The obscure, some would say insane, sport of climbing frozen waterfalls is not so obscure anymore. At least according to a new report compiled by the Outdoor Industry Association, a Boulder, Colo., organization that tracks outdoor-recreation trends. The Outdoor Recreation Participation Study, Seventh Edition, cites ice climbing as a sport that 1.1 million people tried last year in the United States alone. More than 220,000 people, the report says, are ice-climbing enthusiasts who own gear and climb several times a year on frozen vertical walls.
The medium of the sport — creaking, cracking pillars and curtains of solid ice, some hundreds of feet tall — requires strange, medieval-looking equipment. In each gloved hand, for example, the climber grips a short ice ax. On their feet, ice climbers employ stout boots and aggressive steel spikes called crampons. For creating rope anchors, climbers use sharp-tip ice screws that are pounded and turned to thread up to six inches into solid ice.
Ice climbing evolved from mountaineering, but lately the sport has taken most of its cues from rock climbing, and the gear has followed suit. The rage is now overhanging routes with dangling ice daggers, thin pillars of ice and wildly gymnastic “mixed” routes that require climbers to move over sections of rock as well as ice.
On an icy cliff face in northern Ontario, I recently put some new ice-climbing gear to the test. The Black Diamond Fusion ice axes and Lowa Ice Comp GTX boots are representative of the new breed of equipment developed for mixed routes and other excruciatingly-difficult climbs. Though designed to perform on expert-level routes, many intermediate and beginner climbers are now purchasing this type of equipment right off the bat.
I started ice climbing more than 10 years ago, and at that time ice axes were for the most part straight-shafted, leash-equipped, bulky tools that quickly tired the arms. The Fusion, manufactured by Black Diamond Equipment (www.bdel.com), has a radical design that bears little resemblance to the ice tools of yore. Its exaggerated handle, for example, allows climbers to wear thin gloves and climb without leashes, which are a necessity with most ice axes but can be cumbersome on mixed climbs.
To reduce weight, the Fusion axes ($270 apiece) do not have a hammer or adze blade, which are standard features on traditional ice axes. Its sharp steel pick bites cleanly into the ice, and it can be used for hooking small rock holds and ledges while climbing.
The Fusion performs superbly on difficult climbs with sections of rock. But it is a specialized tool built primarily for advanced mixed routes. For frozen waterfalls and pure-ice climbs, I prefer a traditional curved ice ax with a leash and a hammer.
On my feet, I tested the Ice Comp GTX boots ($475), which are manufactured by Lowa Boots LLC (www.lowaboots.com). Like the Fusion axes, these boots are a radical design made for difficult routes that may have sections of steep rock and ice.
Crampon spikes, which are usually removable, are bolted onto the sole of the Ice Comp GTX boots. The result is a streamlined, low-profile feel that allows for precise little kicks at the ice for purchase.
The disadvantage to these boots is that you have to carry them to the base of the climb, as the spikes will be damaged walking on rocks and hard surfaces. I hiked about a mile in Ontario to the base of the route, wearing an alternate pair of boots for the approach.
For many climbers, the improved performance will outweigh the inconvenience of having to carry boots into the climb. Indeed, once on the wall, I was in love with the Ice Comp GTX boots. They allowed for precise, strong climbing on ice and rock. And they inspired confidence in my footwork, which is a good thing when you’re dangling and exposed on the face of a frozen waterfall.