The air is so frigid in my office that I can’t tear my thoughts away from ‘ice’, which is why this morning I am exploring the ice climbing subject more thoroughly.
To the uninitiated, (that’s me), ice climbing sounds like a very extreme version of rock climbing. Just coping with the cold is a challenge – a subject lying heavily on my mind right now.
So what’s it all about?
“Ice climbing is what I live and breathe for. It’s so much fun that I can’t just do it on the weekend. I have to do it all the time,” 29-year-old ice-climbing instructor, Andreas Spak from Sweden says.
Usually, ice climbing refers to roped and protected climbing of features such as icefalls, frozen waterfalls, and cliffs and rock slabs covered with ice re-frozen from flows of water.
Alpine ice is frozen precipitation whereas water ice is a frozen liquid flow of water. Both types of ice vary greatly in consistency according to weather conditions. Ice can be soft, hard, brittle or tough.
Alpine ice is found in a mountain environment, usually requires an approach to reach, and is often climbed in an attempt to summit a mountain.“If you can bang a pin in with your ice axe without anyone yelling at you and you packed the whiskey ’cause it is the only thing that won’t freeze, you’re probably alpine climbing.” — Christian.
Water ice is usually found on a cliff, or other outcropping, beneath water flows. Remember the other day I talked about Ouray Ice Park in Colorado where they manually create the ice flows by switching on a complicated system of pipes, tapped into the City of Ouray’s water reservoir, resulting in long steep flows of crystal blue ice on previously blank rock – ‘farming’ ice so to speak.
What 3 attibutes do you need to become an ice climber?
“1 – High pain threshold
2 – Bad memory
3 – I forget the third.”
… says one wit.
Your equipment depends on the slope and texture of the ice. For example, on flat ice, almost any good hiking or mountaineering boot will usually suffice, but for serious ice climbing, double plastic mountaineering boots (or their older stiff leather equivalent) are usually used, which must be crampon compatible and stiff enough to support the climber and maintain ankle support.
On short, low angled slopes, one can use an ice axe to chop steps. For longer and steeper slopes or on glaciers, crampons are mandatory for a safe climb. Vertical ice climbing is done with crampons and ice axes or ice tools; climbers kick their legs to engage the front points of the crampons in the ice, and then swing the axe into the ice above their heads – this is called ‘front pointing’.
Ice is surprisingly strong. Even if the axe goes in only a centimeter or so it can be enough to pull up on.
A lot of the techniques and practices common in rock climbing are employed in ice climbing – rope systems, tying in, belaying, leading, abseiling and lowering, to name a few. It is essential that beginners learn these techniques before attempting to ice climb. It is highly recommended that one acquire knowledge from experts and experienced ice climbers.
The Canadian Rockies is widely recognised as the centre of the Ice Climbing universe, due to the vast amount of excellent ice within easy access. However, some consider the tiny Norwegian village of Rjukan, 170 kilometres west of Oslo, to be the best place in the world to climb ice, with routes between 50 and 300 metres high.
“Norway definitely has the best climbing conditions in Europe,” says Will Gadd, a world champion ice climber from Alberta and co-author of Ice & Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique. “It has the same quality and dependability of ice as Canada, but you don’t have to ski four hours to get to a waterfall. Rjukan is exceptional. You can literally start climbing from your car.”
Some of North America’s best known ice climbing regions are:
- Banff National Park, Alberta
- Ouray Ice Park, Colorado
- Lake Superior region, Ontario
- Northern New Hampshire
- Hyalite Canyon, Montana
But this discussion will end in Alberta, Canada – Banff to be exact. The colossal ice climbs in and around the park are arguably the best on the planet. Skyscraper-size routes like Polar Circus, a 600-metre ice climb on Cirrus Mountain that takes a full day to ascend, are lifetime goals for many climbers. Thanks to mikebarter387 for this video of a classic grade three waterfall in the icefields area in Banff.