Ice Breakers 

The fringe culture of ice climbing

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY CHRIS CHRISTIE. - Tim Emmett walking through the blocks of ice towards the base of Helmcken Falls, British Columbia. Here, the climbing route called 'Wolverine' is the world's only known example of a WI11 grade (system which measures the difficulty of routes on water ice). This ranking denotes previously unheard of climbing running steep to horizontal through fragile stalactites of spray ice.
  • Photo by Chris Christie.
  • Tim Emmett walking through the blocks of ice towards the base of Helmcken Falls, British Columbia. Here, the climbing route called 'Wolverine' is the world's only known example of a WI11 grade (system which measures the difficulty of routes on water ice). This ranking denotes previously unheard of climbing running steep to horizontal through fragile stalactites of spray ice.

A jagged mist sprays my face as the serrated pick of my ice axe strikes its target. I pull on the handle of the shaft to test the placement – it's solid. I look down at my boots, the jagged teeth of my crampons firmly clawing into the slippery wall. I find some small mushrooms of ice near my knees and hear a satisfying crunch as I kick my toes in against the frozen wall. I look up at roughly 15 more metres of this frozen chandelier, determined to finish what I started.

My forearms burn from the vice-like grip on the tools, my tense hands restricting much needed blood flow to my fingers — a common mistake for an ice climbing rookie. I take a deep breath and attempt to relax my grip, I'll need every calorie of energy if I'm to finish this climb. I grunt as I swing the other tool high above my head, and wonder what the hell I'm doing up here.

Ice climbing has roots in the storied history of 19th-century European mountaineering. Long regarded as one of the many disciplines of climbing that would help alpinists reach their summit goals, ice climbing has slowly gained traction as a veritable mountain pursuit, spurred by a culture of seasoned climbers seeking the more aesthetic route to the top instead of the most direct. Like most modern sports, technological development of equipment springboarded ice climbing to the next level of popularity. The first 10 point crampon was invented in 1908 by English engineer and mountaineer Oscar Eckenstein, a design he published several articles about in Ostereich Alpenzeitung, the Austrian Alpine Journal. Eckenstein was adamant that these pieces of metal would change the way people scaled mountains and soon took his design to Italian blacksmith Henry Grivel. The Grivel family had been manufacturing equipment for alpinists since 1818 and had garnered a huge following in the mountaineering community. The new crampon design eliminated the need for "step cutting," a laborious process where every step taken on the snow or ice required chiselling a step with a pick or axe. Twenty-two years later, Henry's son Laurent Grivel modified the 10-point design to include two extra "fangs" on the toe of the crampon, allowing climbers to navigate steeper and even near-vertical ice. The Grivel 10-point crampon remains relatively unchanged to this day, its design has been copied by countless manufacturers and it was included as part of "The Most Influential Gear of All Time" by Outside Magazine in 2012.

The ice axe — commonly referred to as a "tool" — has also developed over the years. The traditional straight-shaft mountaineering axe is still widely used for glacier travel and alpine climbing, but every type of modern ice axe bears the mark of the work of Yvon Chouinard. A pioneer of pure ice climbing in the 1960s, Chouinard had tried every tool available in the glaciers above Chamonix and decided none of them worked well enough to scale vertical ice. He shaped the pick to match the curvature of the swing, an ingenious yet simple modification that revolutionized the sport. Modern ice tools now also have a curved shaft to allow "hooking" over outcroppings, also allowing easier removal from the ice. The leashless ergonomic handles allow the climber more opportunity to shake their hands and restore blood flow without dealing with cumbersome wrist straps. Not only can climbers now strike vertical ice with unprecedented confidence, they can scale overhangs and perform remarkable manoeuvres on both ice and rock or a mixture of both.

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