Ice Climbing in Europe’s Ice Climbing Capital: Rjukan, Norway

Ellie & I did some ice climbing in Rjukan, Norway, earlier this year, in mid-January. And we thoroughly enjoyed it. We booked the two-day climbing course and accommodation via SkyHook (£340 per person), with whom we had previously done some hiking on Mount Toubkal.

FLIGHTS, ACCOMMODATION & TRANSPORT IN NORWAY NOT INCLUDED

Several of the other participants came in groups. They were old friends, work buddies, and there was one other married couple. The flights from London and bus transport or rental car from Oslo to Rjukan and back had to be booked privately by all participants, which is fine, of course. Same with any additional accommodation in Rjukan & Oslo.

INSURANCE NOT CHEAP

We learned only afterwards, that insurance can be bought much cheaper than the £90 per person that we had spent. Mind you, though, it will never be cheap, and you can bet that the regular travel insurance that you might already have in place, will not cover it. Even the insurance that we had purchased for high-altitude trekking and rock-climbing would not have covered it.

  

[Spot the climber on the top right hand side in the first picture.]

A COURSE FOR ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS

The course we booked was for absolute beginners. No prior ice-, rock-, or indoor climbing experience required. No minimum fitness level or skills of any kind necessary. Skyhook do offer an advanced ice climbing course, too, but we would not have qualified for that one. Just to mention it, a friend of mine has completed the advanced course, which is for a whole five days, and speaks very highly of the experience.

HIRE EQUIPMENT

All ice climbing specific equipment, such as two ice tools, a pair of crampons, rope, belay device, quickdraws, ice screws, carabiners and helmets, is being provided. The cost is included in the package.

GEAR HAS TO BE ICE CLIMBING SPECIFIC

It’s worth noting that the mountaineering ice axes and crampons that you might already own, will not be suitable for ice climbing. Same with everything else such as the rope and belay device. One thing that you could bring, if you like, is a rock-climbing helmet, if you own a good traditional one. Don’t bring any of those new-style Styrofoam ones which have just a thin plastic cover on the top section. Helmets do take up a lot of space in the luggage and you might want to go for a bigger size than usual in order to fit a beanie or two beneath it.

I think I was the only one who brought their own mountaineering boots. In hindsight, unnecessary. I should have used hire boots.

 

TYPE OF ROUTES CLIMBED

All routes we climbed during the two days of the course, were single pitch. This means that they involved only one rope-length. The gradients were from 45 Degrees to vertical. Lengths of the routes varied between 8m and 30m. In the WI (for “Water Ice”) grading system, there are 8 levels of difficulty ranging from WI1 for “Low angle/Can be climbed without ice tools” to WI8, the most difficult level, which has only been claimed for a handful of routes so far. Some climbers don’t consider WI8 a real-world grade and say the current scale ends with WI7.

   

GRADES OF THE ROUTES CLIMBED

The routes we climbed tended to be mainly WI3s, with a few WI4s thrown in for good measure. WI4s are considered to be the highest grade that any beginner could hope to top-rope, even on a good day.

LONGEST ROUTES IN THE VALLEY

In other parts of the valley, there are routes of up to 800m length, involving 17 rope-lengths. Clearly, only very strong ice-climbers would attempt such a long route. This was not for us.

TOP-ROPING…

Like all beginner courses, our course was all about top-roping. The instructors feed a rope through a so-called anchor at the top of the route. Each trainee ice-climber then partners up with one other person, ideally of similar weight. One of them inserts one of the two ends of the rope into their belaying device. The other one ties into the other end of the rope.

…VERSUS LEAD CLIMBING

‘Proper’ ice climbing is all about so-called lead climbing. One climber leads, the other one follows. The lead climber puts ice screws into the ice, then attaches the quickdraws (two carabiners attached to each other with a rigid strap) to the screws, then clips the rope into the outer carabiners of the quickdraws.

