade subculture” of ice climbing when he started in the 1970s. They made their own screws and heated up tools to bend them. “I don’t know how we lived,” he says now. The sport is more mainstream today, from Colorado to Vermont. Climbers can buy tools with carbon-fiber shafts for more than $300 and trade tips on social media.
Mellor has changed too. He climbs with a hip replacement now, and has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of routes. He’s been around long enough to appreciate the seasonal climbing cycle of rock and ice.
“I am glad every spring when it all melts and I realize I’ve made it,” he said with a laugh. “Rock climbing seems so safe.”