Ice, Ice Baby!

17.01.2020Guest AuthorGuest Author
TEXT Wolfgang Westermeier | PHOTOS Sebastian Schels

Tirol is famous for skiing and cross-country skiing in winter. However, there are also other adventures for you to embark on in the snowy mountains: ice climbing for example. Today, our author will tell you more about his first ice climbing experience.

“Faraway I hear a loud noise. Was that ice falling?”

Shortly before my first attempt at ice climbing, ramming crampons into the ice with my trembling legs and searching for an aim for the sharp points of my ice tools, I hear a loud noise close by. Was that ice falling? “That’s possible,” my climbing instructor Michl says while checking the knots of my harness before he then pushes me towards the frozen waterfalls, trying to encourage me to keep going. He doesn’t seem particularly worried. “Further back in the valley the sun is shining directly onto the ice – it’s not unusual that a piece loosens.” Bam. Was that a starting signal or a bad sign?

The climbing spot in the Hohe Tauern National Park that Michael Amraser, a mountain guide from the small village of Kals in East Tirol, has chosen for us luckily does not get a lot of sun. There were many spots to choose from. The Eispark Osttirol in Matrei is the largest ice climbing garden in Austria. As soon as the temperatures fall below zero in late autumn, the water pipes above the rock face are turned on – the water runs down, freezes and forms a thick layer of ice. There are 70 climbing routes in the park: not so steep ice hummocks for beginners and gigantic ice towers extending vertically towards the sky – so high that you need several pitches to conquer the mountain. Michl simply ignores the hummocks. Although I am an absolute beginner! Now we are standing in front of a white-turquoise shimmering wall, about twenty metres high. Although we are still far away, I can feel the freezing cold reflecting from the wall. But it is not the cold that is making me tremble. The ice wall seems unconquerable. Heading back down? Not an option anymore. So well, off we go.

Focus: With timid steps our author gets closer to the wall in the ice park. His instructor Michael “Michl” Amraser is belaying him from the bottom, giving him tips and – more importantly – encouraging him.

After five minutes I already regret my decision. A cautious gaze down: Blimey! That’s high! And then my next thought: How reliable are these two ice axes Michl calls “ice tools” that I am hitting into the wall to pull myself up with my convulsive lower arms? Although it is freezing cold, I am sweating. My left foot is not in the right position and I slip a couple of centimetres down. At this point I am really asking myself: What the hell am I doing here?

A black run of a different kind

Just a couple of hours before, shortly after 7 am, I did not know what was lying ahead of me. Together with the other guests of the Matreier Tauernhaus guesthouse I was having my breakfast. While we were sipping our coffee, we were talking about the best runs, the snow and discussing which hut served the best “Gröstl” (a typical Tirolean dish with potatoes, meat and egg). Familiar phrases about our winter sport routine popped up: I love skiing, I love the snowy mountains, the black runs, the freeride routes, the evenings in the mountain huts. I had often seen the frozen waterfalls from the slope. They were hanging there like monumental sculptures, gorgeous, unapproachable and attractive at the same time. And sometimes I even saw people climbing there and asked myself what that must be like. Can only superheroes like Ice Spiderman or Spiderwoman do that? What about ordinary people like me? I want to try it out. After all, that’s what a holiday in the mountains is all about: to experience an adventure.

When Michl walks into the hotel to pick me up, the first thing he stares at are my shoes. Outdoor boots for city people – soft leather, soft soles. I bought them because they were so comfortable. Michl is wearing heavy, stiff boots with an extra edge to attach the crampons. “Oh well, it will have to do,” Michl says.

We start off with an easy exercise: crampon training. We walk up and down a small hill of snow. Michl explains to me how to walk with the crampons on in order to have as much grip as possible: “Always put down the whole foot.” It feels likes suction pads under my feet. With a slight bowleg, I stalk up and down the hill. Even the steepest hillsides don’t make me slip. However, we don’t just want to walk around in the snow, we want to climb the frozen waterfalls. This is possible thanks to two front spikes that look like claws under the tip of my shoes. These spikes were invented in the 1930s. Before that, people climbing glaciers and ice could only move forwards by going sideways. From 1970 onwards, crampons were manufactured industrially and became affordable for ordinary people. A new trend sport had come to life: ice climbing.

In Tirol there are many renowned spots for the climbing community: the 80-metre-high frozen waterfalls in the Salvesklamm gorge close to Imst, the 220-metre-high stone pit icefalls in the Kaunertal valley – and numerous ice climbing parks. In 2014, ice climbing was even the demonstration competition during the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Aim, hit, bang!