 

MULTI-PITCH LEAD CLIMBING

The other climber initially belays the lead-climber. When the lead climber reaches the end of the pitch/rope-length, he sets up a so-called belaying station, then starts belaying his or her mate, while they climb up to the belaying station. When that’s done, the lead-climber starts ascending the 2nd pitch, while his buddy belays him. And so on.

HUGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TOP-ROPING AND LEAD CLIMBING

The differences between lead climbing and top-roping are huge. When you top-rope, the distance you fall is a lot shorter.

LEAD CLIMBERS FALL FAR

When you lead-climb, you can fall extremely far. Even when you fall while the last screw is at your waist, you can fall surprisingly far, before the rope starts to tighten and reduce the speed of your fall until it stops you. In top-roping the belayer can constantly pull the rope in very tightly, while in lead-climbing the belayer needs to give some slack, to allow the climber to move freely and to minimise the risk of accidentally pulling the climber off the wall.

   

[That’s me here.]

SCREWS PLACED FAR APART

Often you’re in an awkward, uncomfortable, or strenuous position when you place an ice screw. Sometimes it is difficult to find good spots. And apart from that, ice screws are heavy and expensive (around 180g & £60 per screw). For all those reasons, they are commonly used fairly far apart from each other. At least as soon as the climber is ten metres off the ground or belaying station. It is not uncommon, for placements further up, to be four or five metres apart.

If a lead climber falls, when five metres above the last point of protection, then he falls ten metres before any slack in the rope starts reducing.

SLACK, ELASTICITY OF THE ROPE

The slack can easily add another two metres, which adds up to be twelve metres. Only then will the elasticity of the rope come into play. Now ice climbing ropes are significantly more elastic than regular climbing ropes, in order to minimise the risk of sudden hard pulls that might break the ice. Depending on a number of factors, this can potentially more than double the length of some falls.

   

[And the missus, doing her thing.]

INSANELY LONG FALLS

To give an example: if, say, a total of thirty metres of rope are involved, belay device to harness, then this could add an extra six metres to the fall. Instead of twelve metres, the climber will fall eighteen metres, before coming to a stop. That’s the height of a six-storey building.

SHORT FALLS

By comparison, in top-roping you fall half a metre up to maybe one and a half metres tops, if the belayer keeps the rope tight.

AVOID FALLS IN LEAD CLIMBING AT ANY COST

Even in top-roping, you should try hard to avoid falls, as they are still dangerous. In lead climbing it is absolutely ultra-important to religiously avoid any falls at any cost. Usually that means climbing routes that are relatively easy for you. You also pay even more attention to the placement of your crampons and ice-tools than you would worry about the placement of your hands and feet in rock-climbing.

WILL GADD: 35 YEARS OF PROFESSIONAL ICE CLIMBING, ZERO FALLS

One of the world’s most prominent ice climbers, Will Gadd, has not fallen once during his 35 years of lead climbing on ice. Not a single time. It blows my mind.

 

In rock-climbing it’s not uncommon to fall every now and then. Especially in sport climbing, you don’t expect to fall more than five or six metres max in most lead falls. All the bolts have been permanently and safely placed in the rock, usually about two metres apart. If you’re close to the last bolt, your fall will be significantly shorter. The very vast majority of lead falls in rock-climbing do not result in more than a few scratches and blue and black marks, if that.

LEAD FALLS IN ICE CLIMBING ARE EXTREMELY DANGEROUS

In stark contrast, around two thirds of lead falls in ice climbing result in serious injury such as ripped tendons, broken bones, or worse. Even on low-angle terrain, you’ll gain speed very quickly if you fall. As soon as one of the points of one of your crampons hits the ice, complex bone fractures are likely. Simply because of the shock to the system and the twisting motion.

MY CLIMBING BUDDY’S PINKY FINGER

One of my indoor climbing buddies is an experienced and ambitious ice-climber. He usually goes ice climbing four or five times a year, sometimes for a whole week in one go. During one of his last trips, falling ice narrowly missed his helmet but cut off half of the pinkie finger on his right hand. He also took away multiple broken bones and lacerations.

