ice, mountain

Meet Victoria Valchev: Calgary’s most adventurous woman

Words: Josh Rakic
Photo credit: Logan Speigel

How this 25-year-old nine-to-fiver became a modern-day adventurer.

From the beaches of Bulgaria to the Canadian Rockies, Victoria Valchev is no stranger to extremes. So when the 25-year-old nine-to-fiver was introduced to ice climbing a little over three years ago, the opportunity to wield an ice pick wasn’t one she was about to forgo. She’s since become a loyal student of all things ice-climbing, having mastered the most renowned waterfalls Alberta has to offer, with her sights set on Peru.

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Though given she’s the very definition of Canadian modesty, Victoria’s quick to tell you she’s anything but an expert. She rates her climbing ability only a little higher than her photography skills, but a quick look at her months-old Instagram account and you’re quick to discover she’s no hack in either realm.

It’s a refreshing outlook, an admission of inferiority - albeit inaccurate - that one can’t help but find endearing in a digital arena packed to capacity with self-anointed experts. She lives and works in Calgary, spending her days captive inside a cubicle, but calls the outdoors home - more at ease dangling from an ice face with nothing but a self-planted ice screw between her and certain death.

ice climbing, adventure

© Eddie Heckl

THE RED BULLETIN: You were born and raised in Bulgaria. How on earth did ice climbing become part of your life?

VICTORIA VALCHEV: My family moved out here when I was 12. I’ve never really seen myself as athletic and I spent most of my childhood on the beach, so winter mountain sports in particular weren’t something I ever thought about trying. In fact, until I climbed my first mountain four years ago, I actually used to think that Canada is a very boring place! It was actually while preparing for this interview, and giving some thought to the question of who I am that I realized that being active outdoors and challenging myself is who I’ve become. It’s where I feel happy.

But climbing isn’t your career. You’ve got a day job, right?

I work a 9-5 office job and, if anything, that’s the most adventurous part of my life because that’s where I feel most outside of my comfort zone  - in a confined space [laughs]. Luckily I’ve got a nice view of the mountains from the window in my office, which helps with dreaming up the plans for the weekend ahead.

It’s been a quick progress for you from rock climbing to ice climbing waterfalls and glaciers…

I started hiking four years ago and trying rock climbing has always been on my bucket list, so that summer I took an intro course. Then winter came, so ice climbing seemed like the logical next step. I’ve always been a sucker for getting my adrenaline fix. As soon as I was 18 I went skydiving because my parents didn’t need to approve it and in Bulgaria I went bungee jumping. I just love that feeling and on my first day of ice climbing, I knew right away that it wouldn’t be a one-time thing.

Why ice climbing over rock climbing? Other than the fact that Calgary’s winter usually lasts significantly longer than the summer…

I find ice climbing came a lot more naturally to me than rock climbing. You can stick the ice tools anywhere you want, instead of trying to reach for a hold on the wall that’s really far. I felt ready to lead and to try harder climbs a lot faster and I honestly just love the cold weather. Also, some of these waterfalls aren’t accessible during the summer, so there’s something special about knowing that only ice climbers get to see those places. 

We’ve seen videos of pro ice climbers narrowly escaping death when a frozen water overhang has given way. What are the dangers?

I haven’t witnessed any horror stories first-hand, but there are quite a few YouTube videos of ice climbing gone wrong. I’m not at the level to try the really risky climbs yet, but in general most of the risk is mitigated by keeping on top of your rope skills, taking some courses taught by experienced guides and not skipping any steps when it comes to safety. Ice climbing is a slower, more controlled winter sport than say, snowboarding, and to me, it feels a lot safer than speeding through a tree run!

But you have found yourself dangling from a waterfall before…

It was a warm day, and while the waterfall was as a whole very solid, the surface ice was melting on me. I was about two thirds of the way up and when I tried to put in my next screw (what keeps me from falling to the bottom) water kept getting inside of it and freezing immediately, so I kept trying other spots that looked more solid. Nothing! Luckily my last clean screw worked which was enough for me to get to the top of the pitch. But I ended up spending at least 15 minutes hanging up there trying to focus on my problem instead of how my muscles were cramping and how unpleasant it would be to fall 20 ft. It worked out that time but I’m sure a lead fall is in my near future when I challenge myself a little more this season.

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snow, ice climbing

© Brandon MacMullen

By challenging yourself, do you mean climbing higher waterfalls? 

Not just higher; there are a lot of variables that determine how difficult a climb is, such as the steepness, features and condition of the ice. Climbing waterfalls is fun, but it often doesn’t get you to the top of the mountain and I do like the idea of checking another summit off my list, so I think there’s more alpine (glacier) ice in my future, which means longer days that are overall more challenging from a fitness perspective. There could be any number of pitches.

You’re no stranger to a frostbite either…

[Laughs] Frostbite is an exaggeration, but either way, it’s not a heroic story. It was about -20F and halfway up the climb, we caught up with a bunch of people who were already climbing or waiting to climb ahead of us, so we had to get in line. We weren’t moving much, because there was just nowhere to go – we just sat in one spot for maybe an hour, sometimes doing jumping jacks to try to warm up. Then when I got back, I sat in front of the fireplace for hours wrapped in blankets and I just could not get warm. When I went back to work on Monday I couldn’t feel the keyboard on my fingers and I also couldn’t feel the top of my big toe for a couple of years. I’m not sure how but it’s almost back to normal now! But I’ve learned my lesson - when the forecast is like that I just don’t go out anymore. It’s not worth it. I mean, if I am going to lose a finger it may as well be somewhere really cool, like the Himalayas, and not an hour away from where I live. [laughs].

Then there’s getting back down. That’s when rappelling comes into play…

For sure. Sometimes there’s a walk off and once you get to the top of the pitch you can go around and walk back, but rappelling is way more fun! The hard climbing is done so if anything, it’s the relaxing part of the whole day. It only works well if you push off the ice with your feet and lean back, which is sometimes really intimidating when you see how much space there is between you and the ground. But you learn to trust the rope. The anchors are usually on the rock to the side so sometimes there’s nothing to put your feet on, because you are rappelling next to the waterfall and it kind of feels like you are 007. [Laughs].

You’re new to Instagram, but your photos are all class. What do you look for?

I’m the furthest thing from a photographer. When I first started hanging out in the mountains I was that person who didn’t take any photos -  I was just there to enjoy nature. I bought a camera last year, the Sony A6000 that everybody has now, because I realized I don’t have any photos that do justice to the places I’ve been so far. I don’t know much about how to use it, so I’m shooting on automatic pretty much all the time - and the only reason the photos turn out well is because where I am is incredibly beautiful. I just try to find the right angle, press the button and then edit away on Instagram. I wish I had time to open up the manual and learn how to actually use the camera, because I’m sure it’s capable of taking way better pictures than the ones I’m taking right now.

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