Winter sports: ice climbing

When I was in Iceland a couple of years ago, I decided to give ice climbing a try. It was part of a day tour with Glacier Guides, their Blue Ice day trip from Reykjavik. We drove a few hours down to Mýrdalsjökull (home to Katla, a subglacial overdue volcano ten times the size and power of its more famous neighbour, Eyjafjallajökull – and did I mention, overdue?) where we were kitted up with crampons and ice axes and headed onto the glacial tongue called Sólheimajökull. It’s easily accessible from the main road and therefore popular for tourist trips like this and also for idiot tourists who don’t realise how dangerous glaciers can be – for example, a little group found a great mound to slide down and after one poke with his axe, our teacher promptly discovered their landing spot was ice an inch thick over a chasm who-knows-how deep.

We did a bit of tramping around on the glacier. In places it’s pristine, bright blue, clear as glass. It’s also filthy, black ash coating it and embedded in it, from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. When we’d stomped around there for a bit, had a look at the moulins and drunk from a crystal-clear and truly icy cold stream, we went down to our wall for our first try at ice climbing.

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My climbing background is that as a student, I was a member of the caving club furthest from any caves. The closest we could come for practice and training in the weeks between our twice-a-term caving trips was a visit to a local climbing wall and as such, a pair of climbing shoes was an essential piece of caving kit, despite the fact that they’d be destroyed within ten minutes in a cave. But no one ever taught us how to climb properly, no one ever mentioned routes and style and Doing It Properly. Climbing caving-style meant climbing it without falling and getting killed. It’s not done for a real climber to turn backwards, wedge themselves in a crack or use their head as a hold. These are all perfectly valid moves for cavers.

So my approach to climbing was absolutely useless on an ice wall. Ice climbing is done with crampons and axes. You kick your toes into the wall, anchoring the toe-spikes as deeply as you can and step up on them, slamming the axes in above your head to haul yourself higher. Counterintuitive to anyone who’s climbed but totally, totally alien to a caver. I was desperate to wedge the sides of my feet against icy lumps or hang on with hips and elbows and you just can’t when ice climbing. Dori, our teacher, made it look very easy – he scaled the wall in under ten seconds without even the rope while I struggled to get two feet off the ground.

My biggest problem was the axes – I lacked the coordination, and probably strength, to bury the picks in the ice. All I succeeded in doing was hooking the end in at best, showering myself in shattered ice more often. With the left one, I was just as likely to whack the ice with the side of the blade rather than the point. With a lot of help from the rope, and with my legs shaking like jelly, I made it to the top and was relieved to find that abseiling ten feet down an ice wall is much like abseiling twenty feet like a climbing wall – sit back and let your feet walk vertically down.

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It looks so easy. It looks like you could just run up it in your boots but it’s the shiniest, most slippery thing I’ve ever been near. Ice climbing is the most physically difficult thing I’ve ever done – maybe something that improves with practice? But you probably do need to practice. I went back and tried again last December in the hope that in a year, I’d improved, with no ice climbing and only one or two wall climbing trips. Funnily enough, I hadn’t. If anything, I was worse.

Coming off the wall, I was sweating and frozen and everything was shaking from the effort of clinging to the ice. I had waterproof trousers on so I was perfectly happy to just sit down on the ice at the bottom of the wall (slithered around a bit but I don’t think I knocked anyone over) and drank hot chocolate. My landlady had made it for me for at half past seven in the morning and it was still painfully hot when I drank it at about 2pm.

One last thing – Dori told us all about Katla, the big volcano beneath our feet. When she erupts – when, not if – the flash flood she causes by melting part of the glacier will be powerful enough to rip the 8km long Sólheimajökull off the main glacier and throw it into the sea10 km away, powerful enough to punch a hole through the mountain, and that’s before we get started on ash and lava. Grímsvötn, a smaller volcano further east, admittedly under a glacier ten times the size, fairly regularly deposits chunks of ice the size of houses on the floodplain.