Swinging Ice Axes

I am a member of Backcountry Women, an incredible group of women who explore the outdoors together and get up close and personal with the elements. We share experiences and knowledge to learn from one another in an environment that is supportive and non-competitive. The group encourages women to try new activities and forge new friendships and connections along the way with people who have similar interests.

We met last week for an evening of ice climbing at The Club d`escalade de Saint-Boniface (CESB) Ice Climbing Tower in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A handful of women from CESB spent the evening with us and taught us how to safely climb. For many of us, it was our first time ice climbing.

I have indoor rock climbed with decent success but ice climbing was a completely different beast.

Instructor: who is feeling brave and wants to go first?

Me: *shoots my hand up*

Instructor: OK, come on over here and we will get you harnessed up.

Me: *point at myself* ME?!?!?!

Instructor: Well, you put your hand up really fast, so yes, you.

ME: *thinking* Yes, yes, I did put my hand up really fast….what am I getting myself into?!?!

Photo: Ashley Moore (Backcountry Women)

Aside from the harness and belaying system, the technical equipment needed to climb a wall of ice was a lot more intense than what I have used when rock climbing. I was a tad intimidated to be honest.

I traded in my warm and soft-lined winter boots for a pair of mountaineering boots complete with fierce-looking crampons. I causally walked around pretending to be a bear with sharp claws while I waited for everyone in the group to get ready. I often use humour to defuse situations in my head, so if I looked like a weirdo and was heard roaring, pretending to be a bear is 100% what I was doing.

The most intense pair of boots I have ever worn

The boots were stiff and made of a hard plastic-like material with some soft insulation inside. The socks that I wore kept my feet sufficiently warm; however, the next time that I try ice climbing, I will be sure to wear a fuzzy pair of socks to add a little more comfort inside the boot. I simply like a plush texture inside winter boots.

This was not my first time swinging an axe, having chopped a lot of wood and thrown axes at targets; however this was my first time using an axe to hang onto while dangling off the ground. The belaying rope was to be kept in the center of our body and the axes kept to the outside. “Don’t hit the rope with the axe,” we were told during the safety demonstration.

Example of ice axe that we used. Photo: Mountain Equipment Co-Op

We were to look for pre-existing pockets of ice that the axe could rest on or make our own pocket of ice by swinging the axe with as much force as we could. It took a lot of effort to get the axe into the ice and sometimes chunks of ice shot out. I personally might wear snow goggles the next time I ice climb.

There was a lot to remember when moving our legs up the wall. We had to keep our legs spread like a triangle and our feet straight. Once the crampon was kicked into the wall, we were instructed to lean back on our heals so that the front of the crampon could support us. It was a really weird feeling to be supported by a couple of front claws and subconsciously, I kept moving my foot sideways, as if I was looking for ledge to stand on.

The physical aspect of climbing the wall was really tough but what hit me first was fear. I generally don’t have a fear of heights and I trust the safety measures that are put into place when performing activities that are off the ground. For some unknown reason that I am still not sure of, I literally froze after going 1/3 of the way up.

I cried out, “I want to come down,” before I gave myself time to rationalize my thoughts. The fear came out of nowhere and I did not expect it. I had every intention of going to the top as long as I could physically make it. Fear of heights was not at all on my radar.

Photo: Ashley Moore (Backcountry Women)

I chose to try a harder course for my second round of climbing. The thought of fear came in one side of my head and went out the other side. The second round of climbing was pure physical and technical for me, even though I did not get very high. My upper body strength is something I am working on and I think this was the hardest that my forearms have ever worked and burned!


Photo: Ashley Moore (Backcountry Women)

What makes one side of the tower more difficult than the other? Here is a photo from Tourism Winnipeg that shows the ice tower in all of it’s glory from a distance. The left side of the structure is built on an angle, making this the “easy” side. The other side of the structure is a clear-vertical upwards climb, making it “difficult”.

Photo: http://www.tourismwinnipeg.com/things-to-do/outdoor-activities

To be completely honest as well, I was frustrated by my snow pants.
The pants are far too big on me and I need to invest in a proper fitting pair. I bought them when I was 30 pounds heavier, a few winters ago. They were falling off my waist and hips and I could not see where to put my feet when looking down because of how billowy they are.

Hanging off a wall of ice and trying to pull my pants up was not an ideal situation, although quite comical when I look back. I felt the crampon scratch the side of my snow pants a couple of times and it was a distraction from everything else I was trying to do. I am adding new snow pants to my winter gear list for next year.

I had the opportunity to climb a third round but I was physically done. My shoulders and arms were just too sore. I am in a Powerlifting class so my upper body has been getting far more of a workout than it ever has.

I brought along a thermos of herbal tea and floated around on the ground using the opportunity to put faces to names of some of the people I chat with on Facebook posts within Backcountry Women. From the bottom of the tower, we cheered and applauded the women in the air. Ice climbing had me feeling like a badass and I am still riding the high. Backcountry Women, whatever your reasons for being there last week, you rocked it!

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