Rome: “It’s not dangerous – as long as you don’t make any errors,” says climbing instructor Roman Valentini, as he slips a rope into a figure of eight and loops it through my harness. I’m staring up at a waterfall, now a solid wall of ice, with crampons attached to my boots and an axe in each hand.
We’re deep in the Dolomites, South Tyrol, in northern Italy, an area so beautiful it’s been declared a Unesco world heritage site. The landscape is famous for its rounded, boulder-like mountaintops, jagged spires and horizontal plateaus, creating unique views you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
In winter, it’s a stunning ski destination with an incredible 1,200km of slopes (a wide variety of blues, red and black levels are all accessible with the same lift pass), and in summer, the sheer mountain faces attract keen climbers.
Waterfalls that flow freely in the warmer months become frozen blocks of ice by December, right through to spring; some are solid enough to climb up, if you’re brave enough.
The sport of ice climbing is more accessible for beginners than it might look. The area around Colfosco, close to Hotel Sassongher in Corvara where I’m staying, is recommended only to those with a lot of experience; while Capanna Alpina – a short drive and a 30-minute snowy hike away – is ideal for first-timers.
Along with admiring a view of the valley and the imposing 3,000 metre peaks of the Contourines mountains, skiers stop mid-slope to take a curious look at the rope Roman has screwed into the ice above us. He’s just effortlessly scaled the wall without the comfort of the belaying system climbers use to ensure their partner doesn’t fall too far.
Then again, he’s been climbing since the age of 11 and ice climbing from 15, and he once ice climbed 300 metres high, so we’re in safe hands.
For anyone who’s rock-climbed before, Roman says, difficulty-wise, the two are comparable, and the power you need to haul yourself up is the same – but that ice poses an additional challenge. “On rock, it’s easier, because you have more options, but on ice you have to make the right decision,” he says. No pressure then.
The ice needs to be frozen all the way through, and therefore usually always in shade, so hearing some water trickling through isn’t helping my pre-climb nerves. “You look scared,” Roman smiles, as he whacks an axe into the wall so it sticks. “Now you try!”
As I attempt to lift it out, it won’t shift. This doesn’t bode well. You need some upper body strength for ice climbing, it turns out, as well as strong legs, a head for heights and nerves of steel.
The technique sounds simple enough; find any suitable dents or holes I can hook the axes into above my head, one at a time, then take three small steps by kicking the spikes on the front of the crampons hard into the ice, lifting myself up while Roman gradually lets tension out of the rope attached to me from the ground. I know this means it’s impossible to fall more than 50cm if I slip, but the reality of keeping myself attached to a sheer wall of ice is terrifying.
It feels precarious and unnatural. I’m just about hanging on for dear life with axes and a couple of spikes I’ve pelted into the ice, but I soon begin to get the hang of it – and it’s an adrenaline rush on a whole other level.
But higher up, when the surface becomes completely vertical, I realise I’ve reached my limit. Roman loosens the rope to help me abseil down, which proves to be just as unnerving as my journey on the way up.
Once my heart rate has returned to normal, I make a second attempt – this time 15 metres high to an inlet where the waterfall starts. It takes every ounce of strength and nerve I have to get over the sheer ledge that halted my previous attempt.
Legs shaking uncontrollably, there seems to be no power left in my arms to get any grip onto the ice with the axes. But thanks to Roman’s never-ending encouragement and calm confidence in my limited climbing abilities, I eventually find myself at the top – at first shaking, stomach-lurching, then triumphant.
As Roman says, ice climbing isn’t for everyone. But for thrill-seekers, it’s is a once-in-a-lifetime adrenaline rush to add to a ski holiday itinerary – and there aren’t many places more spectacular than the South Tyrol region of the Dolomites to both ski and climb.
Heading back to the solid ground of historic, five-star Hotel Sassongher, I slip into the rooftop Jacuzzi; with snowy views of the town and valley, it’s the perfect way to soak post-climbing legs.
You can lose hours just making your way around the many relaxation rooms, multiple saunas and pool, before topping off an active day out in the crisp winter air with an aperitif at the bar and four courses of traditional Italian food at the hotel’s elegant Stube restaurant.
And I don’t miss any opportunity to tell anyone and everyone about my day’s impressive ice-scaling escapades.