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Bored of skiing and sick of snowboarding? If you’re looking for a more extreme winter sport this season, ice climbing could be it

I’m halfway up a 22m-high manmade wall of ice, a harness around my waist and thick boots with crampons on my feet when my shoulders start burning and my left leg begins to shake.

“Yes, continue! Up, up, up!” yells my instructor, Damien, as I try to push my foot into a groove and drive one of the axes I’m holding in each hand into a tiny hole in the ice – all in the hopes that I can haul myself up just another few inches.

Thank god I’m trying ice climbing for the first time in the relative safety of Champagny en Vanoise, about a 45-minute drive from nearby ski resort Meribel in France, where I’m staying.

Having been skiing before, I was keen to attempt a different winter sport. Now I’m questioning the wisdom of this adventurous spirit.

Of all the cold-weather capers you can get involved in this winter, it’s fair to say that ice climbing is one of the more extreme.

As Etienne Grillot, a French expert who works in Champagny en Vanoise, explains: “Ice climbing is dangerous. Firstly, the ice is ‘alive’; depending on the temperature, it can be rigid or flexible.

If it’s too hot, the ice is not strong enough; too cold, and the ice can be brittle. Violent changes of temperature can be very hazardous.” That’s why your first forays into the sport are best on a man-made wall.

“It’s safer to start on our ice tower because anchors are already fixed onto the structure and there’s no avalanche risk,” Grillot says.

But don’t think that means getting up the ice tower is easy. I’ve scaled an indoor climbing wall before and this is far scarier (not to mention colder).

There are no hand or foot holds for you to rely on, just small grooves in the ice that you have to trust you can cling to.

Although it’s easy to use my arms to hack into the ice, what’s more problematic is making holes deep enough so that the axes don’t slip out.

Damien has assured me that, even if I’m not immediately good at this, the process of learning to climb will help me get to know my body better.

As I progress, I also begin to realise that the noise of my crampons and axes inform me of the quality of the ice – something that becomes very important when climbing natural icefalls, where there are so many different types of ice and always a risk of avalanche.

Ice climbing on a manmade wall is also perfect for beginners because it’s vertical, rather than providing an overhang. During the Ice Climbing World Cup, held here in February this year, climbers were faced with a 40m-long overhang.

Competitors win by scaling the ice in the best possible route and the least possible time. Not something I’m quite ready for.

Suddenly, the crampons on my boots scrape and slip. One leg dangles uselessly in mid-air. I push the other leg further into its hold and grip the axe handles harder, driving the hanging foot back into the ice and forcing myself to believe I can do this.

My muscles ache and my heart is pumping. I’m halfway up, and I start to think this could be far enough. My two travelling companions have tried, and failed, to reach the top. What would be the harm in calling it quits?


Nice ice, baby: Try extreme sport ice climbing in France this winter
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