A native of Colorado, I find myself quite adventurous. I said yes to backpacking, cliff jumping, climbing, water skiing and hiking. I rode two Black Diamond slopes, slipped down the super high slides in the water park and crashed into a 35 degree reservoir. And while many people in my state are much bigger adrenaline junkies, in general I'm usually willing to do most outdoor activities.
When I recently had the opportunity to try out the niche adventure sport that is ice climbing, I gladly agreed. The offer came from the American Alpine Club host of the February UIAA World Ice Climbing Championship in Denver (201
Before I arrived at the World Cup venue in downtown Denver, I was slightly nervous, but mostly just nervous. Until I actually approached the 40-foot wall of pure ice, which I'll soon climb up and have second thoughts. I first asked myself: How would I pull myself up in this real replica of the Game of Thrones ice wall? Even though I knew I was safe to do so, trying to climb something over a completely vertical, perfectly smooth surface seemed far less safe and much more frightening than the other adventure activities I had tried.
But with expert advice, encouragement, special equipment and personal pep conversations. I was able to get up … for about six minutes. As ephemeral as the experience was, she valued me a lot more for the skills, perseverance, and courage that this extreme sport demands. This is what my own ice climbing attempt looked like, and some details on how ice climbing competitions work, how top athletes train, which makes the sport so damn difficult and much more.
My introduction to ice climbing began when I watched professional athletes perk up in stunning maneuvers at the competition.
The day before my own ice climbing attempt, I visited the World Cup competition to learn first hand from the pros. It came to a shocking sight: a competitor, dangling from a large plywood box hovering about thirty feet in the air, clung to an ice pick in the box with only one hand. The crowd roared as he swung his legs like a pendulum and kicked his studded boots into another plywood box a few feet away.
As I found out, I arrived in the lead event in the middle of the athlete's attempt, one of two events at the Ice Climbing World Cup. In Lead, athletes need only climb to the top of a custom structure with their bodies and special climbing tools. Regardless of what the name Ice Climbing suggests, this structure does not necessarily include ice. The lead structure is changing from competition to competition – some are made of ice, some of plywood and some, as in Denver, will also be a combination (athletes first descended a portion of the vertical ice wall and then climbed onto the plywood structure.)  As the event commentator in Denver explained via the speaker, scaling the plywood fraction is actually much more difficult than scaling ice, as athletes have limited access (these handles are small). different shaped handles, as you would see in a climbing gym). When climbing with ice, on the other hand, athletes can make their choices essentially anywhere, making them dare faster. Regardless of the structure, the goal in Lead is the same: to climb as high as possible within the time limit of four minutes in Denver. This requires a combination of problem solving, skill, strength and flexibility.
In contrast, the speed event is usually done completely on ice and works pretty much as expected – athletes try to climb the vertical ice wall as fast as possible. It's an absolute sprint that requires both strength and agility. Although I did not watch the speed competition live, watching several athletes during the first part of the lead event made me feel good about how it works and how incredibly fast the professionals are able to lift the ice.
How do you get into this niche activity?
While I was at the contest I was chatting with Kendra Stritch an American professional ice climber and 2014 World Champion. And that was the first thing I asked.
Stritch, a former national-level rugby player and competitor, told me that as a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, she started climbing and quickly fell in love with the sport. When she retired to her home state of Minnesota, the self-described "winter person" said it was natural to try cold climbing like ice climbing. As Stritch improved her skills, she began competing and in 2012 she participated in her first Ice Climbing World Cup, which was held in South Korea this year. She has been represented every year on the World Cup circuit (including this year's Denver competition) and was the first American to win a stage in the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour in 2014.
"I think it's really great that it's always like this," Stritch said about the sport, describing the various tracks it encounters in each ice climbing competition, as well as the ever-changing conditions associated with ice climbing in nature ,
That is, Stritch admitted that she did not enjoy the activity on her first attempts. She did not have the right equipment or instructions. She learned to learn the right technique, "makes a big difference." And it's not that complicated, she explained. Rather, there are certain things that make a big difference between being uncomfortable and anxious and confident and stable. (More on the technology in a minute.)