The crampon training encourages me. I am ready for more. Michl explains to me how the ice tools are used correctly. He shows me the right hitting technique: First aim, then hit the wall with a powerful and fast movement. Michl also warns me that ice is a living material and that it “varies from spot to spot”. When temperatures fluctuate, ice becomes fragile and this leads to treacherous traps for climbers. If there is a lot of air trapped in the ice, whole blocks can chip when using the ice tools. Michl knocks here and there to check the wall. “The sound tells you more about the state of the ice.” He looks content. I also dare to approach the wall with my ice tools. Aim, swing, hit. Bang. The first hit is successful. I jiggle the grip a little bit. Although the tip of the axe has only bored half a centimetre into the ice, it is jammed so tight that I have difficulties pulling it back out. That was easier than I thought – now with my left arm. Aim, swing, hit. Bang. The tip of the axe hits the ice slantwise and bounces off, twenty centimetres next to the spot I aimed at. Someone cheered to soon.

“Ice is a living material and varies from spot to spot.”

Michl explains the different carabiners on my climbing harness and how to clip the rope into the quickdraw and what an ice screw is. My head is buzzing. So much information: Will I be able to remember everything when I am hanging up there? Michl chooses a beginner’s route and starts the lead climb. While I am belaying him, he is climbing up the wall like an elegant cat. Every two metres, he bores an ice screw into the wall and clips the rope into the safety carabiner. Once arrived at the top, he fixes the rope at an anchor point and rappels down. After ten minutes he is standing back next to me with no bead of sweat on his face. Is ice climbing not so exhausting after all? After the first metres on the wall, I know: Yes, it is difficult! Extremely difficult! The movements are unfamiliar. Hit, pull yourself up – and after just a few minutes I am panting as if I had just run a marathon. But: The way up is fast. Unlike Michl, I don’t have to worry about the ice screws – the rope runs through the anchor at the top and Michl is belaying me. A difference to rock climbing is that I do not have to look for the holds, I just make my own with my crampons and ice axe. Arriving at 15 metres above the ground, the tension eases. I have made it! Without falling. I am proud of myself and feel like I have just climbed the Großglockner (the highest mountain in Austria). I am enjoying the view. A bearded vulture is circling around me. Then I give Michl a sign; I lean into the rope and descend.

It’s all about the equipment: With the crampons and ice tools our author manages to climb the wall. But has he got enough strength to get all the way to the top?

Pride comes before …

Back on the ground, I can still feel the adrenaline and happy hormones in my body, and I can’t wait to climb the next route. This is also down to Michl, who explains every technical detail in a calm and patient way – just like a yoga teacher. He praises me for every little progress I make, and he describes my icefall debut as “amazing”, although he was three times faster than me on the same route. The next ice wall we want to climb is five metres higher and quite a bit steeper. I do my best at hitting, pushing, kicking and swinging. I am already getting addicted to the feeling of hitting the axe into the ice, hearing the hollow sound, and pulling myself up. I feel I could break through any obstacle with these tools. At the same time, I don’t notice how I am losing my strength.

While making my way hand over hand along a vertical crevice, I suddenly feel really weak. In order to climb around an overhang, I have to place the ice axe further away. But I feel paralysed! My legs are trembling. I have lost all my strength. What’s next? Should I go down? My gaze wanders down to my feet, beneath me there is only the abyss. I am about 15 metres above the ground. I start panicking. “I cannot go any further,” I scream. “Let yourself fall back into the rope.” Oh, right. The rope. I had been focusing too much on my climbing craze and had completely forgotten about the rope.

At the Eispark Osttirol there are more than 70 routes with different levels of difficulty. The icefalls have been designed artificially.

Can I just let go? In slow motion, I pull the axe out of the ice wall and then hit it straight back in. What if the rope doesn’t hold? The edge of the ice over which the rope runs looks extremely sharp. What if the rope has frayed? But I can’t hold myself up here any longer. I release the ice axe. First the left one, then the right one – and then I let myself fall. One second. It feels like forever. Then the rope catches me. And although I have only let myself fall half a metre, my heart is pounding like mad. Sweat-soaked I reach the ground. Michl repeats one last time “amazing”, then we pack our stuff and make our way back.

I know the feeling of spending all day outside in the mountains and in fresh air – the tingly feeling on my skin, the pleasant dizziness in my head and the shaky thighs from skiing all day. And still everything seems different this time. I am so proud that I have overcome my fear. When I close my eyes, I can feel the cold of the wall and hear the smacking sound of the ice tools hitting the frozen water. Bang. Bang. Over and over again. Step by step further up. And the best part: I have learnt something today; I have unlocked a new part of the snowy mountains. The frozen waterfalls will now be more than just a gorgeous, unapproachable and at the same time attractive part of the winter wonderland. They are now a new option. High up in the mountains there is no daily routine. The next adventure is always around the corner.

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