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On Thursday January 26 2023, our three guides: Ingmar, Marc, and Fred, brought 8 climbers on an exceptional four day ice climbing initiation experience all the way in Pitztal, Austria. Despite un-ideal weather conditions, the group was able to make the most of the four days with a very varied set of experiences.
After an eight-hour drive, the first day consisted of exploring the surroundings and identifying waterfalls and areas that would allow for the group to train on and climb in multi-pitch. With a single road that traces the valley, the area is a succession of hills, cliffs and waterfalls on either side of the road, readily available for amateur climbers to attempt to summit in both summer and winter conditions… paradise! After checking out the are and spotting a few potential waterfalls to climb, they headed back home to rest, dine, and prepare for a long day.
On day 2, the group followed the frozen path of a small creek deeper in the valley until they reached a spot recommended by locals where they could learn and practice ice climbing skills on single pitch routes. After the three guides established two first routes, they gave a brief introduction to the basic techniques required for ice-climbing: firm swings in front of you, don’t swing to the side, don’t hit the convex part of the ice, lengthen your arms, place your feet, push up, and trust your crampons. Once the amateur climbers in training got started, four more single-pitch routes were established for everyone to have a chance to practice these newly found skills.
It seemed clear that while most of the equipment was the same, and the basic technique very similar, the sensations felt very different. All our fairly experienced rock climbers had to develop a new sense of trust in their equipment and body, as well some new techniques and habits. Later in the day, the team learned how to place ice screws, make an abalakov thread, also called a v-thread, and in that process, they learned to trust the strength of ice by pulling on the rope that passed through the abalakov thread, unable to break the ice. Some learned to climb in lead with pre-placed ice-screws while others continued to hone their skills and develop their confidence on ice.
After a full day of climbing, the team returned to the cabin to clean up, enjoy a home cooked meal, and learn the basics of preparing for multi-pitch waterfall climb. Split into groups, they each had to communicate and use every resource at their disposal (books, internet, pictures) to try and determine the risks and approach routes to their selected destination the next day. They were able to discover the importance of considering precipitation forecast, sun exposure, and temperature to assess avalanche and snowfall risk, as well as the existence of hike paths for the descent. This became important to establish the material list required for the full-day ascent, and descent.
On day 3, the group split into teams, each lead by one guide, and headed to their designated climbs. Multi-pitching proved no more different than single pitch climbing in most ways. Some distinct differences were that the last climber had to also manage to remove the ice screws, you may run into other climbers on the same waterfall but remember to take your time and not feel stressed, and finally you end up a lot higher on the mountain with very little ability to bail. In any case, what an experience it was for the climbers on this trip, many of which were experiencing their first multi-pitch of any climbing discipline, be it rock or ice. 150-300m and about 4-5 hours later, depending on the group you were in, everyone (Except the guides) had now climbed their first frozen waterfall and grown closer as a group. Not only do you learn to trust your teammate, but you learn to trust yourself and overcome fear or manage a creeping sense of panic. Climbing, in any form is a deeply mental exercise, and while one can get lost in the effort trying to concentrate on the ascent and not falling, do not forget to take a pause, breath, turn around, and enjoy the amazing views.
Satisfied after an amazing climb, but not feeling tired yet, on the descent through the hiking path, two groups stumbled onto a frozen and flat waterfall. The guides were able to improvise a short training session out of the surroundings to teach the principles of lead climbing in very safe conditions to those present. The group split in groups of two to simulate a climb on flat surface and practice lead-climbing techniques, anchor building, and leading from the top. Upon completing this exercise, the group found yet another waterfall at the top of the hill on which they were able to establish a route and on a tight rope practiced climbing using a prusik knot tied to the top rope. Back on the hiking path, the group finished their descent to camp and while some enjoyed a nice warm shower after all this, others googled the nearest bouldering gym to get in a quick workout before dinner.
On day 4, while the plan was to continue ice climbing in the same spot as day 2, unfortunately the spot was already claimed by many groups. So, in the natural style of the alpinist: adapt and improvise, the guides suggested a nice hike through the mountain in a sort of mini-mountaineering expedition to a mid-summit point. The snow cold underneath their feet, but the sun warm above their heads, the group embarked on a short journey up the mountain to amid-way point where they were introduced to the basic concepts of mountaineering. Trying to walk on the flat arete of a hill rather than on it’s steep side, being very careful of corniches, and moving slowly to avoid twisting ankles, sinking too deep, or falling in hidden crevasses. At the top of the hill, once more, the natural-born boulderers in each of the members was brought out when they saw a snow-covered boulder and attempted to climb over it rather than walk around it. After this manic effort, it was time to hike back down to the car and prepare for their return.
Deeply satisfied, in just four days, the 11 climbers were able to befriend each other, grow together, and experience a multitude of facets of ice-climbing that left-them wanting more. Eager to take on another adventure, the majority signed up for the FLERA mountaineering experience planned for July 26- July 30. So if you would like to experience an unforgettably unique experience as well, please remember to sign up as soon as possible and find out exactly what these guys are raving about!!
Many thanks to Caesar for the report