New Zealand ice climbing

By Justin Walker 14 February 2013
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Want to be an ice climber? A school for thrill-seekers on NZ’s South Island will teach you all the skills.

THE FIRST STRIKE IN ice-climbing isn’t always the deepest – or most reliable.

And even though you’re halfway up a frozen waterfall, with only four fairly small crampon spikes and one other ice-axe buried in what you hope is solid ice, it’s not always just about finding a stronghold.

That first strike can provide all sorts of answers, as well as a few probably unwelcome questions.
When you overzealously slam that other axe into what looks like solid ice, and it shatters, it begs the question of what possesses people to take up this freezing bloody cold and extreme – even by general climbing standards – sport.

It pays, then, to ensure that before you layer up, rope up, tool up, you should have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

It means going back to school, sort of, although this one is far less forgiving than even that old scary deputy principal. But it can be loads more fun…

The cold reality of ice-climbing in New Zealand

I am exhausted as I pause deep in a shadowed valley, at the foot of a row of frozen waterfalls.

It is the first day on Aspiring Guides’ Winter Waterfall Ice Climbing course and three classmates and I have already had our first lesson in the realities of ice climbing.

You need solid ice and, therefore, shadowed, preferably south-facing waterfalls, that stay out of the (only slightly) warming sunlight.

So it is cold – very cold. Although, to be fair, not when we’re moving, which we’ve done for the past hour as we’ve followed instructor Tim Steward slowly downwards.

The group has negotiated a number of ridges from Aspiring Guides’ self-contained hut, perched at 1800m up near the top of Black Peak, to the head of the Blue Creek valley and its curtains of frozen water.

The knee-deep snow we’ve trudged through, the hidden holes below the snow’s deceptively clean white surface, and the gear we’re lugging, has brought on a new self-appraisal of my fitness, which is sadly lacking.

And that doesn’t even account for the fact it is about an 800m climb back up to the hut. But, everything hard-earned is worth it. And, as we reach the valley floor itself, this rings true as we survey the perfect waterfall ice before us.

My fellow classmates and I all have varying levels of climbing experience – myself and Marcus have ice- and alpine-climbing backgrounds, while Liz and Alix are rockclimbers.

As we soon learn, those looking to transfer across from rock to ice are fortunate enough to be able to bring more than a few of their already honed skills – primarily rope-based, but also other skills, according to Tim.

“The most important crossover from rockclimbing is the rope work, especially multi-pitch rope work. General movement, balance, climbing skills and body awareness learnt from rockclimbing are also very transferable to ice climbing,” he says.

Ice-climbing techniques

One of the first things we learn is that, far from being all about brute force – slamming in your crampons and plunging your ice axes as deep into the ice as possible – the actual ice-climbing technique is more subtle.

Smooth, well-balanced movements, combined with careful selection of where to place your ice axe and crampons, are the best way to get to the top of an ice route without exhausting yourself.

For ice at more than a 45° angle (such as waterfall ice), ‘front-pointing’ is the ideal crampon technique, which involves pointing the two front points of your crampons into the ice wall.

It sounds precarious but, once your technique is sound, it is amazing just how secure you feel on the ice wall, allowing you to lean back on your crampons, nearly in a flat-footed position, to take pressure off your no-doubt-screaming calf muscles.

Not slamming your axe into the ice is the next quickly learnt lesson. It soon becomes obvious that, if you really hammer that ice axe in, trying to get it out in one fluid motion – without losing balance – is near impossible.

Scanning the ice above you for small nooks and depressions (rather than bumps in the ice) in which to place the axe point becomes second nature.

This first day is all about acquainting ourselves with the basics – feeling comfortable on the ice, refining belaying techniques and roping – and with Tim adding in comments and encouragement general confidence soon soars.

Ice-climbing: making the ice work

The following three days soon settle into a nice rhythm: leave the comforts of the hut to negotiate the descent down to the valley; set-up ropes on progressively harder routes; and absorb all the tutoring that Tim has to offer.

We soon move from top-roped climbing to trying our hand at lead and multi-pitch climbing, which necessitates a thorough lecture on anchor points. There is a variety – ice screws are the most common – but you can also utilise the ice itself, in the form of V-threads and bollards.

Ice screws – unsurprisingly – screw directly into the ice, whereupon a runner (with carabiner) is attached and the rope run through.

It takes time and can induce some serious leg-wobbling if you haven’t kicked a small shelf in the ice for your boots or ensured you can ‘hang’ slightly from your ice axe leashes to take some of your weight off while you place the screw.

As with your ice axe, it is better to place ice screws in a flat or depressed part of the ice, which must be hard and clear of snow and loose ice.

The V-thread is comprised of two separate holes in the ice, drilled at different angles using an ice screw, that meet in the ice wall. A 6-8mm cord is threaded through and tied off, thus forming the anchor point.

It is, however, the ice bollard that is the most mentally challenging for first timers. Basically, you gouge out a teardrop-shaped, undercut channel in the ice.

Then, you loop your rope through it, and rely on leverage and your weight to ensure the rope cannot ‘slip up’ – something that is impossible with your body weight loaded on it. Ice bollards make great a rappel/abseil anchors.

The first time you attempt this, it will take what seems like an age – and probably age you, too, but when built properly it’s very effective.

Beneath the New Zealand snow

Tim constantly reminds us that, before any anchors are placed, you really need to know just what it is you are securing your life to.

“Although ice screws, V-threads and bollards can be very strong and secure if used and built correctly in suitable ice, it’s easy to be over confident in anchors in less-than-ideal conditions,” he says.

“Therefore it’s important to teach beginners how to recognise ice that is good enough to use for anchors. Ice that is best for climbing is often different to ice that is good for creating anchors.”

And there are yet more dangers: avalanches. Tim runs us through testing snow stability, using a compression test.

We dig out a small snow column from the suspect area, before laying a shovel face down on the column and tapping it with your hand, using progressively more force to see whether the column will fail – identified by horizontal cracks in the column – and how much force was involved to make it fail.

The less force involved, the more unstable the snow is. This is followed with a lesson on avalanche rescue, using our always-attached avalanche beacons.

Ice-climbing in practise

One of the best things about school – as much as you may have hated it at the time – is that you eventually put what you learn into practise, in the real world. And for us, it happens on the last day, on a fantastic multi-pitch climb up a waterfall, not all that far from the hut.

Besides the joy of not having to slog down to the valley bottom, the climb allows us to use all our new skills: lead climbing; belaying; ensuring we securely clip in to a separate safety line; proper axe and crampon placement; and clear communication.

It’s extremely rewarding to put all our tuition to the test and the climb, while not easy, flashes past – a true indication of how efficient we’ve become during our tenure on the ice.

We’re left keen for more as we wait for the chopper to take us back down to Wanaka. So, what next? Tim reckons a mountain-skills course is the best next step.

After four days sweating, shivering and being physically spent each afternoon, you’d wonder why the question would even be asked. The answer is a slightly corny cliché, but simple: ice is addictive – especially the vertical variety.