Clinging precariously to a sheet of rippling blue ice, the summit in sight, I took a leap of faith. Digging my spiked shoes into the metre-thick walls of the “chimney” of frozen water, I lunged with an ice axe, connecting for a brief second, only to dislodge a block the size of my fist: it narrowly missed my head and left me dangling from a rope like a forlorn marionette.
Several attempts later I finally reached the top, arms burning despite the minus six degree temperature. This sub-zero experience wasn’t taking place on the glaciers of the Alps, though, nor the frozen wastes of the Antarctic. It was in Covent Garden, just around the corner from the crowds of tourists gawping at human statues and unicycle riders.
Vertical Chill, in the Ellis Brigham outdoor equipment store, is a man made ice box where you can learn to climb without the risk of plummeting into a remote ravine and having to eat your own feet to stay alive.
As someone who’s done a fair bit of rock climbing, I expected to pick it up quite quickly – after all, the ice wall is only seven metres high and indoor walls around London can comfortably double that. I was wrong. While some of the basics apply to both (let your legs do the work if you want to be able to hold your coffee cup the next morning), the technique is completely different.
In rock climbing, the trick is to try to stay side-on to the wall and use your hips. Ice climbing requires you to be face-on: kick your crampon into the wall at too much of an angle and you’ll be swinging from a rope as soon as you try to take a step. The key is to get a firm footing and put all of your weight on your legs. If you’re doing it right, your axes should be used for balance, not for climbing. Judging by the burn in my arms, I wasn’t doing it right, despite the best efforts of my instructor.
If it’s a workout you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. The awkward positions you have to adopt if you’re to have a hope of reaching the top work muscles that are often underused. Beginners, especially, who are sure to spend a good portion of their time clinging onto their axes instead of balancing on their feet, will be acutely aware of their triceps the following day. The back of your thighs will also get a good stretch.
An hour flew by: just as I was getting the hang of it, my time was up. It certainly won’t be my last attempt. The centre has several routes to conquer, including a fearsome-looking overhang, meaning there is plenty of scope for repeat visits.
Ice climbing at Vertical Chill costs £50 an hour for an introductory session with full instruction. Subsequent sessions cost £35, and every fourth climb is free. Visit www.vertical-chill.com or call 0207 395 1010 for more information.