Introduction to vertical ice - NZAC course at Fox Glacier August 4-5
It was with mixed feelings that I embarked on this adventurous weekend. The weather forecast had predicted very heavy rain (that looked like being enough to cause another biblical flood) earlier in the week but had slightly revised on Friday to "just heavy". The other reason for my concerns were last-minutes doubts whether I'd be ready to do ICE CLIMBING. Although this course was advertised for beginners, ice can be pretty serious and after all, I've only been (rock) climbing for about 7 months. Well, it was too late to bail and I found myself in Wazza's car with 2 other keen climbers on the way to the coast.
Saturday morning saw us get up bright’n’early, going over the gear list and making sure everyone was equipped with at least 4 ice screws. The weather was fine (which put me at ease regarding concern one from above) but then came the one little question that brought back the doubts I had earlier. “Anybody who’s never done any ice climbing before?” Well, the only hesitant hand making its way into the air was attached to my arm. Fortunately, I’m pretty confident by nature and figured that I’ll do alright; the excitement about the waiting glacial ice had a grip on me already.
After a decent warm-up walk up to the glacier-access (yeah, these days you have to negotiate an impressive amount of steps through the bush to reach the access after about 45 minutes) we put on full combat gear: helmet, crampons, an ice tool in each hand… We started bouldering at an (ice) wall to get comfortable with our equipment. As the ice-virgin of the group, I got an introduction of basic techniques to keep me on the ice and not sliding down it (thanks Wazza, the tip to test-weight the tools after placement was worth gold later on). We all milled around for a bit and I found out how easy it is to fall off near-vertical ice (a mere 50cm, but a good fright, nonetheless) if you don’t place your tools carefully.
After everybody felt comfortable bouldering, we set off finding ourselves a nice wall to learn on. We discussed setting anchors using ice screws and Abolokov anchors and put three top ropes into place.
Then, split up into 3 pairs, we got down to business: axe axe foot foot, axe axe foot foot (or, following Warren's advice to save energy: axe foot foot, axe foot foot). Cecilia, my climbing partner for the weekend, and I hit it off right away when she hesitantly asked "You're allright with that figure-eight knot?" after watching me fumbling with the rope for ages. She must have contemplated putting in some extra protection with a fumbling ice-virgin as her sole backup (I would have). It was probably that moment that she decided to let me climb first to "show her how it's done" and then climb after me every route we did*.
Our instructors Heather, Phil and Warren kept a close eye on everybody and gave plenty of advice. All in all, I felt very safe - due in large part to Cecilia, who proved to be extremely thorough and dependable (and a little more at ease after she realized that I was indeed capable to tie a figure-eight knot).
After toproping a few climbs, Warren suggested to start leading a climb. Well, that was a completely different story now. Not only was this my first ice climbing ever, I had also only led 1 (yep, that is O-N-E) climb before which happened to be a grade 13 in the climbing gym. But the encouragement from the instructors and my climbing partner (guess who had to climb first) worked wonders and I managed my first lead on ice after just a few hours playing around. What excitement!
We made most of the day climbing ice while keeping in mind the long journey back to Christchurch. Late that night, we arrived happy and with a head full of memorable moments back at our homes to step back into our regular lives.
Thanks to everyone involved: The Alpine Club for offering these courses, the instructors Heather, Phil & Warren (who proved to also be a non-tiring driver) for all the valuable advice, Cecilia for taking good care of me (and trusting me in the first place), Ruth, Sharon (remember: don’t drop those ice screws!), Steve & James for great company.
*I believe that by the second ascend, she had enough trust in my abilities to belay her, but she stuck with "watching me for the first climb".