Ice climbing is not a pursuit for even the average thrill-seeker. It’s wildly dangerous. It requires toughing the bitter cold, and it’s extremely demanding physically.
Mistakes can equal death.
But something about this sport draws an intense passion from its fans, who, to be successful, must be committed fully to the time, practice, and knowledge it takes to climb formations like frozen waterfalls.
While the physical element is important, mastering the mental components – knowledge, dealing with heights, and keeping calm during frightening moments – is often what climbers cite as the reason they get hooked. Like piecing together a puzzle, a climber must assess his or her chosen route and then build the way to reach the top. Unlike rock climbing, where routes are generally already in place and often some of the hardware needed to ascend has been left by a previous climber, with ice climbing, each route changes from year to year, within the season itself, and even by the minute, depending on precipitation, temperature, and weather.
Before ascending, a climber must gauge the integrity of the ice – is it firm enough to hold the climber’s weight? Is it too warm, and in danger of becoming mushy? Is it too cold, and therefore brittle, and breakable?
Once the ice is deemed safe, climbers must plan the ascent. They use a variety of specialized tools to make their way to the top, including ice axes, crampons on their boots, screws, ropes, and belay devices.
And then, it’s hardly as simple as a straight climb up. Because of the contours, variable ice thickness, overhangs, and other elements, routes require moving laterally as well as upward. Along the way, climbers have to contort their bodies and stretch their arms and legs to achieve holds on the ice.