The Adrenalist

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For Extreme Climbing, Just Add Ice



Ice Climbing World Cup 2011 – Saas Fee Highlights from Matt Pycroft on Vimeo.

Scaling the face of a mountain is a daunting task that requires stable footing and a rock-solid commitment to reach the top. But what happens when you’re scaling ice instead of rock? A slippery and already treacherous activity becomes even more dangerous.

 There are two forms of ice someone can climb: Alpine ice flows near a mountain range, and usually requires some sort of approach to reach; it’s precipitation ice, and climbers usually scale this type of ice to reach the summit of a mountain. It’s not very different than simple glacier walking. Water ice is the second kind, and it’s usually found on a cliff or outcropping where water flows beneath. The alpine ice is usually a part of a mixed climbing experience and it’s pretty straightforward trekking over a glacier with less technical experience required. That means water ice climbing is where the real challenges await.

 Water ice climbing involves scaling sheets of ice that are at a precipitous angle. That means a climber requires crampons, technical ice axes and tools to grip the ice wall and create divots for toeholds and handgrips. The technique of kicking your legs into the ice using crampons, and then swinging an ice axe above to hold the climber’s arms, is known as front pointing.

 The traditional climbing maneuvers in mountain climbing are also employed in ice climbing. That includes single, double and twin rope systems. Double and twin rope systems are used more in ice climbing because of their emphasis on reiterating the rope. With so many sharp edges in ice climbing (e.g. crampon and ice axe), neglecting the double or twin rope is Suo periculo.

 Specific knots for tying in a climber work better in the freezing cold of an ice climb. That means using the Bowline or a Thumbstopper knot in place of a figure-of-eight follow through that can remain lodged in the cold. The Bowline and Thumbstopper are relatively easy to untie even when frozen. Belaying, leading, abseiling and of course, lowering, are all used in ice climbing, but it’s best to learn from an expert on a rock face before practicing these moves on the side of an iced over waterfall.

 When you’re acquiring handholds in the ice, there is an important way to protect the ice wall from damage, while also protecting the climber. Often an ice screw is wedged into the ice, but because of the fluidity of any ice surface (they can melt), the strength of these ice screws is tenable. That’s also why grading the waterfall ice for climbing purposes is so chaotic. Often, a first ascent is the trickiest, but once the creation of “hooks” appears, subsequent scaling later in the season is less tricky. The semi-ablation of a frozen waterfall makes it easier for duplicate climbs.

 Some water ice climbing spots include, but are not limited to: Canmore, Alberta Canada; Ouray, Colorado; Rjukan, Norway; Kanderstag, Switzerland; and Helmcken Falls Spray Cave in British Columbia Canada. 

 There is a Rocky Mountain Ice Waterfall grading system in place for water ice climbs like the spots mentioned, but it focuses only on the steepness of the pitch rather than the ancillary difficulties in the climb (weather conditions, exposure, mental aspects) or the technical difficulties involved in front pointing. The grades are as follows:

  • WI2—around 60-degree low angle, and you only really need an ice axe to climb. All the other levels require at least an ice axe and crampon, plus more.
  • WI3—60-70-degree decline, with a few walls of 4 or 5 feet.
  • WI4—Near vertical slopes (80-degree plane) that can reach 10 meters in length
  • WI4+—dMore technical W14
  • WI5—Near vertical or vertical steps going some 20 meters. You’ll need to use ice screws and the stances a climber finds him or herself in can be uncomfortable.
  • WI5+—More technical WI5
  • WI6—Vertical or overhanging with no rests.
  • WI7—sustained and overhanging with no rests. These almost don’t exist because of the skill required to scale them.

Ice climbers aren’t the most well known bunch, but some have been written about before. Canadian ice climber, paraglider and host of Discovery Channel’s Fearless Planet, Will Gaad, has been profiled by ESPN, and Alpinist.  Perhaps the most well known climber these days is Aron Ralston, the rock climber and mountaineer who cut off his arm when it became wedged under a boulder. The incident led to a book and a film: 127 Hours with James Franco. But Ralston isn’t an ice climber; although, we wouldn’t bet against him becoming one.

 It takes a special person to brave the weather and danger of an ice climb. Every time you go up the side of a waterfall or an iced over cliff, climbers must face extreme conditions, perilous surfaces AND gravity. An ice sheath, frozen waterfall or cavernous ice cliff is a beautiful and scary endeavor for a climber. Ice climbers have to ask themselves a question: Aut vincere aut mori. Will they conquer or die?

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