A few years ago in Banff, I spent some days learning to ice climb. Take away the numb fingers and toes as we climbed in the crevice of King Creek in Kananaskis Country, where the winter sun hit the canyon floor for just a few minutes a day, and it was a brilliantly simple exercise.
Unlike rock climbing, where you scrabble about looking for holds, weighing up this little crimped hold against that tiny ledge, ice climbing is more grip-it-and-rip-it. Pick a spot where you think the point of your axe is going to embed itself, swing your arm, kick in the front points of your crampons, and repeat multiple times. In doing so, I found myself atop frozen waterfalls 50 metres high, flowing up as they would normally flow down.
The simplicity disappears, however, on ice such as that in this photo. Glassy and fragile, it’s ready to shatter at the first touch of an axe. In these conditions it’s back to reading texture with all the concentration of a golfer reading a putt. Finding that spot, however small, that won’t shatter, and driving the axe through it, often in an explosion of sharp outer ice. More than once we’d belay a climber down at the end of a pitch, his face running with blood from the ice chips that had cut open cheeks and eyebrows. In subzero conditions, there was at least no pain until later.