Sheer drama: Scaling Europe's only artificial ice tower

Ben Mondy takes on Europe's only artificial ice climbing tower, in Champagny-le-Haut

"I have never, in all my life, seen someone fight the ice like you." Now this was not the type of constructive criticism I needed, given that I was hanging from a straight wall of ice 12 metres from the ground. Directly above loomed another 10m of vertical icy labour and if I kept wrestling and not climbing, I sensed it was going to be a long, sweaty, strenuous and potentially unsuccessful day.

The voice from way down below belonged to Damien Sourzy, one of the world's most celebrated and experienced ice climbers, and the man responsible for the 22m-high man-made ice climbing tower I was currently trying to inch and fight my way to the top of.

"Relax and use your legs," advised Damien. "Most climbing is all about your legs, as they are much stronger than your arms. Try and keep moving in an easy motion, using your ice axes and arms as leverage points and not to physically pull you up." It was good advice, and to be fair, information he had already explained twice already: first in our 20-minute preparation brief and then secondly when he'd scooted up the 22 metres of ice in what seemed a blur of smooth, co-ordinated movement and crunching ice.

Still, I thought to myself, I shouldn't be so hard on myself. After all, he had dedicated his life to the sport of ice climbing and had designed, funded and built this tower himself, the only one of its kind in Europe, so I figured he was bound to be a tad more proficient.

"It took about five years from inception to being ready for the public," he said proudly. "I invested around €200,000 of my own money and as no other one existed in Europe I had to design it from nothing. It seemed that finding new ice climbing locations was getting more and more difficult, due to increased exploration and warmer temperatures, and I thought this could be a location to challenge experienced climbers and introduce new ones to the sport."

The tower is located in the the valley of Champagny-le- Haut in the French Savoie region, just next to the huge Paradiski ski area which incorporates the resorts of Le Plagne and Les Arcs. The site wasn't chosen for its breathtaking beauty, but more for its unique climatic conditions.

"This valley is one of the consistently coldest places in the Alps, a function of its high altitude and lack of sunlight," said Damien, who grew up in a nearby, slightly warmer, valley. While this might typically be a troublesome set of weather factors for an operation dependent on tourists, when you are reliant on naturally freezing water that is sprayed over a steel structure, you can see that it makes sense. The valley itself is certainly a breathtaking natural alpine setting and the gateway to the National Park of Vanoise, France's oldest national park. At the end of every winter the tower is dismantled and packed away, ready for reassembly at the start of the next season.

However, as I was straddling the ice, I wasn't taking in the scenery or the tower's technology, and the sweat trickling down my back made a mockery of the coldest-place-on-earth talk. Instead, I decided to listen to Damien's advice. By using my legs more I had a more solid base to swing the ice axes.

With an axe in each hand the correct technique is to whack them into the wall a shoulder length apart just above your head and then thrust yourself skywards. For a few seconds I had the feeling of actually gaining momentum; a leg, leg, axe, axe movement that had me eating up the ice, or at least ascending at a rate faster than my previous glacial pace. Mind you – and I realise this is the whole point of climbing – this new-found momentum only increased my elevation, and thus my fear levels.

As with most climbing, your safety is guaranteed by being attached by a harness and ropes to your partner on the ground, who is known as the belayer. This means if you were to fall, the load of the fall would be taken by the belayer on the ground through the harness and anchor device.

Thus the belayer can easily lock off and pay out the rope, which should stop you plummeting 20m to your death. But even though I knew this, my brain – hardwired to deter me falling off anything bigger than a step – tended to override the information somewhat. This is the beauty of ice climbing: overcoming fear through a heady mix of exercise, technique and adrenalin.

Eventually I managed to make it to the top, and lacking a flag to plant at the summit, settled for a breather and taking in the sights of the beautiful Savoie Valley. Then it was a simple belay down, descending in a series of two-metre jumps back to earth. After my legs stopped trembling it was my turn to take the belay ropes and make sure my partner didn't meet a grisly end. Elsewhere on the tower, I saw other climbers attempting routes that made my ascent look like a joyride on an escalator.

"We've made sure there are several routes that offer multiple difficulties," said Damien. "You just completed the best route for beginners, but we have routes for experienced climbers, and for competition."

Of our mixed party of five, none with ice-climbing experience, four made it to the top of the beginner's course (the fifth lost one of her axes only five metres from the top). I left with a sense of real satisfaction: I'd fought the ice, and this time, the ice hadn't won.

Traveller's Guide

Initiation courses at the Champagny Ice Tower take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6pm to 8pm and cost €30 per person. Guides and equipment (crampons, ice axe, harness, helmet and climbing shoes) are included. Contact the Tourist Office on 00 33 4 79 55 06 55 or see see for details.

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