CLIMBING :: Introduction To Climbing Icebergs
The brilliant sunlight provided a false appearance of warmth as our team prepared for the final pitch to reach the peak of the towering mountain of ice. The unrelenting arctic wind intensified as the group ascended and the pace accelerated out of compassion for the belayer left below dangling in the wind. The light shone through the iceberg giving it a sapphire hue that was silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky and starkly contrasted against the blinding white snow of the frozen inlet and surrounding mountains
The massive iceberg had grounded the previous summer and subsequently froze into the sea ice over winter. It sat a half-mile from one shore and roughly three miles from the other shore in Pond Inlet, a picturesque four-mile by 40-mile passage of water between Devon and Baffin Island, lined on both sides by snow covered mountains separated by glaciers. Pond Inlet is situated deep within the Arctic Circle on the northern part of Baffin Island, an island almost 25% longer and larger than California and located over two thousand miles north of New York City. This was the first ice climbing expedition to Nunavut - a new Canadian territory officially created in April 1999.
The Arctic Iceberg Climbing SeasonBack To Top
The expedition was planned to correspond to the very limited window for iceberg climbing which lasts from May through late June. During the winter, frigid temperatures and lack of sunlight make climbing impossible, while at the height of summer the frozen ice that surrounds icebergs disappears and makes access more difficult and dangerous. During the spring months, the temperatures can be quite pleasant fluctuating from 25-40F. The sun shines continuously from May through July in the land of the midnight sun, and the lack of humidity and cold temperatures make cloud formation rare. Weather in the arctic is unpredictable and a minimum of 10 days is needed for an expedition to reduce the chance that bad weather lasts for the duration of the trip.
Although climbing an iceberg is very exotic in appearance, our group found it to be a much safer and easier climbing experience than traditional waterfall and frozen runoff ice-climbing, with the exception of a few new risks to keep in mind. Being deep in the arctic gives a whole new meaning to the word "remote" and we always kept in mind that help could be days away.
Even as the Hawker Siddley aircraft circled Pond Inlet, we could see an immense iceberg sitting in the bay. We headed out of Pond on komiteks, which are sleds pulled by either dog team or snowmobile with the gear lashed firmly onto them. We traveled almost 40 miles and passed numerous icebergs until we were within a few miles of the floe edge, which is a continuous line where the ice abruptly ends and the open Arctic Ocean begins. We set up base camp behind a protective rocky outcrop that acted as a windbreak. The location put us close to the edge of the ice, but far enough away that the ice we were camping on would not break off and float away into the ocean.
Grounded IcebergsBack To Top
On the way out we stopped and evaluated a number of icebergs. Bergs in bays or close to islands frequently run aground and are subsequently frozen into the solid sea ice over the course of the winter. These icebergs offer the greatest degree of safety and are the only kind that climbers should attempt. The increased safety is due to two factors. The solid ice that forms around the iceberg may be as much as 6-10 feet thick and reinforces or stabilizes the iceberg in the event that one face, or a part of it were to collapse. Secondly, once grounded, it is much harder and consequently less likely for an iceberg to flip. Eventually in late summer after the sea ice has receded, leaving the iceberg once again surrounded by open water, the berg may assume a different position and float away, but it is not uncommon for a grounded iceberg to remain in position for years.
In many respects, climbing a grounded iceberg is much safer than other kinds of more traditional ice. To begin with the ice is completely solid and very strong. When climbing during the spring and summer the outside temperature causes a slight warming in the outer crust. I can not think of a more ideal density than a half inch of warm supple ice with very strong thick layer below. The axes easily pierce the exterior and strongly grasp the colder ice. The warmer ice prevented any frozen plates from forming or falling and the colder ice firmly held the axes.
