Action Man 52
One degrees centigrade, 1700m in elevation facing North West. I pick up my Black Diamond Raptor and swing, instead of the imagined arrow tight thud, the head of my ice axe on contact with the ice makes a plastic shattering sound followed by a sound like tearing polystyrene, a slow ripping sound that last for what seems like seconds. Its an audible reminder to take care, choose my ice axe placements well and realise that concentration and guile is required for success. The second axe finds a small dimple on the surface of the frozen waterfall and twangs into the ice with a satisfying thunk. “A Luke, seek out the weakness in your foe” calling on my imagined internal climbing yoda I move my cramponed boots from the snow onto the glass smooth translucence. Its been a while ( 18 months ) since I ventured onto a large ice fall weighing more than 400 tonnes.
Despite being a very simple technique to climb ice, place the axes high, more than 30cm apart, hang on them whilst bringing you feet into a crouch, repeat, it full of subtleties. With a rope above your head, top roped climbing wall style its simple and fun and you can hack away to you hearts content smashing your way up a climb. To lead, to tie into your figure of 8 knots with 60meter of rope coiled on the snow at you feet with an uncharted path towering above you, its a different matter. They say that a well placed ice screw, in good ice will hold a 2000kg force and the steel will shear before the ice will give up. All well and good in theory, but what is good ice? It’s a plastic evolving medium, never consistent, and ever changing.
That is why falling off is unthinkable. I have fallen off hundreds of rock climbs and a couple of winter Mixed rock ones in my time, but never off a pure ice climb. The idea of loosing contact with the ice, having an ice tool pull out followed by another and then being sucked downwards heading towards 120mph terminal velocity, whilst wearing 24 razor share teeth attached to your feet and holding two ice picks that would have easily done for poor old Trotsky, (ok its was not that kind of ice pic) scares the living shit out of me. If it were ever to happen, it may will be the, straw, camels back thingy; the end
Other axe blow higher up, an area the size of a huge Hester Blomintal soup plate centred on the point of the axe turns from deep grey blue to flawed, layered air filled white, the axe point is now in broken and unstable ice. The technique is to take the axe out gently and break it in to small pieces so it does not come off in a 3kg lump and land on you foot dislodging you crampon placement, leaving you with only two icy points off contact. As I ease the pick upwards, this is what happens, the entire dinner plate slips off and hits my toe with a sold crash; Its sits there resting on my feet, before I take a foot off and send it into spinning to the snow below.
And so the entertainment continues upwards for 60m then another 60m above that, it’s a game of cat and mouse, the most Zen of climbing. Try to use almost no energy both nervous and physical in the most demanding of climbing disciplines. A good rock climb well done deserves a pat on the back, but they are Ten-a-penny. A good ice climb deserves a fine ale, or a well-earned bottle of claret. It’s a fine line between fear and loathing and fun, between perverse enjoyment and sheer vertical hell.
So then why do it?
well when all you senses are working in harmony, when you face something not only physically challenging in a difficult and hostile environment when your urban soft self is saying no, but the hunter gatherer say yes go hunt, in todays hermitically sealed and banal “toys r u”, “strictly come prancing”, X Factor entertainment on a plate, Redbull fuelled stupidness, you will never feel so alive.