30 SHARP KNIFE BLADES AND SOME ROPE

Think of your two ice tools as two sharp knife blades, and of your crampons as a combined 28 sharp knife blades. You might be dozens or hundreds of metres above the ground and all that would save you in case of a fall are one or two ropes. (Two parallel ropes are sometimes used in order to add extra safety, so that if one rope gets accidentally cut, the other one is still able to hold a climber’s fall.)

   

WHEN THE WIFE FEELS ADVENTUROUS

So, to be clear, I had been rather surprised when Ellie told me that she wanted to go ice climbing. She knew the story of my climbing partner. I had also told her about the dangers involved. However, turns out that one of Ellie’s girlfriends had done the beginners course. Naturally, Ellie couldn’t fall behind.

ELLIE’S PRIOR CLIMBING EXPERIENCE

Ellie had done the one-day induction course to indoor top-roping at my climbing gym. Then she had gone climbing there with me on one occasion, bouldering on another day. And she had done a three-hour outdoor climbing course on the Isle of Portland. Other than that, she had zero experience.

OTHER PARTICIPANTS’ PRIOR CLIMBING EXPERIENCE

The other people in our small group had all done a fair bit of climbing. Three of them had done pretty difficult multi-pitch routes. No one had done any ice climbing before. I had done two hours of indoor ice climbing on top-rope, but that doesn’t really count. My outdoor rock-climbing experience is very limited. Just a few days in Snowdonia, Llangollen, Swanage, the Isle of Portland, and Portugal.

   

ARRIVAL IN OSLO, HOTEL

Our plane landed in Oslo late at night on a Wednesday evening. Luckily passport control and luggage pick-up went very smoothly. Half an hour after touch-down we were already on the high-speed train to Oslo Central Station, a ride of only around twenty minutes. Our hotel, the four-star Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel, is literally right next to the station. This meant less than ten minutes’ walk from the platform to our accommodation.

BUS RIDE TO RJUKAN

The next morning, we walked back to the station and hopped on a bus to Rjukan. After three hours we arrived in Europe’s ice climbing capital. We had told the bus driver where to drop us off, and luckily the on-demand stop was just a stone’s throw away from Rjukan Old School (‘Dale Skole’), our bunkhouse.

 

RJUKAN OLD SCHOOL, OUR HOSTEL

The former elementary school is not just a hostel, but also an ice climbing school. One of the assistant instructors welcomed us warmly and showed us our room. We had paid a very reasonable €70 extra to upgrade from 10-bed dormitory to a room for two, and to add one night.

BASIC, BUT GOOD VALUE

Truth be told, the room wasn’t great. We would have been much better off in the big dormitory. But no worries. In essence our bed was a self-built two-storey bunk bed, but the upper bed was at a weird angle to the lower bed, and much smaller. We decided that we would both share the lower, slightly larger bed. The upper bed we used to store our clothes and gear, which came in handy, in absence of any wardrobe or cupboard, and just two short shelves at our disposal.

LARGE LIVING ROOM

The whole building is very basic in terms of furniture & facilities, but we had known this from the pictures on the internet and SkyHook’s package description. We loved that the living room was gigantic in size and combined with a large kitchen with several electric stoves/ovens and a microwave.

   

PREPARING OUR OWN SANDWICHES AND MEALS

During the next three and a half days, everyone stocked up in the local supermarket and cooked for themselves. We made scrambled eggs with shredded ham and pan-fried onions for breakfast, microwave dishes like lasagna and fish pie for dinner. Everyone brought their own lunch sandwich and snacks to the frozen waterfalls.

SOME SNOWSHOEING

On the afternoon of the day of our arrival, we hired snowshoes from the School and did two hours of snowshoeing near the hostel, which was fun. Surprisingly easy and efficient, even though we did fall over a couple of times.

