'Don’t have your head level with the axes...' - A beginner's guide to ice climbing
'... and don’t stare at them when pulling them out. This helps avoid a face strike.'
Jay Thundercliffe picks up his axe and channels his inner Jon Snow, as he takes on the Ice Factor’s ice wall
From the first sight of Ben Lomond to the towering, snow-tinged tops cradling Glencoe, my journey from Glasgow to Kinlochleven is a tantalising preface to Ice Factor. Encircled by some of Scotland’s most popular mountains, this former Victorian aluminium smelter houses the world’s largest indoor ice-climbing facility. Inside, past the centre’s dry climbing walls, in what is essentially a giant freezer maintaining -2°C, is the imposing ice wall, where 500 tons of snow and ice cover 1400sq metres, up to a neck-craning 50 feet.
Tooled up with helmet, harness, crampons and ice axes, I’m roped to route setter and highly experienced climber Kevin Shields – extra inspirational in scaling his heights with epilepsy and only one hand (he uses a prosthetic-axe combo on ice). Kev goes through the basics. ‘It’s not like TV, where you see people kicking in as if taking a penalty. That’s the way to tire very quickly’. My mind races – feet shoulder-width apart, balance, legs to push up, don’t over-reach. I pale at ‘face strike’: ‘Don’t have your head level with the axes, and don’t stare at them when pulling them out. This helps avoid a face strike’, Kev explains. Roger that.
I start on the smaller section. Toes straight in, heels flat, axes flicked not swung. Then I’m hanging there, admittedly only inches up but ice climbing none the less. Surprisingly, I’m at the top with minimum fuss – but that’s the point of easy sections.
Game of Thrones flashes by as I stare up the full wall, despite Kev’s assurances my legs can bridge the gully. I surprisingly reach and smoothly ascend to half way until classic beginner’s ‘jelly arms’ hits from too much hanging on for dear life with my arms. Axes flounder, crampons slip, sounds of alarm emanate from someone – not me I hope. Kev kindly takes my weight while I shake blood into extremities. I make the top, hot, flustered, arms raging, but heady with victory that remains despite later flummoxes on trickier sections.
Much more than just for first-timers, Ice Factor is an important, highly valued resource for all climbers looking to hone their ice skills. A controlled environment is an immeasurable advantage in a country with brutal winter weather, allowing ice enthusiasts to learn without white-outs and to practice for the short season, best in February and March.
Next morning? My arms ache, calves ache, stomach aches, hands ache, fingers ache, but also my mind aches to one day haul myself up one of the world-famous nearby ice climbs. Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis? Maybe, after a lot more sessions indoors.