My first full season of ice climbing was in northwestern Ontario. I was 19, it was 21 years ago. The temps ranged from -30 degrees celsius to -48 degrees on any given day. I couldn’t believe it when I read an email via Hotmail (Gmail didn’t exist) that the Alpine Club of Canada was going to meet on Tuesday in a blistering -50 degrees with the wind chill, for an ice climbing evening at the Terry Fox ice climb.
I wore my puffiest of puffs and arrived expecting bodies strewn about, keeled over from hypothermia. Instead, I found keeners running laps on the WI3 ice climb. What did I learn? Suck it up.
Numb toes, sore limbs, frosty eyelashes, insulated fingers, friends yelling to keep climbing, a starry night and frozen ropes taught me that no degrees below zero would ever stop me. My cohorts laughed at falling ice as they beat already swollen hands off mushroomed yellow groundwater ice that clung to the side of a rock wall near the Terry Fox monument; near where he stopped his legendary cross-country-run on Aug. 31, 1980.
I went on to read that Austrian Herman Buhl carried snowballs in his hands to develop his psychological tolerance to cold in the early 1950s. He climbed on his local rock crags all winter, even in snow storms, and rode his bike for hundreds of kilometres in blizzards. It paid off when he made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat (8,126 m) solo on July 3, 1953, without bottled oxygen. If you haven’t read his book about the climb, then drop this paper and do it.
And then I read Kiss or Kill by legendary climber Mark Twight. He wrote, “I trained. I punished myself. I thought making myself suffer on a day-to-day basis would prepare me for climbing hard at high altitude. I slept on the floor. I carried ice in my bare hands. I beat them against the concrete just to see if I could handle it. I never missed an opportunity to train. I ran stairs until I vomited, then ran more. I ruined relationships to get used to the feeling of failure and sacrifice (it was much easier than holding on).”
And then there’s the Wim Hof method, named after a Dutch cold extremist known as ‘the iceman.’ He preaches about cold water therapy, and there are a few Wim Hof practitioners here in the Bow Valley. Some folks have died practicing what he teaches, so if you’re going to get into it then do your research. However, I believe that if done correctly, this method could help shock and rejuvenate your tired mind and body; or it could kill you.
After decades of training and trying, I’m still a wimp. Cold is cold, and hell does cold hurt. But I’ve learned that as a Canadian, and a climber wannabe in the Bow Valley, that no degree of cold is going to keep me indoors. So, suck it up and get out there.