Being Prepared for Ice Climbing is Everything
I’ll never forget my first full season of ice climbing. It began in November of the year 2000. I ordered ice tools and crampons from mec after hearing that ice climbing was popular in Northwestern Ontario, where I was living at the time for university. There was no Instagram, Facebook or how-to YouTube videos so we had to learn for ourselves with little to no instruction. I asked my rock climbing partner, who was also a student, Australian Stephen Gale, if he’d join me because I knew that he had glacier experience in the Himalayas. We were not prepared.
On our first day, we drove a borrowed car 100 kilometres north of the city to Orient Bay, a drive which should have taken us one hour but took us 2.5 hours because we had bald tires. We only brought one pair of ice tools for the two-pitch route, Hully Gully, the easiest route in the area. Our only protection was two ancient tap-in ice screws loaned to us by Jeff Hammerich, the most experienced alpinist at Lakehead University at the time.
Slowly – and I mean slowly – I made my way up the first pitch in -40 C weather. Every time the pick of my tool made contact, the ice would fracture a thousand ways and if I struck the same spot again, the ice would dinner-plate down toward Steve. I used the hammer on my dmm tool to gently move the protection into the ice, which never worked. Luckily, a branch stuck out of the frozen, low-angle stream, and I slung it. After an hour, I wrapped my two-inch tubular webbing around a tree at a ledge and yelled to Stephen, who had icicles extending from his nostrils past his lips, that I was secure. Before he could climb, I had to lower my tools to him, so I clipped one onto a rope and tried to lower it down the bulgy ice. It snagged on the protruding branch. I tried to throw the other to him, but it landed in deep snow on a slope and required much digging and some time to find. We decided to bail and drove home slowly along the icy road under a starry sky back home.
I soon met some local Alpine Club of Canada members who invited us for an evening of ice climbing at the Terry Fox Memorial in Thunder Bay to “learn the ropes.” I spent that winter practising my ice techniques and screw placing on top-rope before attempting to lead again. Now, 20 years later, as ice season approaches, I put the winter tires on, sharpen the tools, count the screws and make sure my winter apparel is ready for the extreme weather. Ice climbing equipment has come a long way over the years, but good gear doesn’t replace preparation and knowledge. Be sure to bring avalanche equipment when necessary, and don’t stay home on the coldest of days this winter – you’re an ice climber, after all.
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