Even for more experienced climbers, ice ascents present a whole new challenge—as anyone who’s slipped up on an icy driveway can probably imagine. For starters, there’s not much to grip onto, with every contact point holding a potential peril.
“Ice climbing is not as intuitive as rock climbing,” says Marc Carreras, managing director of adventure company PGI Greenland.
“The challenge of mountain climbing is one third technical, one third physical and one third mental. With ice climbing, the mind plays a much bigger part than one third. Ice is not nearly as stable, so you have to be patient and prepared to learn a very specific, finessed technique. The main thing is that you’re ready to cross your comfort zone.”
Luckily, there’s help at hand thanks to advanced ice tools—ice axes for each hand and technical crampons with huge front spikes for your feet—which give you the ability to hang tight to the glass-like surface. Climbers are also anchored from solid rock points above and connected by rope to a guide, meaning the chances of sliding to your doom are pretty slim. (“There’s one rule among the professional ice-climbing community: Don’t fall!” cautions Carreras with a smile.)
The real test, though, is holding your focus in the freezing temperatures. “You’re climbing in very extreme conditions,” Carreras explains. “Last year in Ilulissat we beat all weather records and we were climbing in -4°F. It’s bitter and very, very tricky, especially with the wind, so you have to be familiar with a winter environment.”
Mental and physical tests aside, Greenland’s stunning icy landscape provides climbers with a spectacular vantage point, pushing their limits from within the Arctic Circle itself. “It’s an extreme activity in an unusual location,” says Carreras. “There are places that are more well known for ice climbing, like Canada or Norway, but here you’re climbing in the ice cap, which is epic.”
Hanging onto the ice from four small points means that climbers also experience something they’re unlikely to find with traditional mountaineering. “It feels like you’re suspended in the air,” says Carreras. “It’s a unique perspective on the world.”
“Kick the ice hard—like you’re kicking a soccer ball—and always keep your heel low or if possible at 90° against the wall,” says Marc Carreras. “If you can master this, you’ll be fine.”