Ice climbing is probably not on most people’s radar. It’s perhaps an activity you’ve seen on TV or in magazines but unlikely to be something you’ve seen people practicing. With good reason: unless you live in a very cold climate, ice climbs tend to be restricted to high altitude rock faces in the depths of winter. Not the kind of sport that’s immediately visible.
And so it was with a mix of naivity and open-mindedness that my son and I signed up for a day’s multi-activity session at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven recently. This included indoor climbing, an outdoor high ropes activity and and session trying ice climbing – a taster session to … er … learn the ropes so to speak.
First up was a chance to go indoor climbing. Regular readers will be aware that getting the hang of indoor climbing was one of my ’14 for 2014′ challenges this year and so with my son, we’ve been fairly regular visitors to the climbing walls at Ratho (Edinburgh’s International Climbing Arena and Europe’s largest indoor climbing centre), in Stirling and in Callander. We found this a great chance to practice our new-found skills and we had great fun racing each other up and down the wall using the auto belays. I normally belay my son but with additional help from Rich, our instructor for the day, my son was belaying me for a change.
While I’d nosily peaked in at the Ice Factor in the past just to see what the ice wall actually looked like, what I didn’t realise that it’s the world’s largest indoor climbing facility. Pretty impressive – and useful too, once you consider how fickle Scotland’s climate can be. It’s great to have world class ice climbing on the doorstep high up on Ben Nevis’ Tower Ridge (amongst other places) but it’s a long and exhausting business – involving 12 to 15 hour days – if your only chance to practice is at 4000ft when the weather conditions are right.
For the uninitiated, think of the ice climbing wall as the largest walk-in freezer you’ve ever seen. Initially, it felt odd to be getting kitted out in our winter gear in the cafe to then step into a cold, dry ice chamber at a constant -2 degrees. But once we got used to the fact that we’d stepped through the door into a different world we quickly got to grips with the idea.
Being a winter hillwalker, and benefiting from a course at Glenmore Lodge, I’m used to using crampons and ‘digging in’ toes-first into the ice. But it’s quite a different technique to indoor rock climbing where you tend to use the inside edges of your feet – and certainly it felt quite alien to be using ice axes to provide balance and direction, propelled by the power in your legs.
I can’t confess to being a ‘natural’ but I enjoyed the short taster. I think my technique was a bit rough-and-ready, focused on getting to the top rather than doing it the most efficient manner, but I’m sure that after a few sessions I’d begin to get the hang of it.
Our final session was the high ropes, just outside the Ice Factor’s cafe and about 10 metres off the ground. Essentially, this is an obstacle course following a circular track where you grab hold of ropes to steady yourself and balance on logs and ropes, trying not to slip off. At the end there’s a small jump on to a trapeze. Before you get too alarmed, I should of course add that you’re roped up the whole time (connected to the ‘track’ above you) and so there’s absolutely no risk that you’ve ever going to fall to the ground. Phew !
This was good fun and a breeze for my son and I, who have both done several similar high ropes courses in the past. My son is completely unphased by heights, having done the infamous ‘leap of faith’ at Center Parcs aged six (which is higher and scarier), and I did my second bungee jump at Killiecrankie this summer. It was less fun for the unfortunate guy we were following around the course who at one point couldn’t manage to stand up having lost his footing, and spent the next fifteen minutes shuffling on his backside in the rain in a rather undignified manner. It gave us plenty time to admire the lovely view of the Autumn trees on the slopes of the Mamores, though.
Would I go ice climbing again ? Well I certainly enjoyed a quick taster but I’m honestly not sure I’d want to take it up as a hobby. I can now say I’ve given it a go but it’s not something I have a burning desire to take up. For one thing, I don’t live in the right part of the world to be able to practice it on a regular basis and secondly, the thought of lugging a heavy rucksac full of ropes and other gear up to the top of a mountain before you can even start to climb seems just a little bit like too much hard work.
I do, however, admire others who take up ice climbing; it’s a sport that demands technique, skill, fitness, confidence and a huge degree of resilience. So, if you think you like the sound of it then go on, give it a go.
According to the Ice Factor’s website:
“Since opening in 2003, Ice Factor Kinlochleven has become synonymous with action packed adventure and family fun.
Whether you are a gnarly, experienced mountaineer, a foot weary walker off the West Highland Way, a youth group, stag-hen party or family and friends looking for an amazing day out, Ice Factor is the perfect place to have fun as you practice, train and learn every conceivable mountaineering skill. Or you may simply choose to kick back in the sauna and bar!
Home of the Biggest Indoor Ice Climbing arena in the World! and with an average of 130,000 annual visitors, we’ve probably introduced more people to the thrill of ice climbing than anywhere on the planet.
Little wonder Ice Factor Kinlochleven ranks amongst the Top 5 visitor attractions in the Highlands of Scotland (source: Visit Scotland Tourism Monitor 2007) and is now a must visit attraction for any visitor to the picturesque West Highlands.”