 

NO SKIING FOR THE BARBARIANS

The plan for the following day, Friday, had been to go downhill & cross-country skiing in the Gausta Ski Resort, about 11km drive on a road with plenty of switchbacks from the hostel, 3km as the crow flies. However, the ski resort shuttle that everyone was telling us about did not arrive at the bus station where we were waiting, for some reason. We waited for one scheduled bus and then again for another one, an hour later, but nada. Niente. Later that day we saw two shuttles pass by us, but couldn’t be bothered to try again.

EXPLORING TOWN, HIKING, SWIMMING, TRAIL RUNNING

In the end we decided to explore Rjukan and the nearby hills. We also checked out the town’s lovely, large public indoor swimming pool, and I did some trail running.

   

NORWAY’S TELEMARK REGION

Rjukan has an amazing geography, micro-climate, and history. It is located in the Telemark region, which gave its name to the so-called Telemark skiing technique, a combination of Nordic and Alpine skiing which originated there.

THE VESTFJORDDALEN VALLEY

The town is located in the long and narrow Vestfjorddalen Valley, which is surrounded by unusually steep, partially vertical, cliffs. Because of this set-up and the short winter days up north, all of the town and many of the waterfalls never get any direct sunlight during the cold season. This means that despite the relatively low elevation of roughly 300m (town square) to 1,100m a.s.l., the waterfalls which can be found everywhere on the cliffs surrounding the valley, freeze early and stay solidly frozen for several months. The mountain Gaustatoppen, slightly further away from the rim of the valley, reaches a height of almost 1,900m, and can be seen from most locations in the valley.

GIANT MIRRORS REDIRECT THE SUNLIGHT ONTO THE MARKET SQUARE

To make sure that the 3,000 residents don’t all die off from vitamin D deficiency, three giant mirrors were installed above the valley. Computer-operated, electric motors are used to change the angle of the mirrors during the day, to always redirect the maximum amount of sunlight onto Rjukan’s market square. The idea of giant mirrors had been conceived by the town’s founder, Sam Eyde, in 1913, but was only realised exactly 100 years later, when advances in technology made it more feasible.

   

HYDROELECTRIC POWER PLANTS

Naturally, the reason why there are so many waterfalls, including a giant one called Rjukan Falls, has to do with the amount of water in the region. The excessive supply of this resource led to the construction of several hydroelectric power plants in the early 20th century and, indeed, the founding of Rjukan itself.

FERTILIZER PLANT USING HEAVY WATER

In turn, the now readily available, vast amounts of cheap electricity led to the construction of a fertilizer production plant, which relied on the local production of so-called heavy water. However, the latter can equally be used to produce isotopes for the production of nuclear bombs.

COMMANDO OPERATION GUNNERSIDE – NO NUKES FOR NAZIS

In order to stop the Nazis from accruing large amounts of heavy water during Norway’s occupation in WWII, Norwegian commandos were dropped near the plant with parachutes. In Operation Gunnerside, the plant was sabotaged and later bombed by Allied airplanes, ensuring that the heavy water production was halted. When the Germans tried to move the remaining heavy water to Germany, Norwegian resistance fighters sank the ferry carrying the material over near-by Lake Tinn.

THE REST OF OUR GROUP ARRIVES, BRIEFING SESSION

On Friday evening, one and a half days after us, the rest of our group arrived. At 7pm a briefing session was held by the instructors. We were all walked through the schedule for the next two days, Saturday and Sunday. The pick-up and adjustment of the hire equipment was explained, and we all received some safety training and learned the applicable rules.

 

LUCKY WITH THE WEATHER

Not least of all, we learned that the weather was going to be extremely favourable. A mere two weeks ago it had been -22C (-8F) at the waterfalls, slightly higher up from the valley’s floor, where the town was located. We were going to be blessed with temperatures around freezing point. The average temperatures in January and February tend to be around -7C (19F) during the daytime, much colder during the night.

VERY EARLY START

The next morning we all got up at 5:45am, washed ourselves, had breakfast. Then at 7am we were all queuing in the basement of the building to receive our hire gear and to get it adjusted for us. After the instructors checked everyone’s gear, we took the crampons off again, packed everything in the vehicles, and left the hostel for the ice at around 8am.

