CAMDEN — At 11:32 a.m. on Jan. 8, Ryan Howes reached the top of a new route about halfway up a 250-foot-high cliff covered in a blob of ice.

After topping out and claiming the first known ascent of that route, Howes exclaimed, “You can’t take drugs and get this feeling. Man, I love the outdoors!”

It was a feeling — and a feat — unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

The route is considered to be the most difficult mixed climb on the cliff with a rating of M7R — the “M” means mixed, a combination of climbing both rock and ice; the 7 is the highest level of difficulty on a scale starting at 1; and the R means very little protection, as falling could lead to serious injury or death.

Ryan Howes negotiates the delicate dry tooling, a practice in which the climber uses ice tools to climb rock, on the upper portion of the first ascent of Bomb Cyclone M7R at Barrett’s Cove in Camden Hills State Park on Jan. 8. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Three days after Howes’ landmark ascent, the ice formation was gone and meteorologists say it may never reappear again.

For many Mainers, the meteorological event that started forming off the coast of Florida on Jan. 4 that became known as the “Bomb Cyclone” was nothing more than another winter storm. It meant another day of shoveling walkways and plowing through drifts.

But for Howes, the storm was the final ingredient needed to form the new ice climbing route, the first in at least 17 years, at one of the most popular climbing destinations in Maine, Barrett’s Cove in Camden.

Howes, 35, a professional climber and owner of Northern Vertical Climbing Guides in Belfast, began his climbing career in Camden while attending Unity College.

The Augusta native has been climbing in Camden for the past 17 years. He has put up more than 20 first ascents on the cliffs at Camden Hills State Park and more than 60 around the country.

Ryan Howes negotiates the 120 degree over-hanging rock crux that leads to the rare ice blob during his first ascent of his ice climb, Bomb Cyclone M7R, at Barrett’s Cove in Camden Hills State Park on Jan. 8. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Howes’ abilities and experience put him into a special group of climbers: the 1 percent who can identify and climb an intimidating chunk of ice for the first time — a first ascent.

Howes’ business guiding clients at Barrett’s Cove has been steady this winter. The 2017-2018 ice climbing season started out much better than the previous winter. Ice routes were everywhere and growing.

After the Bomb Cyclone blew through Maine, Howes noticed a “blob” of ice about 60 feet off the ground on what is normally just a rock climb called the Joker.

How does a new ice climb form? With a rare mix of warmth and cold and moisture.

Augusta experienced its warmest autumn on record in 2017, according to the National Weather Service in Gray. Add unfrozen ground with abrupt cold temperatures at the beginning of winter with lots of moisture, and you have the perfect conditions for a unique ice anomaly to form, according to John Jensenius, the National Weather Service’s warning coordination specialist in Gray.

Howes knew this climb would not last. The blob dripped off a rock prow about 60 feet above the ground on a south facing cliff.

Ryan Howes negotiates the 120 degree over-hanging rock crux that leads to the rare ice blob during his first ascent of his ice climb, Bomb Cyclone M7R, at Barrett’s Cove in Camden Hills State Park on Jan. 8. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

On Jan. 8, Howes realized his window to establish the first new ice climb at Barrett’s Cove in at least 17 years.

At 11:01 a.m., he began the climb as temperatures hovered in the mid-20s.

Howes glided up the ice gully on the main face of the cliff. Finishing the easier ice and snow climbing, he reached the rock where his ice blob awaited, overhanging 120 degrees.

Using a trusted belayer, steel ice axes and crampons and rope, placing safety gear along his route to protect himself from hitting the ground if he fell, Howes scaled the blob of ice to a rock slab that afforded little protection from a fall.

“This is where it really got mental,” said Howes, also explaining that he needed to focus on his every movement and not allow his mind to drift. “And really, this was the hardest part because mentally you don’t have very good placements with your axes or your feet. And you just don’t know.”

Once he pulled through the heart of the climb, he found a rest spot and was able to place an ice screw for added safety.

He continued, slowly, as just over 30 minutes of technical climbing led 120 feet up the ice.

After the exclamation that he had topped out, Howes became calm again. He rapelled down the ice cliff and was back on the ground within a minute.

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