As hard as ice

What's it really like to climb a frozen waterfall – and how the heck is it even possible?
Ice climbing is a uniquely demanding sport © Reinhard Fichtinger
By Tarquin Cooper

Ice climbing is one of the most demanding – and dangerous – of all climbing disciplines. To start you're climbing something that for most of the year is a flowing torrent of water. The mind game alone is enough to freak you out.

Then there's the gear – ice climbers are tooled up like modern day Terminators with ergonomic ice tools, ice screws and aggressive crampons. There are a lot of sharp points that makes falling – something rock climbers can do without worrying too much – unthinkable.

Chilling out in the climate chamber © Lukas Pilz
All the gear... © Lukas Pilz

And because you're on ice, that usually means climbing in the coldest part of winter in areas that never see the sun. It's a brutal business, but therein lies its appeal. The sport requires a strong head, even stronger upper body strength and as ice climber Christian Hechenberger explains below – some expertise from the adidas Future of Sport Science Lab is pretty useful too. It's here where the sports brand develops and tests the clothing you need to stay warm in -15ºC and stay cool during a strenuous climb.


Ice meastro Christian Hechenberger © Lukas Pilz

To understand what happens to the body during an ice climb, we put  Christian in the climate chamber and turned the temperature down to -20ºC – then left to go and have lunch.

The cold is both a friend and enemy

“The cold is both a friend and enemy, because if it’s not cold, there’s no ice. But if it’s cold, ice climbing can get very serious and difficult,” he says.

Staying warm is a fine art. “As long as you’re climbing, it’s no problem,” he says. “You’re warm then. The problem is if you have to stop climbing and wait, then it gets really cold – especially when you are sweating.

“So you try to keep yourself warm and think about something warm like a hot cup of tea. And you move your hands, and stamp with your feet.”

Look, I told you I was cold © Lukas Pilz

Having the right gear is essential. “On the one hand it should be warm, and on the other – you should still be able to move.


Wearing clothes while ice climbing is recommended © Reinhard Fichtinger

We're not convinced so we keep Christian in the cool chamber until his lips turn blue and his fingers turn numb then ask him to perform lots of complicated tasks with his hands such as tying knots and trying to eat a frozen chocolate bar. Of course, this is not a perfect simulation, and the ice climbing meastro makes it look easy.

But staying warm is the first battle of ice climbing. Master that and you can enjoy the fun, he says.

“It's the ultimate challenge. You have all the elements. You have cold. You have snow. You have ice. You have to be mentally strong and physically strong. For me, it’s the best way to climb.”

Thanks to adidas and the staff at the Future of Sport Science Lab. #openallwinter



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