RIDE-SHARING

It is customary on those trips that everyone who came by car, offers rides to those who came by public transport. The distances to the climbing locations are very short. In our case, the distance on the first day was 5 minutes (3km), the one on the second day was 15 minutes (9km).

BANTER WITH THE SCOTS

We ended up sharing a car with two friendly ladies from Scotland. Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, shared our love for hiking, one was an ultra-runner, like me. The rides seemed even shorter than they were, because we were always involved in lively chats and banter.

   

FIRST DAY OF CLIMBING: OZZIMOSIS

On the first day we climbed at Ozzimosis, a wordplay on Black Sabbath’s frontman and osmosis, a process by which molecules of a solvent traverse through a semipermeable membrane. As with most names of climbing routes, we don’t know why precisely it got the name. The crag is a mere five minutes’ walk from the road where climbers park their cars.

CLOSE SUPERVISION, TO START WITH

At the beginning, we were very closely supervised. At first, the instructors showed us all the moves and what to avoid. Then we each got a chance at belaying and climbing ourselves. Initially, the instructors always stood behind the belayers and held the end of the rope. Should a belayer mess up, for example, by letting go of the dead end of the rope, then the instructor would still be able to stop the fall.

GRADUALLY LESS HAND-HOLDING

Once the instructors had developed a better understanding of everyone’s skills, then the experienced climbers among us were no longer being supervised, while those with less climbing experience were either supervised by the instructors or by the more experienced students.

 

ELLIE’S ACCIDENT

Almost all routes we climbed on the first day were very short and easy. Unfortunately, Ellie’s hand was hit by a large piece of falling ice. Despite the fact that she had been wearing thick gloves, the bruise was quite significant and painful. I am so proud of Ellie, that she simply took a couple of paracetamols and continued with climbing as if nothing had happened. It took three months until the hand had fully recovered.

A FEW FURTHER, MINOR INCIDENTS

There were a few other incidents of minor falls, usually by the same two suspects. They were among the better climbers, but they simply pushed themselves harder than the rest of us, taking more risks. The longest fall was perhaps two metres. The worst injuries were minor lacerations, cuts, bruises, and black and blue marks. One guy cut one of his ski trouser legs open with one of his crampons on a thirty inch long stretch, almost the full length of the leg.

A MISSING TOE NAIL

A lady in our group had mentioned during the first day, that her feet don’t feel great, with all the hammering against the ice. On the second day, one of her toe nails fell off. That’s a very common occurrence among ultra runners. I hadn’t heard of this happening among ice climbers.

CLIMBING SERIOUS GRADES

We were surprised how quickly we all made progress. It’s easy to forget that top-roping isn’t the way ice climbing is normally done. Climbing our first WI4s filled us with euphoria. This is a grade that serious ice-climbers climb. It almost felt like we were in the same league, or at least almost there. In actual fact, we were of course a million miles away from becoming proper ice-climbers. But nothing wrong with being in good spirits and enjoying ourselves.

 

EARLY NIGHT

In the evening we were all rather tired. We had dinner and a couple of drinks, then fell into our respective beds. The next morning was another early start.

DAY TWO OF ICE CLIMBING: KROKAN

This time we went to Krokan. Interestingly, this Norwegian word means “to croak” in English. Luckily none of us novice ice-climbers croaked that day. The crag is no more than 15 minutes’ walk from the parking lot.

Krokan is nearly twice as big as Ozzimosis, with more than 50 routes. It is also significantly higher up, at 750 as opposed to 475m a.s.l. The sheer beauty of the frozen waterfalls is mesmerising. There is much more open space than at Ozzimosis, even though most of it was not walkable because of boulders and other obstructions.

SOME OF THE MOST DIFFICULT ROUTES

Just like with Ozzimosis, the routes there are all single-pitch. But the average difficulty level is higher and the routes are longer. Many of the most difficult and legendary routes of the valley are located on these waterfalls.

