An Ice Climbing Adventure

By Suze Kelly

Behind the Iron Curtain – taking a break between pitches

How does this vertical icy medium work? Can I really just climb up it? These were the thoughts front of mind when I imagined myself climbing icy waterfalls. I actually found that stepping on to the ice for the first time is a truly memorable experience and far from a scary experience.

For winter pursuits I’d been thinking about having a go at ice climbing for a while now. I already downhill ski and have done some cross country skiing. I enjoy getting out and about on the crisp winter days, as just being in the sunshine instead of being cooped up indoors can do wonders for the spirit. So when the opportunity came up to join in on the 5 day Ice Climbing Course operated by Adventure Consultants based out of Wanaka, I thought right, this is the time to step up to a new challenge.

I made my way to the meeting point on the morning of day one, confident that all the new gear I needed would be waiting for me and met my guide Dean along with the other three participants on the course.

Looking up at just some of the Wye Creek Ice

After introductions, we quickly got into trying on the various bits of climbing equipment, including fitting crampons to climbing boots and adjusting gaiters. We needed to make sure we have the right layers for this outdoor activity and plenty of warm dry clothes to change into at the end of each day’s climbing. It didn’t take long and then we were packing backpacks and getting ready to climb into the helicopter for the short heli ride in the winter base camp that Adventure Consultants operates. One super scenic flight later and we touched down right beside the camp. A few minutes spent moving boxes of food into the dining tent and then it was time to evaluate our surroundings with a cuppa in hand. Huge cliffs nearby seemed to dwarf us and the ice coating everything was still in the shade whilst our camp was sparkling in the bright sun. Nice!

Dean sorted us out with snowshoes so that we could walk on the soft snow and we had a basic introduction to avalanche awareness as we had a 20-minute walk to the base of the climbing from camp. We found out that the hazard rating was low but it was still good to learn these skills as they are included in the course instruction topics. With a second breakfast on board and packs loaded up for the day with the gear we would need we set off. The walk was fairly aerobic and a good warm up for what was ahead. We started out at a gently sloping ‘ice crag’ that wasn’t vertical, and Dean showed us techniques for placing your ice tools into the ice and how your crampons should kick into the ice. He climbed up our first objective attaching the rope to runners through ice screws and then we were able to have our turn, in a top roping fashion. It was fun to see my fellow novice ice climbers start out and feel the exhilaration of moving over the ice.

Climbing the lower pitch of the Iron Curtain route

When it was my turn I couldn’t believe how my ice tools sunk so incredibly well into the ice and felt so secure. I had less confidence in my feet, but apparently it’s natural for beginner climbers to feel this way and we did some exercises to help us gain the confidence to ‘stand up’ on our feet and take the weight off your arms, which is the secret to success when ice climbing.

A few hours seemed to fly by and then it was time to head back down to camp, as the last light of the day started to fade. Once we got into camp we changed into warmer layers and added big down jackets since we were going to be less active during the evening. Dean got the kitchen stoves and dinner preparation going and we helped out with slicing up vegetables, all the while sipping hot drinks.

After a big dinner, we talked about the plans for next day and then headed off to our sleeping tent where we each had a sleeping cot and an equally big warm down sleeping bag to crawl into. Cleaning my teeth out under the stars with snow twinkling all around in the beam of my headlamp, I reflected on a great first day being in the mountains and felt rather chuffed to have this wilderness view to myself right at that moment.

Coffee in the sun at Wye Creek Base Camp

We carried on the same for the next three days, building on the skills each day to tackle longer and more adventurous climbs. My arm strength lasted until day five and although I’m sure I could have managed just one or two more ice climbs, it was a good change of scene to pack up our gear and commence the walk out down valley back to civilisation. Over five hours we made our way along beside a mountain stream along the valley floor, still with snow in abundance everywhere meaning we used our snowshoes until the snow cover got thinner and then we descended into native forest filled with birdsong and out down to lake level and our waiting vehicle. Not long later after we had handed all our equipment back in and had a de-brief about the week we headed to a bar downtown with my new adventure friends to celebrate our new found skills and plan the next trip. What a week!

The cover image:

Behind the frozen waterfall on the route ‘Iron Curtain’ visible above the climber in the earlier image.