Meet the Ice Climbers. Our series profiles the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour’s highly-talented, determined and skilful athletes.
Kendra Stritch, born 1982, made history in 2014 when she became the first North American to win a stage of the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour. This historic success arrived on the speed wall in Bozeman, Montana.
Kendra, based in Stillwater, Minnesota, began ice climbing in the winter of 2007 and joined the UIAA World Tour circuit in 2012. The cold winters of Minnesota and her passion for climbing meant scaling ice was a logical progression in her sporting career. Progress is a key word for Kendra who on the last World Tour achieved her best ever overall ranking, finishing sixth in speed after three top ten results. A positive step for an athlete whose ultimate ambition is to become overall World Cup speed champion.
Despite her recent success on the wall, Kendra’s favourite memory from the most reason season didn’t involve her own exploits on ice. "The best moment of this season was helping organize and support the youth climbers during the Youth World Championships in Rabenstein,” she admits. Kendra enjoys the international nature of the world tour, the family atmosphere and the chance to share goals and experiences with other athletes.
Passing on tips to aspiring climbers, she believes that "overall strength and fitness are important to success in ice climbing. Understanding the sport (rules and tactics) and having a strategy for the competitions are also very important. And you must learn the holds and common movements.”
Working full-time as a Strategic Project Manager, the Canadian Rockies in Alberta are her favourite place to climb, and in tune with many of her fellow competitors she has developed her own training facilities at home – in her case speed walls made of plywood and log. She also trains weightlifting and rock climbing and has a background in rugby and slalom skiing.
Backing the UIAA’s ambition for ice climbing to be part of the competition programme at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, she adds: "It would be a wonderful opportunity to share our unique sport with many more people. It is very exciting to think that more people would know about it and that it could lead to more young athletes taking up the sport and more competitions around the world.”
Canadian Gordon ‘Gord’ McArthur (1979) is one of the familiar faces on the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour and a man so committed to the sport he built a climbing structure in his back yard in Cranbrook, British Columbia, located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
McArthur began ice climbing some 15 years ago, admitting he was attracted to something which was ‘different, challenging, scary but beautiful at the same time…’ He is current North American champion in lead but admits the most recent season had its challenges. "As with any competition, sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn't. But you have to accept the highs with the lows. The best moment was watching my two good friends Heeyoung Park and Maxim Tomilov in the super final in Korea. But personally, winning the North American Championships...spraying the champagne, was a wonderful moment. As an athlete and competitor, we can always improve. It's never ending in fact."
Like many of his fellow climbers, McArthur finds the camaraderie on theTour a key draw. "The friends, the people, we’re a big family. But also, competition-wise, being able to climb on these amazing structures, trying your hardest is an attraction.”
McArthur is currently training intensely for the new season, both in the gym and on his impressive climbing structure, named ‘the Machine’. Built in his back yard, its arch is 35 feet high, with a bouldering wall measuring 16 x 35-ft. Add to that a 20-ft high bouldering cave for a structure which offers eight different routes on its arch and over 50 problems to tackle on the bouldering cave. Akin to Roger Federer having a tennis court in his back garden or Usain Bolt a 100m track.
This commitment is impressive. "To be successful in ice climbing you must have confidence in your skill sets, which means lots of practice. But also mentally your mind must be focused and you have to be able to just be in the moment.”
The ultimate dream for Gord and many of his fellow athletes is tinged with gold. A gold medal at the Olympics. "The idea of ice climbing being an official Olympic sport is the ultimate. To see our sport grow to that level, well, that's the dream. Whether competing or coaching, the thought of that opportunity would be amazing.” Supporting the UIAA on its Olympic path, McArthur was one of the athletes who took part in the ice climbing demonstration at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Since 2010 Eimir McSwiggan has been based in South Korea where she works as an English teacher. Initially only planning on staying a year, she has now been there for six and it was in Korea that she discovered the sport of ice climbing in 2011. Two years later she joined the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour.
"Korea is a great country to live in with beautiful mountains, great people and great opportunities to learn and train from a very tight knit supportive climbing community,” explains Eimir. Her favourite place to climb are the Towangseong Ice Falls in the heart of Seoraksan National Park. "This place has a somewhat magical feel to it, and climbing there I always feel humbled by the power and majesty of nature all around me.”
"I think natural ice is such a beautiful and fascinating medium to climb on, constantly changing and so transient in nature,” continues Eimir. "I always feel a sense of adventure going ice climbing and enjoy the sense of accomplishment after a long day out in the cold."