 

FALLING ICE

Very early on we experienced extensive and very scary falling ice on one of the routes. Some of the bullet-shaped blocks were more than a metre long and perhaps 30cm in diameter. They must have easily weighed more than 40kg. Due to the nature of that part of the crag’s bottom end, it was impossible to stand more than five metres away from the wall. There were boulders and a small half-frozen stream. The falling ice exploded into dozens of smaller projectiles as soon as it hit the frozen ground or ledges further above.

A BLACK EYE

Another incident happened just an hour in, too. One of the students fell, while in an awkward position with the blade of one of the two ice tools very close to his head. While he was falling, the point of the blade hit the ice and made the whole ice tool bounce back with force, straight into the climber’s face. Several of us, including myself, were watching the accident happen.

At first I feared that he might have permanently destroyed one of his eyes. Fortunately the frontal bone beneath his eye brow took the main force of the blow. For the rest of the trip and a couple of weeks to come, he would have a black eye, no doubt. But he didn’t sustain any permanent damage.

 

AN ASCENT WITHOUT ICE TOOLS

In the afternoon, with the sun out and moods brightening up, a lot more friendly banter could be heard in the crag. On one occasion, some fellow group members teased one of the instructors. “I bet you couldn’t get up this easy route without using your ice tools, could you?”

The route was a vertical WI4, even though a rather short one, perhaps 8 or 9 metres. In lead climbing this would be considered a proper route for reasonably experienced climbers. In top-roping, everything is a lot safer, of course.

The instructor didn’t fuss about. He put his two ice tools on the ground and made his way up the route much faster than any of us who were using tools. Well done there. As the picture is one of the few ones showing a climber close-up on a vertical wall, it was chosen as the feature image of this blog post.

TAKING IT EASY

I regularly struggled to make it all the way to the top of each route. However, I usually made it two thirds or three quarters up, which was fine in my book. Having watched the accidents, I didn’t feel like pushing myself too hard. I tried to focus on avoiding mistakes.

 

MORE FOCUS ON TECHNIQUE

The first day had largely focused on getting all participants to enjoy some ice climbing safely, without too much attention to optimising the technique. Luckily, on the second and final day of the course, the assumption was that participants had learned the basic safety rules. This meant that the instructors could spend a lot more time on technique.

SAFE BELAYING

As with rock-climbing, the belayer should never let go of the so-called dead end of the rope. Different from ice-climbing, you should be standing as far from the wall as possible, within reason. This is to avoid getting hit by falling ice.

ICE-FALL

Ice-fall is not a risk. It is a certainty. And it is frequent. This is why most experienced ice climbers don’t shout “Ice falling!” when they break some ice loose. They expect everyone who is within the impact area to constantly have their eyes on the wall above them and know when to  or duck away or jump out of the way of any falling objects. Sometimes the belayer can find a boulder or large ice block behind which to stand. He or she can then duck further behind it when ice falls closely to him.

 

ATTACHING THE ICE-TOOLS TO THE HARNESS

Attaching the ice-tools to the harness seems to be getting out of fashion, even though it is definitely my preference to do so. I guess the idea is that there should never be a risk of an ice tool falling, so there should be no need to attach it. However, while the risk of a tool falling should indeed be close to zero (you should always hammer it into the ice super-safely, before letting go of it to place an ice screw or whatever), it will never be exactly zero.

I’d rather not risk accidentally getting my ice tool stuck into my belayer’s or a bye-stander’s skull. But maybe that’s just me. Also, losing an ice-tool is not just a risk for the people below you, but it could also be dangerous, potentially fatal for the climber himself. On a multi-pitch far from civilisation it might not be possible to safely make your way upward or back down with only one ice-tool.

TOES-UP?

You think you’re too young to go toes-up? Think again. In ice climbing the natural instinct for most people is to keep the soles of the feet at a horizontal or even slightly downward angle. However, your toes should be higher than your heels.

   

LET THE SPIKES GO DEEP INTO THE WALL

This is because you’ll maximise the available length of the spikes at the front of the crampons that are going into the ice. At a downward angle the caps of your heavy mountaineering boots might hit the ice first, preventing the spikes from getting a good grip. It is also much less energy consuming, not to have to hold your feet at a downward or horizontal angle. Instead, you just let gravity do its job and you sink down on your heels.