Throughout our conversation, I asked her for my upcoming first attempt. What was most important to me was this: just relax. "Everyone will overwhelm their [ice picks on your] for the first time because they are nervous," she explained. "You do not have to hold your tools as hard as you think, they are only uncomfortable if you have not done so for a long time, so learn to relax [is important]."
The next day I literally and mentally prepared for my own ice climbing attempt.
After a night I thought about Stricht's advice, I woke up early the next day. A huge spider crawled over the kitchen floor at breakfast, and I could not decide if the sight or the ice climbing was frightening me more. In any case, I put on normal training clothes and went back to the ice climbing area. One of the event sponsors Outdoor Research kindly lent me everything I needed. On the underside, this meant a light snow pants over my training gaiters, thick ski socks, a harness and light mountain boots. Dressed up, I wore a long-sleeved shirt, two winter sports jackets, battery-powered, heated gloves (yes, that exist), and a mountaineer's helmet .
I also received a special ice crampon – a spiky traction device – to strap under each boot, and a pair of large ice climbing pimples . that basically felt like raptor claws. With the equipment in position, I was ready to go.
Next came the practical guide. Interestingly, much of the technique felt very uninteresting to me.
Once I was fit, I went to the wall where an ice climbing instructor taught me the basic technique. At first, I practiced swinging my picks into the ice, swinging my elbows forward, and then moving my wrists. My instinct was to swing the picks up and to the side of my body, much like climbing sideways and sideways, but I've learned the ideal placement right in front of your body with a single pick is about shoulder height, the other about a foot above it.
From there I practiced vigorously with my toes against the wall – a good opportunity to avoid pent-up aggression, joked the instructor – with the aim of placing my front spikes firmly in the ice. After several practice sessions in which I swung both my picks and kicked my feet, I was ready to sit on the hook and learn how to put the pieces together.
First, I stood next to the wall and swung my picks into the ice as ice cubes. Then I kicked the wall with both feet, set it to the same height, and spread it farther than her shoulder. Now, with all four limbs connected to the ice, I squeezed my buttock muscles to "stand up" against the wall, which meant that my legs and torso were in a long, straight line and my entire body was parallel to the wall was. This positioning is called an A-frame – the feet serve as a broad, sturdy base and the arms hold a tighter position above the head. I kept repeating this pattern and started my first attempt on the wall.
Within 30 seconds My arms burned. I recalled a comment on Stritch stating that the sport was mainly based on the lower body (the strength was mainly derived from the glutes and hips, she said), and realized that this pain was probably a sign that I pulled too hard with my arms. Although I knew that I used the wrong technique, I had difficulty repairing it because it resisted what my body naturally wanted to do. As a result, I stumbled incorrectly with my feet, swinging my picks out and knocking on my butt, which prevented me from really standing against the wall (and yes, looked extremely awkward). Thanks to this threefold number of errors, I could only move up about 2 meters in about 2 minutes before asking if I should be lowered. As a reference, the Russian Nikolai Kuzovlev needed only 6.48 seconds to climb the entire 40-foot wall. So yes, my first attempt was pretty awful.
But after taking a few minutes to rest and have a pep talk Teacher, I felt ready to try again. This time I repeated the signals for the right technique in the loop in my head and finally climbed twice in about 4 minutes. However, at the height of my ascent, I made the mistake of taking a break to really immerse myself in my surroundings, and suddenly realized that I had a considerable distance from the ground – nothing important, but probably about three meters. This triggered my nerves, and although I tried to stem them again and keep climbing, I did not last much longer. When I sat down on the floor again, I felt at the same time proud, excited and exhausted. I do not think I've ever spent so much energy (mentally and physically) to overcome such a short distance.
Although I did not climb very high or stand on the wall for a long time, some of the experience stayed with me.
Ice climbing is so different from all the other activities I've tried so far (equipment) I am fascinated by the simultaneous mental and physical strength that it requires. The remarkable progress that I made between my two attempts gave me confidence that the first learning curve might be fast. Nevertheless, the sport is still a niche – Stritch mentioned that there are no ice climbing facilities in North America. There are some outdoor spots and " Ice Parks " just appearing waaay more frightening for me. For the time being, I will continue to bask in my six-minute victory and cheer for the professionals from my safe, secure place on the ground.