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Winter Rock – A Beginner’s Experience of Ice Climbing

The weather grows colder, the mornings are frosty and the car windows are icy, and yet there is still no snow. It’s been almost three weeks since we last saw that fluffy, white gold falling from the sky. Those of us nervously wondering when the season will finally take hold, have heard some rumuors of a winter wonderland in the southern shadow of Single Cone. A place where the snow covers the ground and water lays steep and frozen on the cliffs of the mountain. The long weekend meant that it was a perfect opportunity to meet some new friends and venture into the mountains in search of this early season ice climbing.

Michael and Guy discussing the approach as we leave the ski resort.

It wasn’t quite an alpine start, but 5:30 am still felt plenty early enough to crawl out of bed, drag our packs to the car and head for the Remarkables.  I had my head torch at the ready, but by the time everyone was packed and perked up with coffee, the sun was rising and I put it back in my pack. We started hiking up the ski slopes of The Remarkables Ski Resort. Man made snow crunching under our boots and stinging our faces as the snow guns blasted away. Hiking in ski resorts is hard, it’s always uphill and often pretty steep gradients too. I was sweating heavily and stripped down to base layers before reaching the last chair lift. Eventually we made it to Lake Alta, where we pulled out our ice axes and continued up and over Wye Saddle.

Climbing out of the Lake Alta basin up to Wye Saddle.

We followed a clear trail of footprints over easy ground as we skirted around the east side of single cone. Then suddenly the tracks descended a couloir. I followed my companions lead and strapped on my crampons and armed myself with my second axe. This was my first time using both my Grivel Air Tech ice axe and my Grivel G14 crampons. I was so excited to finally be using these pieces of gear that had been sitting dormant in my room, waiting for winter. As we started descending the couloir, Guy, the only one of our party who had been here before, was worried that the terrain was becoming too difficult or dangerous for me. I appreciated his concern, but I was feeling quite comfortable and happy to continue. In the end the choice was taken out of my hands, and we climbed back up to follow the easier route described in the guide book. Michael and I, who both wanted to go down the couloir, were disappointed as this meant a much more tiring approach and post holing through a boulder field. Soon however the view of magnificent sheets of ice just a few hundred metres away renewed our excitement.

As we reached the base of the cliff another group of climbers were just packing up after two days of climbing. They gave us the beta, telling us where they had already placed V-threads (Cord threaded through holes in the ice for the purpose of rappelling) and where the ice was cracking or rotten. The longer pitch to our left unfortunately had a huge horizontal crack through it which made it quite unsafe. It didn’t matter too much to us though, as having the other shorter pitch to ourselves was more than enough to learn some important ice climbing skills and techniques. Michael was the most experienced ice climber in our group with three seasons in Canada under his belt. He geared up and began to lead the climb named ‘Touchdown Slabs’ graded WI2.

An overview of the south face. That’s me on ‘Touchdown Slabs’ (WI2).

Thwack! The sound of his axe smacking into the ice sending shards of ice raining down on me like little missiles. With every kick of the crampons and swing of the ice axe, pieces of ice, both large and small continued to rain down around me. Some whistling with speed. A small piece hit my hand and it hurt a fair bit. I was glad for the helmet as other pieces bounced off of it. I shifted my belay stance so that I was more out of the line of fire. Lesson one; Don’t stand directly below the leading climber when belaying.

Michael had to use borrowed crampons and rented boots and had some trouble with their compatibility. He felt quite insecure as the boots were not stiff enough and the crampons were wiggling about as a result. Being an experienced climber of grades up to WI6 it was ultimately an easy climb for him and he soldiered on up the pitch to some bolts halfway where he set up a top rope.

Some shenanigans when we got a knot in the rope caught between the bolts and an ice screw. This is Michael rope soloing with my progress capture device.

Being the dutiful belayer, earned me the next climb. Michael began by teaching me how to move on the ice, swing my axes and kick my feet. He showed me a motion of swinging at the elbow but then following through with the wrist and letting the weight of the axe pierce the ice thus saving me energy.

Going for that solid swing, I was definately weaker in my left arm.

He told me to kick my feet in high with my knee at a 90 degree angle and then to stand up and trust my front points. Lesson two and three.

Getting that nice high kick.

After a few practice swings I stepped up onto the beginning of the slope. I swung an axe and watched as the point buried itself  in the ice. It’s tip only penetrated about half a centimetre into the ice. It didn’t quite seem enough, but Michael told me to trust it. I swung my other axe and watched as a spiders web of cracks appeared around the tip. I swung again and was surprised with how easy it was to hit the same spot. However rather than a firm bite, I was met by an explosion of ice. A few more swings and finally my axe felt buried enough to trust it. I then began kicking a foot into the wall. Instead of a satisfying piercing of the ice with my front points like I had imagined, every kick created a shower of cracked ice. Kicking seems a whole lot more violent than swinging with the axes. It took a lot of misplaced kicks before I felt even remotely secure. Following Michael’s instructions, I finally took two small steps, moved my grip up the axes and then two more steps until the axes were near my waist. I then levered out an axe and began the process all over again.

Climbing up one move at a time.

The ice axes can get quite stuck in the ice and levering them out can take quite a bit of muscle. A few times I felt thrown off balance as the axe broke away. Each time was a rollercoaster moment, as my stomach dropped and my heart leaped into my mouth. Thankfully I managed to stay on the wall each time, even through the steeper section at the top. I had completed my first climb without falling. As I was lowered down I felt triumphant, but also glad that it was over.

Thinking about how I’ll have to lead climbs like this in the future left me feeling quite anxious.

Guy went next, he’s done this before, and then Michael went again, giving me a chance to study both of their techniques. On the upper part of the wall where it was steeper, I struggled to kick straight at the wall because my knee would hit the wall first and get in the way. The others showed me that by leaning out more on the axes, they had more room to kick with. Lesson four.

Michael belaying Guy.

With these new ideas on-board I went again, working hard on trusting my placements more. My second climb took almost half as many kicks and swings to find solid purchase. I used less energy as I focused on a good sequence of movements, and on the steeper head wall I found that leaning out more made a huge difference to how well I could kick my feet in and get solid footing. By the time I was at the top I felt much more confident and comfortable about ice climbing. I began to see that with more practice leading a climb will be possible.

Looking down after my second successful climb.

Michael also taught me a bit about ice screw placements and anchor building. Lessons five and six. However this will require more practice and focus on another day. Guy and I each climbed twice and were quite pumped in the arms from the unfamiliar movements. Michael climbed it another couple of times and then it was time to pack up and leave, so that we weren’t left traversing challenging terrain in the dark.

On our return journey we ended up going up the couloir that we had avoided descending in the morning. It was a technical and serious piece of terrain. That said I felt pretty solid and comfortable on it, which is good news for future mountaineering endeavors.

Guy Climbing up the couloir beneath me.

We made it back to the car just before dark, totally beat. It was an awesome day though and already I’m dreaming about getting back on the ice.

Feel free to leave some feedback in the comments below. Contact me if you’re keen to adventure together and be sure to subscribe via email to never miss out on my latest posts.

Sam
Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

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