Simon Baker, one of our climbing team, was ice climbing for the first time and never lost a placement. In fact [knock on wood] the ice was so sturdy that we did not have one fall over days of climbing. Although we were fortunate to have such great conditions we were still very aware of the potential dangers with grounded icebergs. Just like other types of ice, it is possible for an entire face to collapse. In the case of icebergs, however, the weak faces are normally pretty evident from long cracks that form up and down the berg and occasionally large sheets of ice even bend out away from the main body of ice. Frequently these areas also have an abundance of broken chunks at the bottom from sheets that have fallen. Climbing towards the center and inside valleys within the iceberg is the safest route. Another danger when climbing is open water. Because the iceberg has less salt content than the sea ice surrounding it, there is not always a clean "join" between the two kinds. If large chunks have fallen from the berg, they may have broken the sea ice directly below, or if large pieces have broken off from below the iceberg, they may have broken through the sea ice to reach the surface. Very frequently there is open water from 1 foot to 20+ feet around the iceberg and normally it varies around the circumference. The secret to a safe first mount is to find the locations where the join between sea ice and iceberg is solid, and then start the climb from there. It is also occasionally possible to climb a portion of the iceberg by walking up an incline or lip on crampons and then start the climb from within or literally on the iceberg. It is extremely important to know where the open water is so if someone falls they do not land in frigid water. Even after the first pitch or two when we reached horizontal areas of an iceberg mid way up, it was important to follow proper mountaineering techniques and remain tied-in, as a slide down a slick ice valley may end with a cold water dip, which is always dangerous and even more so if the area is hard to access and the climber is carrying a heavy gear rack.
The Floe Edge & Free Floating IcebergsBack To Top
Much of the arctic is covered in solid frozen sea ice that can extend dozens of miles out from shore during the spring, and hundreds of miles in the winter. Our base camp was set up on the ice in sight of the floe edge and a half dozen icebergs. It is along this floe edge that one finds an abundant and flourishing ecosystem. Whales frequently swim along the edge waiting for it to recede so they can follow their migration patterns; seals and walrus also swim along the edge and pull themselves out onto the ice to rest; birds fish the waters and polar bears hunt them all. Icebergs too find their way to the floe edge as they drift through the ocean, invariably being blown by the wind or pushed by the current into the sea ice. Although these icebergs may appear "stuck" it is unlikely that they are grounded, as the water is frequently extremely deep, and also impossible for them to be securely frozen into the ice as the floe edge is very dynamic in movement and is constantly breaking up and receding in the summer. A change in the wind direction may blow them away as easily as it blew them in. The result is an iceberg that although accessible by snowmobile and which may appear grounded, is in reality no safer than a free-floating iceberg.
Although the floe edge is an integral part of any arctic trip, we didn't climb bergs on the floe edge for the same reason that we would not go by boat to climb free floating icebergs in the ocean. Once an iceberg has been calved, or broken off, from a glacier, it will drift for months and potentially thousands of miles until it eventually melts. Although floating bergs have been climbed, it is generally not a good idea. A climber may fall into the freezing water and, if lucky, suffer only hypothermia, but is more than likely to drown under the weight of soaked clothing and heavy climbing gear. In addition, free floating icebergs may break apart without warning as high waves and heavy swells hasten their destruction. As they dissolve they may split in two, roll over, or shed large sections with a gigantic roar. And if any piece of a floating iceberg breaks off, the entire structure may flip. Furthermore, sometimes enormous sections of ice break off from the deep below the waterline, which immediately change the iceberg's center of mass and frequently cause the iceberg to flip.
The visible part of an iceberg accounts for only 15% of the total size, and although it may appear stable, there is no way to tell the condition of the other 85% below the water. Therefore there is no such thing as a "secure route" on a free floating iceberg, as any weak section above or below the water may trigger a catastrophic collapse or rotation of the entire structure. This possibility exists without introducing the chance that a climber might inadvertently trigger such a chain of events.
Although the possibility of flipping precludes climbers from attempting free floating icebergs, it is precisely this flipping that causes amazing turrets, ridges and faces that have been shaped underwater to emerge above water. And it is these shapes and formations that make iceberg climbs so unique and interesting once they are grounded and consequently more stable and safe.
The ClimbBack To Top
It was while climbing a grounded iceberg that we came to fully appreciate the multitude of different climbs and challenges that iceberg climbing could offer. After a short hike onto and up a ridge of the iceberg, we were safely beyond the "water skirt" around the bottom. We started the climb by popping over a small 30-foot mound with a vertical face on each side, and we found ourselves inside a stunning glacier valley completely invisible from the outside. A long chute about 50 yards across and 300 yards down at a 45 degree angle went all the way to the bottom where broken ice indicated water. Along the top of the valley were large castle-like spires that appeared as fine crystal with the sunlight piercing right through them. After an easy traverse of the chute, we had another pitch to reach the next ledge of ice. This vertical ice face was from 30 to 150 yards depending upon how far down the chute you went before starting. Although we had been warm in the sun when starting, we found ourselves now in the shadows of the chute with the walls on both sides. The temperature dropped significantly and became a factor in the route we chose. Once up on the first major ledge of the iceberg, we had an unrivaled view of the frozen water, mountains and of the sheer magnitude of the iceberg we were standing on with the frozen valley of ice below and yet another hundred-yard pitch to go to reach the top.
