A week ago, I took part in a four-day winter skills mountaineering course in Scotland. The trip was a lot of fun.
Great group of adventurous people from all types of backgrounds and of all ages, men and women. Only problem was the weather. Not enough snow to actually use ice axe and crampons. Too stormy to attempt the Ben Nevis summit via the ridge. As luck would have it, the day after we left the conditions became perfect.
MORE TIME AT OUR HANDS THAN EXPECTED
We managed to get a fair bit of hiking done nonetheless. However, all days were cut short and we usually returned mid-afternoon, beaten by the hail and gale force winds, but happy. This had the advantage that we now had some leisure time at our disposal.
A LUCKY COINCIDENCE
Our hostel was located at Kinlochleven, about half an hour’s drive from Fort William. The village happens to be home to the UK’s ‘National Ice Climbing Centre’, The Ice Factor. 500 tons of ice on 12m tall vertical walls make it the world’s biggest indoor ice climbing centre.
A large part of the building had burned down in an accidental fire six years ago, but the venue returned with a vengeance. Today it is one of the UK’s adventure sports hotspots.
PLAYGROUND FOR GLADIATORS AND NINJA WARRIORS
Besides the ice wall the centre features indoor rock-climbing, bouldering, a café, a restaurant, and an outdoor, 250m-long, so-called ‘Aerial Adventure’ circuit. The latter has got a similar vibe to TV shows like Total Wipeout, Gladiator, and American Ninja Warrior. You are ten metres above the ground, roped to a rail. Then you have to jump from platform to platform, brachiate through loops sections, swing forward on ropes, and so on.
ICE-CLIMBING TASTER COURSE
Six out of our group of 17 winter mountaineers decided to sign up for the one-hour ice climbing taster course. It costs £39 per person. Each instructor can take on up to four students. One of the other hikers and me, we were on the wall first, together with a middle-aged couple from York. My climbing buddy had done some ice climbing before, several years ago. The rest of us were complete newbies. All of us had done a fair bit of indoor climbing and bouldering, though.
NO PRIOR SKILLS OR EXPERIENCE REQUIRED
The course is open to everyone, regardless of prior experience and skill level. However, if your group of taster trainees have no prior climbing and belaying experience, then the instructor will have to belay you. This means that each of you will get hardly any time on the wall. This is why I’d recommend paying a bit extra and having your own instructor or sharing an instructor with one other climber.
When you register for the taster, you’re being asked if you bring any of your own gear (we didn’t bring any) and what your shoe size is. The recommendation is that even if you have your own gear, you should hire from the centre. It’s included in the price already. More importantly, it enables the centre to attach the crampons to the boots before they are handed over to you. This speeds up the kitting-out process enormously. You arrive 10 minutes before the start of your session, slip into your harness and put on the boots.
ICE TOOL VS. ICE AXE
The ice tools are kept inside the refrigerated chamber. And yes, they are called ice tools. ‘Ice axe’ is the term used to describe the significantly longer, straighter or even completely straight mountaineering/winter hiking piece of equipment. An ice tool is used to climb an ice wall. An ice axe is used like a walking stick when traversing a steep plain or to self-arrest, should you slip.
NOT ALL CRAMPONS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Crampons used for ice climbing are also very different from the ones you use for winter hill-walking. They are what the pros call “much more aggressive”. In ice-climbing competitions you sometimes just have one big nail sticking out at the front and a few jagged edges around the very front of your boots. The crampons used for regular ice climbing usually have two vertical blades at the front, rather than the horizontal ones on mountaineering crampons.
DON YOUR HELMETS
As soon as the climbers from the previous session have left the giant freezer, you don your helmet and walk in. The initial instruction takes just two or three minutes.
LEARNING THE ROPES
You’re being told to ram your feet into the wall in a slight upward angle, so that your toes are higher up than your heel. Your waist should lean close to the wall. Your hands, wrists, and arms shouldn’t normally be exposed to much force or strain. When you swing the ice tools into the wall, you don’t use any force. It’s the swinging motion that gets them up to speed and easily into the wall.
As a beginner, you never pull yourself up on your ice tools. Instead you simply use them to stabilise your body, to keep it from leaning backwards and falling off the wall. Your legs will do all the heavy lifting.
On the first exercise, you climb two or three feet up the wall, then back down. You’re not tied in yet. Then your knowledgeable, friendly instructor will provide some helpful feedback and more guidance. He will ask each of you how confident you are with belaying. The Yorkshire couple were very experienced.
MY CLIMBING BUDDY
My partner, despite his previous ice climbing and indoor climbing experience from many years ago, actually wasn’t that familiar with the belaying technique. He remembered how to tie a double figure of eight, but he did not remember how to insert the rope into the ATC belaying device, or how to attach the ATC to the harness. Obviously this does not in any way reflect badly on him. He is a cool dude, just hadn’t done much belaying lately.
Under normal circumstances I would not have agreed to being belayed by my hiking buddy. However, you only live once, and what were the chances of me passing by massive ice climbing walls again anytime soon.
HOW GOOD DOES YOUR BELAYER NEED TO BE
I’ve done some indoor climbing with my wife, Ellie, who also does not have a lot of experience belaying. However, with regular indoor climbing, I was able to choose routes that I knew I wouldn’t make mistakes on. In a worst case I would’ve grabbed the rope that led down to her. When she abseiled me, I grabbed her side of the rope.