WAIST CLOSE TO THE WALL

Most of the time, you want your waist to be close to the wall. However, when you place your feet, you make an exception and visually check for the best placement before and while you’re hammering your crampons into the ice.

ICE TOOLS AND FEET NEVER ON THE SAME HORIZONTAL LINE

You always have your ice tools placed at slightly different heights on the wall. This is because ice tends to break along horizontal lines, and you want to increase your chances that at least one ice tool stays buried in the wall when some ice breaks off. The same goes for your feet.

TREAT THE ROPE WITH GREAT RESPECT

While it blows my mind how sturdy modern ice climbing ropes are, you should always treat them with the greatest respect. Never get the blades of your ice tools or the spikes of your crampons too close to them. There is a good chance that you won’t cause any damage if you accidentally step on a rope, but it’s not something you want to find out.

TREAT YOUR CRAMPONS WITH CARE

Just like when we attempted Mount Toubkal with SkyHook last year, there was yet another incident when one crampon fell off. This time around, it could be recovered and fitted back onto the boot of the climber who lost it. (Last time, no such luck.)

I also initially had not realised how sensitive the spikes are. In mixed terrain I hadn’t paid particular attention to make sure that they never hit rock. But then the instructors made it clear to me that they had no intention of spending half an hour in the work shed to sharpen the blunt spikes of my crampons.

GET PURCHASE QUICKLY

You often see beginners keeping on hammering and hammering at the same location with their ice-tools or crampons. Much depends on the quality of the ice, of course. But seasoned mountaineers usually only take two or three swings or kicks before they achieve perfect purchase.

KEEP A GOOD VERTICAL DISTANCE BETWEEN FOOT AND ICE-TOOL PLACEMENTS

Many of us novice ice climbers, including myself, regularly placed the ice tools too low above the feet. This made it hard or impossible to keep the waist close to the wall and often resulted in very awkward body positions. There should be a good vertical distance between foot and ice-tool placements, so that your body is almost, but not entirely stretched. You still need to be able to lean away from the wall when you are looking for the best foot placements and while you’re hammering your crampons into the ice.

 

YOU’LL NEED TO DRESS UP MUCH WARMER THAN FOR OTHER ACTIVITIES

Ice climbers need to dress up much warmer than, say, hikers or mountain bikers would at the same temperatures and in the same conditions. This is because ice climbing, like regular climbing, involves a lot of periods of very little movement, while you’re belaying your partner. It is still beyond me how some groups of novices survive their beginner ice climbing courses in Rjukan while battling with strong winds at -20C or below.

MITTENS VS GLOVES

All of us got real cold at times, despite the toasty temperatures around freezing point and our warm winter clothes. Most mittens won’t work well with ice-tools, because they are too big to fit snugly around the grips and to allow a tight, precise, controlled grip. I was very pleased with my super-warm but comparatively thin finger mittens. They look like regular mittens, except that the pointing finger is separately insulated from the thumb and the main pocket for the remaining three fingers of each hand.

TAKE IT EASY ON YOUR ARMS AND HANDS

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 the blades up to full rotating speed and easily into the ice.

DUDE, RELAX

Beginners always tend to tense too much. It is much better to relax. Don’t grip your ice tool too tightly, you’ll only exhaust your arms, wrists, and hands. We were told that for longer routes it is important to learn how to obtain rest positions on the ice. In those situations you should try to shake your arms out before moving on to the next sequence of moves.

 

WHICH KNOTS DO YOU NEED TO LEARN TO TIE

The only knot you need to learn as a novice is really the figure of eight knot, which is also used in rock climbing. It is this knot that you use to tie yourself in, before each climb. Everyone in our group had already been familiar with the knot, but if you are not, then you can easily learn it on the day. Better even, learn it before your trip by watching a few YouTube videos.