Eimir is improving season after season, with the most recent four-event World Cup series proving her best, where she finished tenth in the overall lead rankings. "The highlight was making it into the finals in Cheongsong. I learned a lot about my weaknesses throughout last season and have a lot of skill and strength areas I would like to work on before next season arrives.” She pinpoints ‘a strong strength and technical base, efficient and smooth movement, really good endurance, confidence and the ability to withstand a bit of cold and misery from time to time,’ as key components to making the grade in the sport.
Eimir enjoy the diverse nature of the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, the atmosphere and sense of community. "I love the diversity of the different competition venues and structures. Each has a very unique flavour and atmosphere, requiring slightly different approaches in climbing style and timing. I enjoy the creativity of the route setting and although competitions can be very stressful I try to remind myself to just enjoy my time on the wall.”
With the start of the 2017 UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour some six months away, Eimir is about to step up her training. "I will start ice climbing specific training in August and will try to work on strength and power for two months followed by more specific technique training as competition season approaches.”
She may be the lone Irish ice climber but hopes to pioneer the growth of the sport back in her home country, perhaps in parallel with a return to her prime qualification as a design architect. "I would like to bring the skills I have learned in Korea back to Ireland and one day have a full Irish team competing in the World Cup circuit. I am very excited about the prospect of ice climbing becoming an Olympic sport and think the next ten years will see a huge growth in popularity and development of the sport.”
Swiss climber Petra Klingler proved to be one of the star performers on the 2016 UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, finishing fifth overall in the women’s lead discipline and collecting two silver medals from three events.
"It was the people who first attracted me to ice climbing,” explains Petra, who turned 24 this year. "The ice climbing world is one big family and everyone looks out for each other. I was also drawn to the sport itself, the diversity of movements and the combination of strength and elegance and the different ways you can find solutions along the routes.”
Petra’s silver in Saas Fee was an improvement on last year’s bronze medal although her overall ranking position in 2015 of second remains her best season. This included a gold medal in the event held in Kirov, Russia.
Despite the slight drop in ranking, Petra is reasonably happy with how the 2016 season developed. "It was not an easy year as I had exams during December and January but it was still fun to climb. The best moment was standing on the podium in Saas Fee in front of my home crowd. Even if I was tired during the competition, I kept my pace and persisted with all of the people screaming for me.”
"The key in ice climbing is believing you can do it. You also need to work hard on your weaknesses,” explains Petra, who is currently studying sports and economics at the University of Bern and dedicates much of her spare time in the summer to bouldering. Her favourite place to ice climb is Kandersteg. "If ice climbing becomes an Olympic sport, it would be a dream and an amazing opportunity to compete in the Games,” closes Petra.
In both the lead and speed disciplines, Yann Gerome (born 1977) was the best performing French climber at the 2016 UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup.
As well as achieving this accolade, Yann was pleased with how the past season went for him personally. "I’m satisified with my 2016 season. My goal was to reach the semi-final of all the events, and I managed this at three out of four compeitions. My best memory is the semi-final in Cheongsong where I gave everything. I still need to work on my stamina and train more this summer and autumn."
Anncey-based Yann made his bow at the UIAA World Tour in 2012, attracted by the ‘high level of competition and its spirit of a big family.’
The aforementioned Cheongsong is an event close to Yann’s heart, one he describes as ‘having excellent organisation and an awesome ice climbing wall.’ His favourite place to climb is Cogne in the Valle d’Aosta and most treasured moment in the sport was achieving his first Grade 6 in Glacenost, a natural ice fall in the Maurienne valley, France.
In preparation for the new season, Yann has been cycling and running and will soon be familiarising himself with his ice tools again and hitting the climbing walls with gusto.
Yann believes ‘strength and experience’ are the core components of what make a great ice climber and has his heart set on reaching the final of the UIAA Ice Climbing World Championships, which will be held in his home country in 2017. Away from ice climbing, Yann works as a mountain rescurer for the gendarmerie in France. A true alpine spirit.
MARIANNE VAN DER STEEN
"Can’t live without…” is how Marianne van der Steen (born 1984) explains her relationship with ice climbing, a sport she commenced seven years ago after climbing on a waterfall in Iceland, her favourite country for ice.
"Ice climbing is cold, harsh and tough,” explains Marianne, who is based from her ‘little campervan or garden shed’ close to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. "It’s a non-stop calculation of movements, risks, route finding and energy management that combined with the fact it's only you and your body that can do it, makes it addictive.’ To succeed in the sport Marianne cites the synergy between the climber’s equipment and their physicality as key. "You have to see your tools as an extension of your arms. Be at one with your tools. Once you have that, your body will move almost automatically with you.”
