The horizontal ice has gone. It left us after just one weekend. Talk of the elfstedentocht has subsided and Holland has taken to the bike once more. It’s a pity. When the canals are frozen, Holland, a land not best suited to outdoor-sports, is a fun place to be. Somehow, the lowlands come into their own in a freeze. The layer of ice seemingly tying the land together into something that makes sense. Balancing the equation. There’s still ice to had though. Better still, its vertical!
On a Thursday night after work, each having wangled a night off at home, the five usual suspects meet at the Beversport in The Hague. It was Thims idea. Thim’s expecting his first child any day now and seems to be clutching at any opportunity to get his fix of hill-sport before the big, life changing, event. Apparently this is his second time on the ice-wall in as many weeks. I’ve always fancied ice climbing so didn’t take a lot of persuading. Though admittedly, for me the appeal lies more in the location than the technique. As a student in Sheffield I rarely rock-climbed but if I did you could bet it was on Stanage edge rather than The Edge. Why climb indoors when you could climb with the sun on your back and the peak district for a back drop? Applying the same reasoning, I never expected my first ice-climb would be in an outgrown chest-freezer but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.
So, swapping the long walk in for a short train ride and two circuits of the shop, I get kitted-up for a couple of hours of swinging axes and front pointing. Even before it all starts, cutting a pose in Class D boots, winter gloves, softshell and visored climbing helmet, I begin to understand the attraction. Given our current location, my attire is a bit over the top but, as a self-confessed gear freak, it doesn’t really bother me. Winter climbing gear is, quite simply, the coolest outdoors gear available! You’ve got this stuff on you mean business.
Entering through the door I find myself at the top of a spiral staircase looking across at a wall of ice. The wall is 12m high. From this perspective it doesn’t look at all intimidating. However, that’s a problem easily solved. Simply descending the staircase brings with it a whole new outlook. Standing at the base of a 12m vertical wall of ice, head back, looking upwards, the adrenal glands begin to do the necessary. We get our crampons and axes and take a few minutes to accessorize. We then get a two minute instruction in going up and coming back down and the wall is ours. I do the decent thing: since I’m holding the camera I use it as an excuse and let the others go first.
Thim is first up and owing to his recent practice makes it look easy. Theo, Willem-Maarten and Jeffrey follow in a similar style. After just a few minutes its my turn. I get clipped in and step up to the wall. The climbers motto “put your faith in friction” flashes through my head. Now, the science of ice is not something I know much about, however, I have stood on enough of it to know its slippery. What’s more, I do remember enough O-level physics to know that, in this configuration, I also have to contend with the maximum resolved gravitational force. Right now, a low friction surface and the worst gravity can do don’t seem like the best combination. Still, there’s only one way to go and that's up. I place the front points of my right foot, stretch high and place my axe and hammer and step up. The feeling is a strange one. My whole weight is resting on two tips of steel. A natural inclination to shift weight to my arms kicks in, at the same time my heel starts to lift. The lads are clearly watching my every move because, in chorus, they shout “keep you’re heels down”. It’s immediately apparent that it’s going to take some time to develop the trust and finesse needed to do this thing properly. Still, I’m here to learn, and more by brute force than skill a put some distance between myself and the floor. I don’t reach the top rail. Not by a long way, I’m pumped in less than half the time it would take me to get there. After a pause, I step back , spread my arms like a shotgunned grouse, and drop to the floor.
The night continues along this vein. The others climb to the top and I work my way up and down the lower half of the wall. After two hours and a handful of goes we’re back up the stairs and changing back into civvies’. It’s been an experience. Ice climbing always looked so controlled and laid back. Here I am feeling like I’ve had a major workout after just a few minutes on the ice face. I leave having had a taster, sufficiently encouraged to want to try again, but with a new found respect for the sport.