Unfortunately a crampon screw that came loose and was lost left one of our team without the equipment needed to make the final pitch but also taught us the importance of bringing extra gear and tools on the climb. Another important lesson from that first attempt was the amazing variance in temperature and conditions as we ascended. The wind is unrelenting in the arctic, and the warmth one may feel at the bottom of an iceberg can quickly disappear as wind picks up with altitude and temperatures can drop severely when in a shadow cast by an ice structure or while traversing valleys inside the iceberg.Ê Wind and shadows can create cold temperatures that make belaying very uncomfortable. Climbers should pack extra parkas, thicker gloves and face protection to don when conditions warrant. Climbers should also be very sensitive to the amount of time their partner has been belaying. Belay locations should be specifically chosen in the sun, and if possible, out of the wind.Ê Within the Arctic Circle in the summer, the sun never sets and climbing can be continuous. Without dark glacier glasses, the reflection of sunlight off the snow, ice and ocean is blinding. Although the sunlight never disappears entirely, the intensity of the sun does diminish during the night and the temperatures drop. The midnight sun casts a golden hue that is a photographer's delight but if you plan to climb at night you should wear and bring even more clothing.
The next day we returned to the same iceberg and decided to climb a completely different face on the backside, which offered a continuous climb of about 350 yards at roughly 70-85 degrees. We quite easily climbed the two pitches needed to reach the top and enjoyed an even more spectacular view of the entire iceberg that was now visible from all sides, and the surrounding mountains.
A Spiritual ExperienceBack To Top
People have not traditionally climbed icebergs because they are so remote, and there is a very short window of opportunity throughout the year. However, the locations to climb icebergs are more accessible than one might think and can be reached in less than a day's travel on regularly scheduled flights on First Air that depart from Ottawa three times a week. The arctic wilderness of jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys, spectacular fjords, and wildlife is unlike anything that most experienced world travelers have ever seen. Hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing and even snorkeling with whales and experiencing the local culture are other activities that can round out a trip of a lifetime to one of the most amazing and pristine areas on earth.
Climbing icebergs in the arctic is an absolutely amazing, almost spiritual experience. The ice is much more solid and secure than waterfall ice, offers multiple pitches, dozens if not hundreds of routes and absolutely stunning scenery to boot. A well chosen iceberg is much safer than any seasonal ice anywhere as the firm thick ice easily accepts long bulletproof screws and allows for easy and secure placements. Because of the nature of icebergs, you are guaranteed that your climb will be the first ascent and most likely the last. Every year brings new icebergs, new fantastic formations such as castles, arches, spires or domes and with it new challenges. A towering iceberg bridging the sea to the sky and shimmering in the sun most certainly deserves the consideration of any dedicated ice climber and will offer the stunning beauty and challenges that have made other climbs legendary.
Iceberg FormationBack To Top
Icebergs form during spring and summer thawing by either breaking away from a glacier or polar ice sheet. The Greenland Glacier forms over 10,000 icebergs annually and roughly 400 of these drift down as far south as Newfoundland. Icebergs range in size from that of a grand piano to the dimensions of a ten-story building. The Antarctic produces over six times as many icebergs as the arctic and much larger ones. The mean ice in icebergs is 5,000 years.
Gear MaintenanceBack To Top
In general the salt content in sea ice is about one-tenth that of seawater as salt migrates, by gravity, through the matrix of ice crystals. The sea ice at the surface loses so much salt that it becomes potable and, in fact, is used by the Inuit (formerly called Eskimos) as a source of fresh water. The salt that remains, however, can cause severe rusting of climbing gear and it is very important to rinse all metal equipment regularly when used on icebergs and possibly take action against corrosion by applying WD40 or some other lubricant to gear that will rust.