Go Away! - Ice Climbing

There are few things so satisfying as the swing and penetration of an ice axe into thick, crusty ice'

Feature by RJ Thomson | 10 Feb 2007

Experience is big business these days. Plain materialism is old news. It's no longer about what you've got, but what you've done, what you're doing. Not just round the world trips, but mp3 players and sports cars: even when people try to sell you material things, it's usually based on how they will change your experiences, not simply that you'll be glad to have them.

There are few experiences so distinctive and memorable as ice climbing. There's just nothing like it. Traditional rock climbers don't use a pair of axes, and ice skaters don't use a pair of axes either. Factor in extreme cold, vertiginous drops, exhilaration and exercise, and you've got about the most fun you can have with a pair of axes (serious psychological disorders aside). Sensing this much, it was time The Skinny got involved.

We booked on a guided course courtesy of Abacus Mountaineering, who are based in Fort William (currently pitching itself as 'Outdoor Capital of the UK'). Abacus' chief selling point was a simple one: no matter your experience, they will tailor your expedition to match. From 'I once went on a sledge' beginners to those looking to perfect their ice climbing loop-the-loops, Mike Pescod and his partner Donald King have the expertise and, well, the experience to fit the bill. Offering competitive rates to match your party, it's also safe to say they have the bill to fit the experience.

Enough of such cosy wordplay: to the chilly business itself. Having established our approximate level and ambitions for the day (I went with a friend – advised for story-sharing afterwards), Mike enthused in favour of a 'classic' Ben Nevis route: Number Three Gully Buttress.

A note here on 'The Ben': those readers who have climbed our nation's highest mountain in summer, by the zig-zagging tourist route, may have memories of an enormous, rounded lump of rock and heather. Ben Nevis is in fact a draw to climbers from around the world because of its fearsome, and somewhat elusive, 'North Face'. Walking up to the North Face early on a January morning is a bit like striding towards the great maw of the underworld, only inverted, and after it has been chewing on a mouthful of epic-scale glacier mints. In the enthusiastic and faultlessly reassuring company of our guide Mike, though, we couldn't help but be excited to the point of distraction.

Fears for the cold were largely allayed by my get-up: I was dressed like a hitman from an unmade Austin Powers movie – all black over-clothes, sinister goggles, and a daft patterned scarf. Fears for our safety were entirely covered by Mike, who took the lead up the steep rocky ridge, and placed secure rope-fasts to cover any mistakes we made. We didn't make any, in fact, and cautious readers should be reassured: technically, ice climbing isn't that difficult, at least at the introductory level. More of a challenge is the physical business of hauling yourself up, straining your calves as you hold a position, and pulling out your grips (axe or crampon) before thrusting them back into the ice. Again, don't be put off by this. Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will be able to have a hugely rewarding day. There are few things so satisfying as the swing and penetration of an ice axe into thick, crusty ice. Looking down a windswept, icy, treacherous cliff-face and knowing you got yourself to the top, might just be one of them.

Ice climbing features heavily on the cringe-inducing 'Live It' ads for VisitScotland currently doing the rounds. Somehow they've managed to make the whole possibility of outdoor sport seem ridiculous. I think it's the voice-over. But living anywhere in Scotland, you are privileged to be on the doorstep of one of the finest outdoor theme parks in the world: the Western Highlands. With a guide as assured Mike Pescod, nothing is out of your reach, even (especially) in the worst of winter. But don't just take it from me. The Ben is waiting for you.

Ice climbing prices start from £66 per person.