Obscure winter sports provide change-up

By By Kirk Taylor and By Kirk Taylor

By Kirk Taylor

The concept is simple. Strap razor-sharp objects to your limbs, then hack your way up a giant ice cube. Sounds pretty easy, right? Sort of. Ice climbing is as simple as algebra — if you have a little bit of training, proper technique and appropriate gear, it can be quite easy. However, if you lack any of these things, there might be a problem.

This niche sport is not for everyone. You are often cold and frequently wet. It is a lot of work, and it can be expensive, but it is a blast. Ice climbing is one of winter’s unsung activities. Many people know such silly things exist, but they often have limited knowledge of this sport’s true nature.

The equipment is similar to rock climbing, but some aspects are different. For example, climbing shoes are replaced with rigid boots and crampons (metal sandals with 2-inch protruding spikes), and specialized ice axes function as your hands. With the proper technique, the equipment allows you to scale vertical faces of ice with relative ease.

There are two general types of ice climbing: top roping and lead climbing. Top roping is by far the safest option. The rope that belays the climber passes through a fixed point at the top of the pitch or face to prevent much of a fall if the climber should slip.

Lead climbing is a different game. The rope is attached to a climber directly, and he or she is protected by ice screws that are set to prevent a fall. When done correctly, both methods can be quite safe, but there is always a little inherent danger.

Each crampon has 12 sharp points, and if you spend enough time in this sport, you’ll eventually see blood. Ice is a crazy surface and, depending on conditions, it can have any number of consistencies and properties. But there are few feelings like the exhilaration and satisfaction of looking up at hundreds of vertical feet and knowing that you can scale it. It’s a primeval sport, just like climbing in general. Many individuals will wonder why anyone would participate in such an activity, but I ask why not? The mountains are there, and it is possible.

This sport is inherently dangerous, but those risks can be mitigated quite successfully by practicing some safety. An introductory course will teach the basics and get you started, but you should also take some trips with seasoned veterans to maximize your experience. The Outdoor Recreation Program offers classes and more general information.

Additionally, alpine mountaineering routes require technical pitches, and ice climbing is a great way to train for them. Regardless of your experience level, anyone can learn, and for those who love mountains and heights, ice climbing is just the thing to spice up the winter.

[email protected]