When you do ice-climbing as a newbie, there is a serious risk of falling off the wall. Also, your hands are wrapped around the ice tools, so the likelyhood of managing to grab the other side of the rope are low. The ice tools are attached to your top roping rope, so they won’t fall and hit someone on the ground, but they could hit you. Best not to drop them on a whim.
The set-up at the ice walls is for top roping. This means that the ropes are already dangling from the ceiling all along the walls. Each rope goes through a metal loop at the ceiling. Both ends of each rope reach the ground. You pick each end of the rope up.
GETTING ALL SET UP
I tied myself into one end of the rope with a double figure of eight. Then I set up the belaying device for my partner at the other end of the rope. He still seemed to remember how to do the actual belaying. Hand down unless when pulling in rope. Never to let go of the dead man’s end , etc.
The dead man’s end is called dead man’s end, because if you let it go, even just for one second, then that’s what you might end up with. The belaying device will not stop the rope from running through your device, unless you hold the end of the rope. It only adds enough friction to stop it from moving when you hold the end of the rope tight while your arm points downward, away from the climber.
I told the instructor that I’m not entirely comfortable relying on my hiking buddy for the belaying, as he was a bit out of practice. It also turned out that I weighed almost twice as much as my partner, which would make belaying significantly more challenging. My instructor said not to worry. He asked my buddy a few knowledge- and skill-based questions on how to belay, what to do in each circumstance. My buddy was able to answer all questions correctly.
A COUPLE OF PRACTICE ROUNDS
The instructor then went through a few physical practice moves with my belayer, correcting some of his movements slightly. In the end he appeared to be satisfied that my belayer was going to be up for the job.
When the instructor saw my troubled look, he assured me “Don’t worry, I’ll be holding the end of the rope.”
So I went for one last double-check of the gear. In principle, top-roping is super-safe. The belayer is supposed to keep the rope fairly tight. This means that if you fall, you only fall half a metre, maybe a metre. And it will be a soft landing, because you are using a dynamic rope. If you know you’re going through a difficult section, then you signal to your belayer to keep the rope even tighter than usual.
SURPRISINGLY EASY TO GET UP THE WALL
Like nearly everyone in our group of mostly newbies, I was truly shocked how easy it is to get up those walls with your ice tools and your crampons. It takes very little practice to do it. For the avoidance of doubt: I’m talking about getting up the walls at the Ice Factor during a taster session. I do realise that ice climbing as a sport is an extreme sport, very dangerous, and certainly not best described as easy.
EASY, UNLESS YOU DO IT PROPERLY OUTDOORS, OF COURSE
Out there in the wild you use two ropes and very sophisticated safety equipment, but still you make every possible effort to avoid taking unnecessary risks and to avoid a fall. There is a serious risk that both your anchors are going to break out of the ice if you do fall, in which case, sayonara, see you on the other side. A two-metre long, two-hundred pound icicle breaks off just above you and takes you out. Heck, the whole frozen waterfall or bits of it can crumble and fall off the rock wall beneath it. With you on it.
I’ve met more than a handful of experienced rock climbers and mountaineers who told me that they are not crazy enough to try their hand at (proper outdoor) ice climbing.
NEXT TO NO ICE IN ICE-CLIMBING COMPETITIONS
One of the most fascinating aspects of ice climbing to me is that it is so hard to actually get to do it outdoors. Ice climbing competitions are not being held on ice walls, they are being held on plywood walls. Those walls usually also include some actual ice blocks, some holds not dissimilar to those used in indoor climbing gyms, and some holds made specifically for ice tools.
MAKING MY WAY UP THE WALL
Back to the taster session. So I was making my way up the wall at a pretty good speed without any major incidents. When I’m about seven metres up the wall, I look down and there is no instructor holding the end of the rope. I realise now that what the instructor meant when he said that he’d be holding the end of the rope, was: he’d hold it when I was going to be lowered down.
PLAYING IT SAFE
After short deliberation, I decided that this was enough excitement for me for one day. I called the instructor over and asked him to hold the dead man’s end of the rope while my hiking buddy was going to lower me back to the ground. I asked for the rope to be tightened to the maximum extent possible. I confirmed that I was good to lean back. Then I leaned back.
YOUR POINT OF VIEW MATTERS
What followed will be described differently, depending on your location at the time. My hiking buddies who were watching from outside the tall window panes, would call the situation “hilarious” and “funny”.
My instructor and my belaying partner would describe it as “not to worry, we’ve always had your back.”
I felt slightly less exhilarated about watching my belaying partner being lifted more than a metre off the ground while I fell a marginally longer distance down. In the end it was all safe. The instructor would’ve caught me even if my hiking buddy would’ve let loose of the rope.
IN THE END A WHOLE LOT OF FUN
Would I do this again? Hell yeah… anytime. If I’d live near Kinlochleven, I’d get a membership pass and go ice climbing several times a week. It really is that much fun. 3.75 out of 5 in my book.
In hindsight, it would have been my job to make sure that I understand my climbing buddy’s abilities properly, especially with regards to his belaying skills. When at registration, we all had been asked if we have previous climbing and belaying experience, we had all correctly given affirmative answers. However, not everyone who’s done some climbing is a confident belayer. That was my bad.
Looking for more outdoor adventures? Check out my posts about skydiving, white-water kayaking, caving in Somerset, caving in the Yorkshire Dales, canyoning, quad biking, rally-driving, moto-cross, rock-climbing, or my rides on a hot air balloon, a powerboat, a jetlev, and a jetski.