Ice climbing

Last week I finally had a go at something I’ve been interested in for a while – Ice Climbing. If ice climbing seems relatively inaccessible, particularly in the UK, that’s generally true but surprisingly few people seem to know that there is in fact an indoor ice climbing wall at the Ellis Brigham store in Covent Garden, and apparently another in Manchester. So, rather than going to Norway, I booked there. Apologies there are no pictures of it – I didn’t manage to get any of myself, and I can’t find any online that have a noncommercial reuse license. Just Google ‘Vertical Chill’ though and there are a tonne.

Ice climbing is one of those things that I’m peripherally aware of as it is constantly mentioned in the books about mountaineering I like to read. It seems an integral part of serious mountain climbing for many people, but it’s totally alien to me. To put it another way, climbing Everest, for example, is more or less just a progression of the kind of skills required to do winter mountaineering in Scotland, say, which are themselves just a progression of the kind of skills required to do summer hiking in Wales. Ice climbing the Eiger, on the other hand, is something completely new and bonkers-sounding, so I had to get a taste of it.

For those that don’t have a clue what I’m on about, and haven’t worked it out from the pictures, ice climbing is the practice of ascending more or less sheer (or even overhanging) ice walls using ice axes in each hand, and crampons on your feet. Unlike rock climbing where you look for foot and handholds, in ice climbing you make your own, kicking your feet into the ice so the crampons dig in firmly, and swinging the ice axes so they bite into the ice and you can hang off them. If you are doing a real ascent, and not training somewhere with top-ropes already set up, you will also screw ice screws into the wall at various intervals to clip your rope into, giving you some degree of safety if you fall. Although you will still fall twice the distance from you to the last screw you dug in, plus all the slack and stretch in the rope, and that’s assuming the screw holds, so it’s not exactly going to be comfortable.

Anyway, the idea sounded simple enough. Like I say, you’re making your own holds so surely it would be a load easier than rock climbing, which I’ve done a fair bit of. Right? Well no, absolutely and totally not. Even allowing for the fact I was a little under the weather, ice climbing was one of the most surprisingly exhausting things I have ever done. I went up the first, simple face ok, trying to master the technique of digging the feet in, then pushing up with the legs, and using the hands for support but not to pull up. Once I’d done that, I had a go at the second face, with a sizeable bulge to get round a couple of metres up. After what must have been ten or fifteen minutes of flailing around; kicking, swinging, falling off, swearing a fair bit, and finally getting round the bulge I found myself clinging to the ice, utterly spent. I was panting as if I’d just run a marathon (and I should know) and my hands and wrists were so tired from what should have been the fairly easy movement of swinging the axe into the ice that I simple could no longer hit it hard enough to get the point to bite in. At that point, to my considerable embarrassment, I had to ask to be lowered down for a breather.

Learning new skills and realising that ‘fitness’ is relative, and sport-specific, is good, I think. It’s humbling to be reminded that no matter how good a runner I might be (and I’m not that good, but I can run a long way without giving up, which is a start) trying a new sport utterly destroyed me in less than half an hour.

If this sounds off-putting, though, it shouldn’t. Getting to the top of the first wall was incredibly satisfying, and when it is going well and you are in a rhythm of swing, swing, kick, kick, push, swing, swing, kick, kick push it is immensely enjoyable and rewarding. I highly recommend it to everyone, and apparently if you really get into it and want to have a go at doing it properly outdoors, Norway is the place to go. I’m not sure if I’m going to be doing that any time soon, but I will be going back to Vertical Chill if only to get round that monster bulge and still have enough left in me to get to the top of the wall…

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