THE COLOUR OF THE ICE AND THE SOUND WHEN HITTING IT

The colour of the ice and the sound when hitting it can give you valuable clues about the quality of the ice and the safety of any placement of your tools or feet. For example, hollow, thin or bad-quality ice does make a very different sound to solid, thick ice. Ideally you look for slightly blue-coloured ice.

NEVE IS GOOD AND BAD

So-called neve, hard snow formed by multiple freeze/thaw cycles, usually provides good axe placements, but can be entirely useless for placing an ice screw.

BULGES VS. INDENTS

You should always try to place your ice tools in indents in the ice rather than on the cusp of bulges. If you go on a route that has recently been climbed, then it’s usually a good idea to stick with the placements of your predecessors.

 

THE LEGS SHOULD DO ALL THE HEAVY LIFTING

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. It should be your legs that will do all the heavy lifting.

AS SLOW AS NECESSARY, AS FAST AS POSSIBLE

Ice climbing is very energy consuming. You want to be as fast as possible, without compromising on safety. Experienced ice climbers develop a smooth and steady rhythm in their movements as they go up the frozen waterfalls.

SOMEONE GETS STUCK UP ON THE WATERFALL WITH A FROZEN ROPE

Towards the end of the day, it had gotten darker and colder again, one of the novice climbers in our route got stuck two thirds up on one of the bigger waterfalls. The rope had frozen stiff around the anchor loop, when she had taken five minutes rest. It must have gotten wet from melting water or something.

At first the instructors tried to get the frozen rope unstuck, by pulling on the belayer’s end of the rope as well as by instructing the climber to do the same from her end. Different pulling patterns were tried out and then just as quickly dismissed. Nothing seemed to help.

A SUCCESSFUL RESCUE MISSION

In the end, one of the instructors asked me to belay him on the parallel top-rope, so that he could reach the climber who had got stuck. I inserted the rope into my belay device and pulled out the slack, while the instructor tied into the other end. We checked each other and our gear, as always, then the instructor went up the ice wall.

[The rescue mission.]

A STUDENT IS VERY ATTACHED TO THE TEACHER

As expected, it only took the teacher a couple of minutes to reach his student. He used a quickdraw to connect his harness to hers. Then, with their combined efforts, they were able to break the rope free, so it could run smoothly through the anchor loop again. The instructor and student remained connected via the quickdraw, while her belayer and I lowered the two of them back to the ground. Everyone, including the fellow student, took the whole experience with a sense of delight and excitement. A story to tell the folk back home at the pub.

 

JOB DONE – NO WORRY

No one at any stage felt worried or scared. We had full trust in our instructors. And while it is highly unusual for ropes to freeze stiff around the anchor loop, it can happen if a novice takes a long break. Modern ropes are very hard to damage, and after a quick visual inspection we continued to use the same top rope without any issues for the rest of the day.

ICE CLIMBING TAKES SOME SERIOUS ENERGY

I’m usually someone who tries to get the absolute maximum value out of any activities Ellie & I book. However, ice climbing, especially with a non-refined technique like mine, can be rather exhausting. The pain in Ellie’s hand had increased throughout the day, even though she wouldn’t let anyone in on it. So for the last hour of the day’s climbing session, neither Ellie nor I did much climbing. We watched those who were still going up the waterfalls, took a few more pictures, and simply enjoyed the serene scene.

  

WOULD WE BE DOING IT AGAIN?

Did we enjoy our ice climbing trip with SkyHook? Hell, yes, we did. We might have been lucky with the composition of our group. That said, perhaps it’s always the fun-loving type of folk who book adventurous activities. It’s a terrible shame, that Ellie hurt her hand. But she agrees with me, that this was a great experience. 4.25 out of 5 in our book. Several of our friends are currently looking into booking the course for next year.

Looking for more posts about fun activities? Check out my articles about deep sea fishing, skiing, packrafting, caving (incl. diving through a sump), jetlevving, flyboarding, paddleboarding, buggy racing, skydiving, quad-biking, hiking, off-roading, powerboating, and rollerskiing.

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