The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

The water that had once flowed freely, carving intricate grooves into the mountain, now appeared as a sheer plate of armour that covered the cliffside. It was an optimal playground for the outdoor-adventure seeker — and I felt ready as ever.

There were already about six groups of people there, harnessing up and preparing to conquer the eight-metre tall ice wall. Despite the deceptively clear skies and blinding sun rays that reflected off the surrounding white surfaces, the air felt frigid.

However, the negative temperature did not seem to matter once you started climbing. I wasn't exactly prepared to run a marathon that day. Still, the moment I swung my ice tool into the seemingly impenetrable crystal surface, I realized I was in for a workout.

For many people, scaling a vertical sheet of ice might seem like an insane activity. Your only tether to life is a single rope and some steel screws, after all. Still, to many mountain-lovers and adrenaline seekers, it's a beloved sport and pastime.

"But the view you witness, the skill you gain, and the bonding time you get to do with your climbing partners, it's well rewarding once you get to the top."

Ice climbing is an activity that involves climbing inclined ice formations. These structures can include frozen waterfalls, icefalls or any surface covered with ice refrozen from flowing water.

Twenty-one-year-old outdoor enthusiast Josh Leathwaite first started ice climbing this winter. He was introduced to it by his 25-year-old brother, James Leathwaite.

"My brother always told me, 'I don't know, man, just rent the stuff. Cause either you're going to love it, or you'll hate it.' And I can see why people hate it, cause it is terrifying at times," Josh says.

JamesandJosh

James Leathwaite shows brother, Josh Leathwaite, the proper form when swinging your ice tool. Photo by Nikita Lehnert-Thiel

"But the view you witness, the skill you gain, and the bonding time you get to do with your climbing partners, it's well rewarding once you get to the top."

James, an avid rock-climber, started his ice climbing journey four years ago. He says that he didn't want to take a break from climbing during the winter season, so he searched for alternatives. He fell in love with ice climbing, and now it's one of his favourite things to do.

"I would recommend it 100 per cent, as for me, it's one of the purest ways to fully get into a quieter mind and flow state," he says.

"Josh wanted an activity for us to do together, so we could finally spend time with each other again. During the winter, my ice climbing daze is full-blown, so I guess I just sort of forced his hand and got lucky because he loves it."

Josh, being quite the climbing lover himself, was naturally interested in taking up a new activity within this category.

"I started ice climbing mostly because of my brother and how cool he said it is. It offers a different kind of adrenalin rush and now I'm hooked."

The brothers made a pretty convincing argument. So, being the investigative journalist that I am, I wanted to see if the sport lived up to the hype. I set out to the mountains with the Leathwaites to experience it for myself.

Ice climbing encompasses its fair share of risks. It's essential to have the proper equipment and to go with someone who is experienced in the sport, whether that be a guide or someone you know.

Josh Belyaing

Josh Leathwaite manning the belay device while his brother, James Leathwaite, climbs. Photo by Nikita Lehnert-Thiel

Luckily, with four years under his belt, James has acquired the skill to be self-sufficient when it comes to climbs. He was able to set up the rope so Josh and I could climb safely off of it — this is called lead climbing.

Lead climbing is an essential step in any outdoor climb. A climber must take one end of the rope to the top of a route and anchor it properly so it can support the weight of a person. The other climber controls the opposite end of the rope with the help of a belay device, so they can catch the other climber if they need a break or happen to fall.

Before starting my climb, Josh reminds me that it's essential to ask questions, especially if you're unsure about anything.

"That's one of the biggest things I've learned, and it applies to everything, especially in ice climbing. If you ask questions, you'll feel a lot more knowledgeable and a lot more confident," he says.

I followed this advice, perhaps a bit too thoroughly, and asked an abundance of questions during my climb — possibly to the point of annoyance. Still, it did help me feel more confident.

"Risk and consequence assessment, and then there is the physical training to make sure you're ready for anything the mountains can throw at you."

Luckily, I did not need much skill whatsoever to complete my first climb. Just motivation, a bit of bravery, and trust in my climbing partners.

James explained to me what exactly is needed in terms of skill when it comes to ice climbing.

"To do what we did today, not much skill is required. But to be leading ice and getting out in the dangerous avalanche-prone terrain most ice is in, you need a lot," he says.

"Such as rope rescue skills, proper anchoring skills, first aid knowledge, avalanche safety training. You need an understanding of how ice will react in certain temperatures and conditions, how to read the quality of ice."

"Risk and consequence assessment, and then there is the physical training to make sure you're ready for anything the mountains can throw at you."

For beginners such as myself, many of these skills are not necessary. Still, it is always smart to have first-aid and avalanche knowledge when pursuing any activity in the backcountry.

NikitaClimbingED

Reporter, Nikita Lehnert-Thiel, posing with her ice tools after a successful climb. Photo by Josh Leathwaite

If you choose to try ice climbing, you will need some equipment, whether you rent, buy, or borrow from a friend.

"You need a helmet, cause there are chunks of ice getting thrown at you or falling at you, and it can crack your head right open. You also need good waterproof gear, cause when it's cold, it's really cold, and when it's hot, it's really wet," Josh says.

"You need your harness, ice tools, crampons, alpine boots, and that's about it for a beginner. But, whoever's going with you that you hope has experience will have a rope, ice screws, and know how to set an anchor at the top so they can set you up to top rope off of it."

I rented my supplies from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), which was easily done online. After that, I suited up with my warmest gear and was on my way.

Coincidentally, Josh did end up getting mild frostbite on his toes after our climb expedition, so don't forget to invest in some warm socks.

If you don't have someone you know who's knowledgeable about the sport, it's still pretty easy to get out and try ice climbing for yourself. Josh gives some recommendations to anyone curious enough to give it a try.

"There are lots of guides out there. There's Yamnuska Mountain Adventures; they're a touring guide company that puts a whole bunch of programs on. I know they have a few courses you can do, from beginner to advanced ice climbing. So I'd say go out with people that know stuff, and the more training and the more experience you can get, the better."

So, did ice climbing live up to the hype? I'm happy to say it did. In the beginning, I could see why Josh had told me it could be terrifying; I was pretty scared. But, after becoming a little more comfortable with my tools and asking a lot of questions, my confidence grew, and I made it to the top.

It's quite the exhilarating experience and, after conquering a route, you fill with a satisfying sense of self-pride. So, I'll have to agree with the Leathwaite brothers on this one. I will gladly recommend ice climbing, and I can safely say I will be trying it again soon.

Editor: Hadeel Abdel-Nabi | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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