The thermometer hovered in the single digits as Jenna and I hiked along the Metacomet Trail into Ragged Mountain in central Connecticut. The snow had that rubbery texture and squeaky sound that only comes with very cold snow. Ice across the trail caused even four-legged Orbit to slip. A coyote, perhaps expecting no humans to be out on such a frigid morning, was trotting through the woods until it saw us and ran off.
As we snaked along the edge of Owl’s Lair cliff, we suddenly spotted a man wearing a neon-green jester hat climbing up a 90-foot-high rock spire. His chalky hands were bare, no gloves. His feet were jammed inside thin, uninsulated climbing shoes. At the top of the cliff, standing on a knife-edge ledge some 700 feet above the Connecticut valley stretching toward Long Island Sound, he shouted, “Happy New Year!”
While this was an especially cold New Year’s Day, hovering around 0 degrees F across Connecticut, it was still not too cold for 69-year-old rock climber Ken Nichols to make his annual pilgrimage here.
Every New Year’s Day for the past 33 years, Ken has climbed a route called Happy New Year at Ragged Mountain. He was part of a group of climbers who first ascended the route in 1983, and since then (with the exception of 1984) he’s returned to Happy New Year every January 1.
One year he climbed the route with his wife at midnight, because snow was forecast for the following day. Another warmer year, he ascended the route in the nude. This year he kept (most of) his clothes on because, according to his personal records, it was the coldest-ever New Year’s climbing day in Connecticut. The thermometer measured -2 degrees F in the morning in Berlin and hit a high of 14 degrees in the early afternoon.
Ken had come the previous day to clear snow and ice off the route, driving an hour each way from his home in northeast Connecticut – and then assuring Jenna and I that, so long as the sun was shining on the cliff as predicted, it wouldn’t be too cold to climb. His hair may be white and thinning, and he may have a few teeth missing, but he’s determined to keep climbing the same obsessive way he’s always climbed, old age and frigid temps be damned.
Rated 5.9, Happy New Year ascends a 90-foot-tall vertical cliff through a series of ledges that gradually increase in difficulty until you’re standing atop a foot-wide knife-edge jutting out from the main cliff, where a trail often carries hikers. Jenna and I and three others joined Ken in climbing the route, while Orbit (still spooked from spotting a coyote during our hike into the cliff) paced nervously in the snow below.
We also hopped on a nearby 5.5-rated climb called Serendipity, which was the only other route cleared of snow. Jenna deployed no less than three hand and body warmers for herself; I had a body warmer taped to my stomach and a hand warmer in my chalk bag; Orbit wore a special winter doggy vest. Between climbs, we stuffed our stinky climbing shoes inside our jackets to keep them warm with body heat, a trick that Ken swears by.
Meanwhile, Ken climbed in Playboy-branded pajama pants, a t-shirt, and a red hat that said, “Make Climbing Great Again.” Seeing how he’s climbed virtually injury free for more than four decades, tallying up a total of 106,800 fall-free ascents (as of the end of 2017), it’s hard to argue he’s doing anything wrong in starting every year with Happy New Year.