As I sit here writing this entry I am thirty thousand feet somewhere above the Pacific Ocean on route for Canmore, Alberta, Canada. This area of the Rockies is renowned for many classic icefalls, hard mixed climbs and intimidating free-standing ice pillars. After such a long build up I am stoked to finally get underway. The climbing is still ahead of me as are countless moments of joy, fear, respect, comradery, fun and suffering. Several relationships and climbing partnerships are yet to be formed, many existing ones strengthened.
What does Canada hold in store and what challenges do I expect to find?
I guess I could some it all up in terms of ‘balance’. Like a lot of things in life, the challenges I see immediately in front of me circle around finding the right balance. I am sure you are all familiar with this eternal struggle in your own way. For Canada it will be finding the right balance between pushing my limits and improving my skills on ice while not sustaining an injury that could end the Vertical Year journey rather prematurely. Let me explain…
There is old adage in climbing, “the leader must never fall”. For those not familiar with the history of climbing, this phrase arose in a time where ropes were made of home sewn hemp, sticky rubber was yet to be invented and protection consisted of home-made pitons, wooden stakes, natural rock horns you could sling and of course the tenuous body belay. Under these circumstances, a leader fall would not only be catastrophic for the leader, but for the entire climbing party.
Most modern climbers however find their way into the sport either through indoor gyms or sport climbing. In these disciplines, protection is plentiful, incredibly strong and made to fall on. Thousands of times. Even the world’s best fall dozens of times in the pursuit of their project, so these words don’t mean a lot to most modern Australian climbers. And fair enough too.
Then you go ice climbing.
Ice is in a constant state of change. The internal stresses are unknown and change with the varying ambient conditions. It can be strong, plastic, wet, soft or it can be brittle and crack as you strike it with your tool. Hence the value of your protection is dependent on the ice quality, your ability to judge it and place good screws (hollow tubes of aluminium with coarse threads on the outside to create friction with the surrounding ice). If you get this wrong, there is no guarantee your fall will be halted before hitting the deck.
Now think about how you climb ice. If you have ever seen a picture of someone climbing ice you may have noticed the twenty-four sharp metallic points connected to their feet (via crampons) and two sharp tools grasped in their hands.
Remember these are designed to catch the ice and give you purchase. So if you do fall, even just a minor slip, there is a high likelihood that a crampon point will catch, hold your foot firmly in position while the rest of your body continues to plummet towards the ground. ANY fall on ice is likely to result in a fracture or worse. Any fall.
Suddenly that old adage becomes very important. The leader must never fall.
This can be a hard concept to grasp at first. Easily said, much harder to implement. I love ice climbing and wish to spend the next few months doing as much of it as possible to refine my technique, improve my efficiency and become more competent. Not to mention ticking off some of the most classic climbs Canada has to offer.
However, if I fall and break an ankle or worse, then my year long journey gets cut short very quickly. Finding that balance between pushing hard enough to improve, yet not enough to falter. Creeping ever so close to the line without ever crossing it. That must always be at the forefront of my mind.
Then you have the avalanche hazard.
Ice climbs tend to form in natural funnels. Melt water finds its way there naturally and freezes over. This means that any debris that falls from above, including avalanches tend to find that way into the same natural funnel and will come down on top of you. You must be across the avalanche risk.
I have been reading lots about the unique snow packs that form in Alberta. Avalanche analysis and assessment is a science and one that I do not have an in-depth knowledge of. Thankfully due to modern technology, up-to-date conditions, risk assessments and forecasts are only a mouse click away. I understand how to interpret this information and have done a basic avalanche course however given the unique conditions to be found here, I am strongly considering spending a couple of hundred dollars on a two day Avalanche Skills Training Course (AST 1 & 2).
I am not sure when the next opportunity will come for me to spend such an extended time period focusing on pure ice climbing. I don’t want to waste this opportunity. Yet I don’t want to be incapable of facing the next challenge or return at some point in the future. Like a lot of things in life, finding the balance will be crucial.
If you are interested in giving ice climbing a go, here are a couple of recommendations.
1) Do some reading to understand the risks. Will Gadd has been at the forefront of ice climbing for the last few decades and has written a superb piece on this very subject. I suggest you read it. You can find it here.
2) Learn and understand how to interpret avalanche forecasts. Better still, undertake an avalanche skills training course.
3) Do an ice climbing course with an IFMGA mountain guide. Climbing is a sport where knowledge and skills are built through experience. When its hard to find an experienced partner to mentor you, courses are the best way to go. Here you will learn what a solid tool placement feels like, how to move safely and efficiently, how to place good screws and build bomb proof anchors. Adventure Consultants run fantastic courses in New Zealand and is the perfect way to start.
4) Take it easy. Start easy and slowly work up the grades. Just because you can crush 25+ on rock does not mean you can climb WI5. Ice climbing is not that physically hard, though it is hard all the same. Plus, you don’t want to fall!