by Rebecca Lawson
Not much to do this Sunday? Fancy a day out driving? Get up at 5am, drive to Toronto, meet up with some more nutcases and drive four more hours north, stop for a greasy breakfast, and then you're there, ready. Well, ready for a longish snooze in the back of the car, maybe, but no. On with the thermals, sweaters, thick trousers, overtrousers, gaiters, winter jacket, gloves, balaclava, snow-goggles, plastic boots and crampons until you're so rotund you can barely tie your laces. Then walk across what you hope is a solidly frozen lake, making sure that someone else goes first and your rucksack waist-strap is undone just in case you have to ditch it. You're still alive, and now there's fifty metres of ice straight ahead, and what looked nicely graded from the lake from here appears vertical, with strange blue and brown staining. It seems wet, and there's a suspicious gurgling sound from behind the ice curtain, but it looks like we're gearing up, so here goes.....
The basics are pretty similar to rock climbing. You have a belayer at the bottom, who feeds out the rope which is tied to the first climber, the leader. The leader is supposed to set in protection every so often, and attach the rope to it, so that if he falls, he'll drop until he's caught by the highest piece of protection. Unlike the nuts, friends etc. used in rock climbing, you put ice screws in (long hollow metal cylinders with a thread which you simply screw into the ice) or sometimes pitons or rock-climbing gear, depending on what you can get in. One big difference to climbing rock is that leaders on ice are really not supposed to fall, not at all, not even slightly. The pro is there as an emergency measure, but if you're in danger of going, you shouldn't be there (NOT that that is much use to know that at the time, I guess).
OK, well I'm watching someone who is desperately efficient so they shoot up to the top of the route, set up the belay, and then its me..... ho-hmm, so which hand is supposed to have which axe again? Faff, faff. It's all totally unwieldy, the sixteen metal spikes on each foot keep snagging and ripping into your gaiters, you can't do anything with your hands because they're both holding ice-axes. You feel like Edward Scissorhands - every limb is garnished with razor edges, and all around are delicate, eminently slashable objects - in particular, yourself, and your life-line, the rope. Of course, as soon as you become active, all those gadzillion clothes you put on start to make you pay, and you're running in sweat. You can't see anything because your damn goggles have steamed up (but you don't want to take them off because you're been warned about axes popping out of the ice and spearing you in the eye, not altogether pleasant) and finally you are totally deaf because your balaclava and helmet are crushing your ears. So much for the wilderness experience, its more like being in a very small Swedish sauna.
Right, smash your foot into the ice, the front spikes on the crampon dig in, and, surprisingly, hold your weight. Hack the ice with your right axe, manage to claw a good 1.5mm grip. Teeter up on that. Flail around wildly with your left axe, until it has an even more marginal hold. Try to move your other foot and body up, and thus change your stance, without popping out both your axes and hence plummeting to certain death. Repeat until reach the top or something more exciting happens. Like any other sport, this is all supposed to be executed in a smooth and graceful manner, without excessive use of energy or expletives. Reality, at least for me, fell far short of ideals. Somewhere around three-quarters of the way up, it goes fully vertical. Your arms feel rubbery, your legs are starting to shake. You're too tired to get a proper swing with your axe, so your progress slows badly. Around this point, your ever-thoughtful companion at the bottom of the climb shouts up to your belayer "Watch out, she's going to go". Thanks a bundle, matey. Then, shockingly fast, you've gone, dropped, and been caught by the rope. Back at the bottom of the steepest section. Bum. The second time, as you heave and thrash your way through the critical section, a gang of snowmobilers pass by on the lake, spot you and circle back for a better look. Just what I need, catch me in glorious defeat. You then notice that your belayer isn't in fact closely watching your every move, checking you're OK. No, he's WAVING to the snowmobilers. I'm going to die....
But you don't. You get to the top, and in an unbelievably short time, you have gone from meltdown to stage three hypothermia as you wait for the last person to come up. Finally you get to abseil off, and go somewhere else to repeat the whole performance (including falling off again, "You're not supposed to fall ice climbing," says the same thoughtful companion, "I KNOW, believe it or not, I'm not actually TRYING to". Grrr). Drive five hours home. Get to KW at 11pm. Great fun, honest!
If you want to try it - get good health insurance, find someone to borrow the axes from (but you'll need to buy boots to fit, probably) and start a steady regime of pushups alleviated by the odd pull-ups. Upper body strength, who needs it? ME!