Why you should care
Because a vertical 100-meter dash seems like the right kind of extreme.
Twisting his arm under his leg to slice an ice ax into the snowy surface, flipping almost upside down to reach the next drill pocket and finally making it to the top of the man-made course: That’s the moment Canadian Noah Beek earned the first-place finish in the North American Ice Climbing Championships — his first stop on the World Cup circuit.
“My favorite part of climbing is the movement,” said Beek, Canada’s top ice climber. “There’s so many different movements that you never thought your body could do.”
Beek describes this icy-cool sport as a niche within a niche … within a niche. There’s rock climbing, then winter rock climbing, then outdoor ice climbing, then finally there’s competitive ice climbing. And that’s just how Beek started in the sport three years ago. He loved rock climbing and when winter came around, his coach handed him ice axes and said, “This is what we’re doing now.”
Competitive ice climbing is less hiking up a steep hill and more like acrobatics on a snowy, contorted wall 300 feet in the air.
There are two disciplines of ice climbing: lead and speed. Speed is best described as a vertical version of the 100-meter sprint (reach the top as fast as you can), while lead is judged on technique and masterful moves (get up there fast, but make it look cool too). The competition displays one (lead) or two (speed) climbers at a time using an ice ax in each hand and picks on their shoes to make their way up the man-made structure collecting points on their way to the top. As they climb, they clip into the quick-draws and collect a point, and judges decide the winner.
If you’re picturing something like Jake Gyllenhaal climbing up Mount Everest in the 2015 movie Everest, then you’ve got it all wrong. Competitive ice climbing is less hiking up a steep hill and more like acrobatics on a snowy, contorted wall 300 feet in the air.
Although the sport has been around since the late ’90s and the first World Cup was held in 2002, it’s just now beginning to hit its peak — pun very much intended. The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) was officially sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just 15 years ago, and today they currently represent approximately 3 million people from 68 countries on six continents. And these numbers continue to grow year after year.
“We’re always expanding; we have interest from countries that you wouldn’t necessarily think participate a lot in winter sports,” said Rob Adie, who organizes the ice climbing World Cup events. “We’re seeing interest from countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan, which is pretty cool.”
Ice climbing was a showcase sport at the 2014 Olympic Games and approved as a showcase sport again for the 2018 Olympic Games. But don’t expect it to move to official Olympic sport status anytime soon. After being considered for the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, it’s since been decided no new sports would be added to the program. However, you can catch ice climbing at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games. And sport climbing is making its debut in Tokyo 2020.
Beek says the sport’s recent growth has the media to thank: “It’s all about access; the more channels that pick it up, the more UIAA’s social media picks up, the more people will enjoy it.”
It’s clear that people around the world agree. In 2015, the UIAA received a mere 36,000 live streams, but by 2018 they received 1.6 million. During the 2018 season, the Olympic Channel broadcast three ice climbing events around the world; next season, they will stream every single one.
And although Beek is taking next year off from competition, he’s still got those frozen waterfalls calling his name.