Ice climbing in the UK can be a short-lived seasonal affair. Our winters are notoriously fickle so, when the ice arrives and consolidates, you’ve got to hope and pray that you’ve got days off before the next mild front blows through to spoil your fun. As such, developing your skills can be a tricky affair. That was, however, before the advent of indoor ice climbing centres and, during our recent family holiday in Scotland, I got to test out the biggest one in the world. Here’s how I got on…
Ice Factor, located in Kinlochleven, Scotland can boast many things. It is, after all, a gateway to the beautiful mountains of Glencoe, which would be more than enough for most outdoor lovers. Kinlochleven, however, also has another boast: it is base to the National Ice Climbing Centre and home to biggest indoor ice wall anywhere in the world. The centre offers both tuition and coaching and free climbing for those with more experience.
Happily, I spent the afternoon under the guidance of two of their expert instructors and, after a very short introduction and briefing, we were on the ice. From basic warm up activities (although you shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of trying to climb a vertical ice wall with no ice axes) to discussions on knots, I felt at ease immediately and knew this was going to be a great day.
Starting on the smaller wall, the instructors soon had me perfecting my crampon kicks and ice axe flicks. They also went over a variety of techniques that I could use and switch between, depending on conditions, terrain and gradient. The smaller wall, for example, had quite a few small kicker steps, making it slightly easier to determine foot placement. Consequently, this was a great wall to warm up on and to find my groove with each technique.
Even at this point I knew that my body was getting a good workout. There’s something frustratingly annoying about knowing in your head how to perfect a technique but not having the ability or experience to translate that into action. As a result, my body tired far more quickly than it would have done had my technique been up to scratch. In fact, I think my upper body was still paying the price for my less-than-great technique a couple of days later!
Moving onto the big wall, however, seemed to refresh my already flagging body. I was hooked on this ice climbing lark and now had an even bigger challenge and motivator to stare up at. Again, the instructors reminded me of the things to consider but this time left me to plan my own way up the vertical wall. Ice climbing is just that: a succession of problems to solve, much like traditional climbing. I could clearly see sections that would need more care, with ice slightly more prone to brittleness than other sections. I could also see large swathes of ice with very few crampon or ice axe indentations, meaning that a vertical sheet of ice really didmean a vertical sheet of ice. After a few movements of my arms and legs to loosen them off, I took my first confident step up.
My first objective was to make my way up to a section where there was an obvious foothold which could act as a rest and re-group point. I was aiming to break this big wall into manageable sections. In what seemed like quite a passage of time, of repeating my routine of foot placement, ice axe placement, getting my legs and hips close up against the wall so that I could arch my back and look up to begin the steps again, I made it to the rest shelf. Getting there, however, I knew I’d been too over-reliant on my arms, when really my legs should be doing all of the work. I needed to refine my foot and hand placements to give my body a break.
With no more obvious rest points, I then made a spirited attempt for the top. The top section was a difficult section for someone of my ability and I had to work super-hard just to stay stuck to the wall. And then, just when I had the top within touching distance, a slightly misaligned crampon gave way forcing me to resort to cling to my ice axes while I tried to poke for a new foothold. Unfortunately, tiredness got the better of me and, before I could find more secure footing, I was off the wall, leaving one axe dug in near the summit.
Despite my failure to conquer the big wall, I was happy with my efforts and loved every minute of my day ice climbing on the world’s biggest indoor ice climbing wall. It was hard but awesome fun and I genuinely can’t wait to give it another go. I also can’t thank the instructors enough; they were brilliant throughout. Knowing that they also run a variety of winter mountaineering weekends in the area, I have certainly not ruled out contacting them again in the near future to organise something (particularly as this will be the first year in many, many years that I won’t be skiing at February half term).
It’s also worth noting that the National Ice Climbing Centre is really family friendly. In fact, it’s so family friendly that they have their own soft play area for younger kids unable to access the traditional climbing walls that their bigger sibling may be on, or the ice walls that their parents might be conquering. This makes it a real option for parents who might want to take it in turns on the walls and enjoy a hot chocolate during rest periods in the cafe overlooking the soft play. Very well thought out Ice Factor.