(ABC4) – Most people think ice climbers must be adrenaline junkies. To willingly scale an ice-covered cliff in below-freezing temperatures, you kind of have to be, right? 18-year-veteran ice climber Alan Rousseau, however, says he’s anything but. In fact, he says that when adrenaline gets involved, that’s actually the most likely time for something to go wrong.
“Usually, adrenaline only occurs when you’re bordering on being out of control. Generally, in climbing, if you get that sort of adrenaline rush it’s not a good thing,” he says. “We strive to control our minds and bodies to the point that the adrenaline is not a factor.”
Ice climbing, like its drier and safer counterpart, rock climbing, is quickly gaining in popularity, especially in outdoor-obsessed Utah. Rousseau, who is also an ice climbing guide with Utah Mountain Adventures, says he has noticed a big increase in the numbers of ice climbers in the area.
“Places, even ten years ago, that weren’t very busy or you wouldn’t regularly see other people, there’s a lot of people around nowadays,” he says.
But what is the draw of this scary, slippery sport?
Brent Palmer, a Centerville-based life flight nurse who has been ice climbing for 10 years, didn’t see the allure of the ice climbing until after his first experience ascending a frozen waterfall.
“It was always something that I thought, ‘You know what, that is just way too crazy, that does not look as solid as being attached to a granite rock face,’” Palmer, who has rock climbed his whole life, tells ABC4.com.
But a friend working as a National Park ranger took him for his first ice trek, and after that, he was hooked. What led him to sticking with the sport, he says, was ultimately the challenge, excitement, and overall experience of being on the ice.
“You see a lot of really beautiful things when you’re out climbing, and when you’re out on the ice you get to experience something that hardly anyone else does,” he says. “It’s really amazing to be able to see that, to be up in the mountains and have it snowing or have it really, really quiet.”
But how, exactly, does someone climb a sheet of slippery ice in the first place? First, you need a whole lot of gear. Rousseau says that, in addition to standard climbing gear like a rope, a harness, and a helmet, ice climbers are also equipped with rigid mountaineering-style boots, metal crampons, and ice axes.
In traditional rock climbing, bolts are already placed into the rock along the designated route. In ice climbing – while there may be some bolts where the rock is exposed – many of the bolts are ice screws placed into the ice directly by the climber setting the route. The screws range in length from 10 to a little over 20 cm, Rousseau says.
But is it risky to place so much trust in the ice? According to Rousseau, not necessarily, but in order to tell, you need to know a lot about frozen water.
“The ice screw that you place is only as good as the ice it is getting placed in,” he says. “The medium of ice is always changing, so it’s important to be closely monitoring temperature swings and warm-ups. And if it’s snowing or raining, that can quickly affect the surface of the ice.”
There are other inherent risks to ice climbing, too. Palmer has had his fair share of chilling experiences on the ice.
“I’ve had pillars that have collapsed,” he recalls. “I’ve been on a frozen waterfall where I put the ax in and I heard this big crack. It didn’t move, but I scared me to death. I’ve fallen through the ice into the water as I’ve been climbing up.”
But both Rousseau and Palmer agree that some of the biggest dangers associated with the sport are avalanches and falling ice from above.
“There’ll be climber above you that’s starting to go up, and just inadvertently they’ll knock ice down and you have to be very self-conscious and self-aware,” Palmer says. “These ice blocks that are sometimes as big as a TV are crashing down, and if those were to hit you, that would land you in the hospital.”
This highlights the importance of experience and knowledge in order to mediate such risks. Rousseau says before going out it’s important to not only check the weather, but be aware of recent temperature and condition trends.
“We’re looking at what the temperatures have done over the previous 36-48 hours and what they’re projected to do for the next 12 hours during that day, as well as what wind speeds are doing, what snowfall rates are happening, and anything that might change the stability of the ice,” he says.
But even with the utmost safety precautions – and sometimes because of them – ice climbing is still certain to be an adventure. According to Palmer, his favorite time to climb is at night, not only for the excitement, but also for the security of the ice after dark.
“A great time to go ice climb along the Wasatch Front is after 6:00 at night, when it gets really, really cold and the ice really firms up,” he says. “Being able to climb at night is pretty exciting, too.”