Marianne had a mixed 2016 UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup season, admitting she had her worst year in lead (ranked 15thoverall) and best ever in speed (finishing in the top ten). Her favourite venues are the European legs in Rabenstein and Saas Fee, which she describes as "nice people, great culture, beautiful mountains and surroundings.” Out of season, she sport climbs and keeps fit in the gym, and her work as a bike messenger in Rotterdam, as a climbing coach, first aid instructor and a rope access engineer plus an active daily fitness programme keep her in tune.
Like many of her fellow ice climbers, Marianne hopes that the sport will one day be part of the Olympic programme. "I think it fits in very well in the Olympics. I mean it's an old sport, already in the early 1900s there were international ice climbing competitions but it's also a modern sport in that it’s exciting to watch even for someone who doesn't know anything about ice climbing.”
Nihal Sarkar (born 1995) was the only Indian ice climber to feature in the 2016 UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour ensuring he is somewhat of a pioneer in his country. He made his competition debut during the Asian Championships in Cheongsong, South Korea.
Nihal lives in Siliguri, at the foothills of the Himalayas, located in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. His love for mountaineering was fostered after he completed his first significant expedition – to Mount Stok Kangri (6,121m). This inspired an interest in glaciers and icefalls. Ascending them became a natural progression.
Through joining the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, supported by the North Face Korea, Nihal is grateful for the support he has received from organisers and fellow athletes, especially in honing core technical skills. Back home, plans are afoot to construct an ice climbing wall in Nihal’s region, a development which he hopes will inspire other young athletes to take up the sport.
In the meantime, Nihai develops his skills by climbing in the gym, focusing notably on hand power and flexibility of the leg muscles. His ambition is to win a UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour competition and one day represent his country at the Olympic Games.
Slovenian Janez Svoljšak (born 1993) is based in Škofja Loka and began ice climbing in 2010. During the 2016 UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, supported by The North Face Korea, he claimed a gold (Rabenstein) and a silver (Saas-Fee), was crowned European Champion and finished third overall in Lead. He describes the season as his ‘best, especially topping the final route in Rabenstein’. Despite his success, Janez admits to needing to ‘improve technique, especially footwork’. He believes good technique in using the ice axe on small edges, strong arms and core muscles are vital components of being a successful ice climber. A fan of hard and technical routes, the Canadian Rockies are his favourite climbing spot. Janez begins specific training for the new season in August, but keeps in shape alpine and sport climbing as well as ski touring.
Hannarai Song (born in 1992) lives in Ilsan, South Korea and began climbing at the age of ten. She made the transition to competitive ice climbing in 2012. This was her third season competing in the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, supported by The North Face Korea. A strong performer in the lead discipline, Hannarai claimed gold at the Rabsenstein World Cup and silver in the Asian Championships in Cheongsong.
As a youngster Hannarai was sensitive to the cold and often ill, which left her feeling lethargic and not wanting to do anything. Climbing helped her become physically and mentally stronger – ‘making me feel alive, free and peaceful’. No surprise then that Hannarai cites ‘mental strength and enjoyment’ as key to succeeding in the sport. Through the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, Hannarai has made many friends, ‘amazing people’ with whom she keeps in touch during the off season.
In her home country, she loves climbing on Mount Seoraksan, appreciating the huge waterfalls and amazing views from the summit. She trains hard throughout the year, whether competitive sport climbing, cycling or jogging. With her father she has set up an indoor climbing gym training athletes and amateur climbers. Hannarai’s ambitions include one day winning an Olympic gold medal and after studying a doctorate, becoming a sports diplomat. She admits to having a lot to learn about ice climbing and a strong desire to climb in many new environments. If ice climbing becomes an official Olympic sport, Hannarai believes ‘more and more people will be able to enjoy this amazing sport’.
Maria Tolokonina (1986) is one of the world’s greatest ice climbers. Four-time UIAA Ice Climbing World champion in speed, four-time in lead. Maria won both disciplines in 2016, only the second time this has ever been achieved by an athlete. The peerless Maria also conquered both events in 2009. Hailing from Kirov, Russia, Maria first began competition ice climbing in 2003 and in 2016 celebrated her most successful season to date. During the UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour, supported by The North Face Korea, she amassed seven gold medals and one silver. She is a fan of extreme sports, rock climbing and the triathlon disciplines. She believes lead and speed are equally difficult, in lead the priority is ‘interesting and difficult routes’, in speed ‘the quality of the ice’ counts. Maria believes patience, endurance, force and a huge work ethic are needed to succeed in ice climbing. Maria doesn’t have a favourite victory but holds a burning ambition to ice climb one day in the Winter Olympic Games.
The UIAA and the competition organizers have decided to hold a judges training course during the Bozeman World Cup located in Bozeman, Montana (USA). The training course takes place from Wednesday, December 9th through Saturday, December 12th, 2015. The course instructor will be Andrej Pecjak from Slovenia.
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