The Thrill is On

The closest most people get to being injured by ice is simply a brain freeze from a frosty drink. For others getting close means hanging flat against a frozen waterfall. Adventure junkies, searching for the next adrenaline rush, look forward to the thrill of scaling a slick, dangerous iceface. Then ere are those who think that scaling a high, unforgiving sheet of ice is absolutely insane!

Ice Climbing evolved out of rock climbing, and dates back to the early 1900s, when a climber named Oscar Edkenstein designed tooth claws, called crampons, that fit into the bottom of his boot. They allowed climbers to gain traction on slippery ice, and ice climbing was born!

In the 1930s, sharp fangs that jutted out in front of the crampons were introduced and allowed climbers to navigate steeper ice.  Then in the 1960s, Yvon Chouinard, who eventually created the Patagonia clothing line, revolutionized the design of ice axes by shortening them. Next he changed the shape of the pick, which then, was straight at a shallow angle to the axe’s shaft and only worked well for normal snow climbing. His new curved pick entered the ice more easily and was easier to remove.

These days, there are a plethora of tools and safety gear that make ice climbing available to almost anyone, as long as they have good cardiovascular fitness and a good strength-to-weight ratio.

“Vail has world-class ice climbing,” says mountaineer and coach, Ellen Miller.

Miller, one of the few women in the world to summit Mt. Everest from both sides, describes Vail Mountain as her office and gym. She says that the town’s dramatic waterfall allows her to maintain her skills, so that she can tackle challenges such as Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, two thousand vertical feet of ice, which tests even the finest mountaineers.

“Ice,”  says Miller, “is a beautiful, fluid medium. When you climb, your dialogue with the ice is constantly changing and challenging.  Unlike a lot of winter activities, which are dependent on upkeep, the ice is what it is; a gift from nature.”

The goal of the sport of ice climbing, similar to rock climbing, is to ascend a vertical wall, or face, to the top. Both sports require physical endurance and intense concentration. But, that’s where the similarities end. Ice climbing requires the participants to sling a sharp ice pick to hoist themselves up, rather than reach for a rock or crack. And, then, stability is also dependent on kicking the crampons into the ice.

For veteran climber Scott Smith, opening up the world of mountaineering to Vail visitors is both a profession and a passion. Scott Smith, owner of Apex Mountain School, grew up in the mountains near Seattle that, he says, allowed him to develop the real and perceived dangers of ice climbing.

“Ice climbing is a great activity for people coming to the Vail Valley who want to try something new, exciting and fun,” Smith says. “It is magical and will both take your breath away and empower you at the same moment. It’s an adventure, an adrenaline rush and a moving meditation all in one.”

David Roetzel, who works with Vail Rock and Ice Guides, agrees. “Climbing is much more cerebral than any other sport that I’ve ever done. And I’ve done them all,” he explains. “It’s slow motion and you have to think about and process every move, versus skiing or mountain biking or kayaking, which are all reaction based which you’ve done so many times, that you begin going faster. There’s a lot of mental as well as physical stimulation to climbing.”

Both Apex Mountain School and Vail Rock and Ice offer ice-climbing instruction to beginners of all ages and are careful to identify their clients’ needs and fitness levels. And each employs experienced guides. In fact, Erik Alexander, who works at Apex, guided Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind climber ever to summit Everest.

For some, like Dan Bogardis, who climbs about 15 times a winter, the thrill is getting to a place that he wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise.

“I enjoy the excitement and challenge,” says Bogardis, excitedly. “Half the fun is that I feel so medieval.”

Roetzel, who has personally taught or guided over 1000 clients from “never evers” to very experienced, reminds “newbies” that ice climbing is not just a walk in the park. “It’s not that black and white,” he says. “Ice climbing is dangerous and climbs can be variable. A lot of where we go depends not only of the condition of the ice, but of the fitness of the student, as well.”

Miller, Smith and Roetzel agree that anyone at any level would enjoy ice climbing here.

“We are here to make sure that our guests enjoy Vail Mountain,  says Miller, “and that means meeting them at their level of fitness and proficiency and providing them with a memorable experience.”

Adds Smith, “Everyone we have taken out has found ice climbing to be powerful and transformative. The lessons of climbing are wonderful lessons for life. Climbing generates mutual respect and teamwork, and helps people to expand their comfort zone. At the end of the day, they have often accomplished a physical and mental feat they would not have thought possible.”