Ty Gagne's From High Places: North Conway climbing school helps transition from walls to rock faces

By TY GAGNE July 05. 2018 4:48PM

A guide from the International Mountain Climbing School lead climbs on Whitehorse Ledge in Conway. (Courtesy IMCS)

Brad White is an adaptable guy.

As a climber, and as the director of the North Conway based International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS), adaptability is an essential skill. He started from the ground up, literally and figuratively, at IMCS.

White climbed his first rock in 1975 as a student at the school. Over time he honed his skills and technique, and was eventually hired as a mountain guide by the very institution that taught him.

The skills White has acquired in the mountains over the course of 40 years - route finding, leading, strategy, problem solving and measured risk taking - are the same ones he's leveraging today to adapt his business model to the wave of change that's taken place in climbing over the last decade.

"You grow, and adapt," he told me recently.

With the explosion in popularity of indoor climbing gyms, White has watched the number of people climbing increase dramatically. But it's the way the people are entering the activity that's completely shifted the customer base at IMCS.

In many cases, climbers develop their skills in a gym setting, and from there migrate to outdoor "sport climbing" venues, such as the Rumney Cliffs Climbing Area, which will be profiled in a future column.

Sport climbing relies on fixed anchor points on the rock or other climbing surface, whereas "traditional climbing" requires a climber to place removable protection such as "chocks", "hexes" or "cams" as he or she climbs. Sport climbing and gym climbing are closely linked, says White.

"If you do well in a gym it translates directly to sport climbing on rock," he said.

A decade ago, IMCS would host three basic rock climbing courses every weekend during the season.

Today, they're filling two per month.

"Gyms are the place where people are learning to climb," White said. "We're seeing far fewer straight-up beginners. Now, most people are arriving at the school with some level of experience," White said.
The International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway. (Courtesy IMCS)

With the shift toward indoor and sport routes, the IMCS is seeing an increase in large groups such as summer camps, workplace outings, and entire families looking to challenge themselves on outdoor routes together.

IMCS operates year-round and offers mountaineering and ice climbing courses throughout the winter.

"A lot of people are wanting to experience climbing on snow and ice, which can't truly be replicated indoors, so we're seeing increased demand for instruction every winter," White said.

Whether climbing indoors or outside, those who have cut their teeth on sport routes that offer fixed protection and top-roping options, seek out climbing schools such as IMCS to further develop their skill set toward lead climbing on the much longer multi-pitch climbing routes that are so prevalent in the Mount Washington Valley.

Lead climbing requires the roped climber to place protection and clip in along the route to mitigate a potential fall. A climbing partner is attached to the other end of the rope and takes in any slack as his or her partner ascends the route.

"It's a whole different perspective for a climber when he or she moves from the gym to rock. Properly setting up anchor systems, and the ability to self-rescue from a route if you get into trouble are essential skills," said White.

"How does the climber respond to fear, and the increased exposure to heights on a multi-pitch climbing route? Those are questions the climber can answer in an instructional environment."

For more information about International Mountain Climbing School, visit ime-usa.com/imcs or call 356-7064.

Ty Gagne lives, works and climbs (not often enough) in New Hampshire. He is the author of "Where You'll Find Me; Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova" (TMC Books, 2017), and a contributor to the AMC's Appalachia Journal.


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