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S1 E11: Ice Climbing (Full Transcript)

INTRO: You’re listening to Seize Your Adventure, the podcast that shares stories of adventure and outdoor living, with epilepsy.

CLIMBING FRAN (recorded on site): That’s definitely the part where you know you’re doing something solid, when (laughs nervously)--

INSTRUCTOR: When you get big metal spikes on your feet.

[Crampons clip on to boots]


FRAN (in studio): Hello Adventurers, Fran here. And today’s story is a small epic of a tale. It starts on the other side of the world, it includes some dramatic moments, and some aspirations achieved. I also had to download a beep sound to censor some swear words in this episode and you’ll soon understand why.

This is the story of my first 30 at 30 challenge. This is my ice climbing adventure.

As you know, between now and next May I am trying out 30 different adventure sports, whilst I’m 30 years old. I’m hoping to work closely with the providers of the activity, to teach them about the condition. And I want to try and get 87 people affected by epilepsy involved - so that’s both people with the condition and their loved ones . I’m doing this to try and encourage more people with epilepsy to get involved in adventure.

So why ice climbing? One reason is that I am trying out some of the sports that contributors to Seize Your Adventure already do. Some of you out there will be familiar with a gentleman called Alex Staniforth. Alex was plagued by adversity and epilepsy as a child, and has gone on to do some extraordinary things, including attempting to climb Everest on two occasions. The first time he tried was when he was 18 years old, which is quite incredible. So ice climbing is partly inspired by Alex. But there is a backstory to this challenge.

The year was 2008. I was 18 myself then, and I didn’t quite take on Everest, but I did have an adventure of my own and spent four months in New Zealand. Whilst I was there, I visited Franz Joseph, which is famous for the glacier in the valley there. These days, the effects of climate change can be seen because the glacier has shrunk considerably and there is no way to walk up to it. But twelve years ago, when I was 18, I hiked up to the glacier, strapped some considerable crampons onto my feet and spent a morning hiking across the ice. It was the middle of summer, and there was such a contradiction between the sun warming me from above and the ice cooling me from the ground. I remember looking into blue melt holes, where the water trickled away like those things where you put a coin in the top and it swirls round and round until it plops down the dark hole in the bottom.

I had such fun walking across that glacier, and then that afternoon I had nothing to do. But there was an ice climbing wall in Franz Joseph. And because the weather was so nice, they had a good weather discount - 50% off and you’d get a free beer.

So, even though I wasn’t much of a beer drinker at the time, I spent hours in there with the instructor, trying to figure out the technique, and I never quite made it to the top. But afterwards, as I was sat alone in the sun, sipping the free beer, I knew that I wanted to do ice climbing again. So, it had to go on my list of 30. But I thought that this might be one of the harder challenges to arrange. I live near London, a place that’s not really known for its glaciers or icy mountains. I thought I’d have to jet off to another country, brave the cold on the remote side of a mountain, and obviously contend with all the extra risks there might be in that situation from having epilepsy. But I did some research and I learned that there are actually a few indoor ice climbing walls in the UK and the team at Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports invited me along to a session at their indoor wall, called Vertical Chill.

So instead of being one of the hardest challenges to arrange, it became one of the easiest ones. I spent some time on my actual 30th birthday climbing a wall of ice, in the middle of London which is just so cool.

It looked just like any mountain store, there was no hint of what was hiding in there. I went down the stairs, to the back of the basement, and there, by the changing rooms, I finally saw it - this chimney of ice.

As I was trying to squish my face against the cold glass to see the top of the wall, my instructor Tom rather embarrassingly came out and saw me. He handed me over the waiver form, and as we heard in the last episode, this was the perfect chance to tell Tom about my epilepsy. Now for once, this conversation was really easy because when it came to mentioning my care plan and In Case of Emergency, I could turn and point to my boyfriend who’d come into London with me that day. Usually I do things solo, my boyfriend is not into this adventure lifestyle, so he was about to be very bored for the next hour whilst he watched me climb, and he no doubt was imagining the lovely dinner we had planned at a Spanish restaurant afterwards.

I, on the other hand, had to get kitted out. So they provided all the kit for me which included hefty stuff - some proper chunky mountaineering boots and the very pointy crampons.

CLIMBING FRAN (recorded on site): That’s definitely the part where you know you’re doing something solid, when (laughs nervously)--

TOM (the INSTRUCTOR): When you get big metal spikes on your feet.

[Crampons clip on to boots]


FRAN (in studio): And they also gave me helmet and visor.

TOM: While we’re on the wall if you keep the helmet on the whole time we’re in there. The helmets have got visors, you don’t have to-- sorry-- use them if you don’t want to, but we recommend we use the visors because when you’re hitting into the wall, bits of ice and wall will come out at you.

FRAN (in studio): There was a section on the form where you can sign a waiver to refuse to wear the visor and I soon saw why. The visor was massive. I found it really difficult to look where I was putting my feet, and I kept forgetting it was there, and would hit it with the rope. At one point I nearly lost my helmet because I got the visor caught on the rope, it was just a pain to be honest. But it was a bit of a necessary evil for me because several of my misjudged swings sent a sizable block of ice off the wall.

They also gave me some trousers and a lovely down-filled jacket to keep me warm--

TOM: It’s quite cold in there, it’s about minus 5, minus 6. Once you get climbing you will heat up pretty quickly. That noise you can hear now is the fan which regulates the temperature.


TOM: It’s nothing to be alarmed about but it is quite sudden when it comes on.

FRAN (in studio): That jacket was where I stored my microphone during the session, so you might hear a few of the crackles and rustle as I hit it against the wall. And I was ready to go! We stepped through the refrigerator doorway and Tom talked me through the correct technique for ice climbing.

TOM: When you straighten the axe, you kinda want to swing and a little flick of the wrist at the end.


TOM: So that just gets the point to bite a little better. What you don’t want to do is just hammer, ‘cause then all you do is just break the ice away, you’re not gonna get any sort of purchase or any grip with it. So swing with a little flick of the wrist. Kind of as if you were throwing a dart or using a whip. That kind of flick. So with the axes, you want them about shoulder-width apart and then when you place your feet you want them slightly wider, so you’ve got an A-frame-type shape.


TOM: So you’ve got nice balance, stability. So there’s five points of contact. First two are the axes, second two are your feet and the fifth one’s gonna be your hips, you bring your hips in towards the wall. With your feet, when you’re kicking, your gonna kick--

[TOM kicks a boot into the ice wall]

-- with your heel slightly down, so you can see that one front spike there? Is the one that’s gonna be taking all your weight. It is gonna feel a little bit odd, it’s quite weird trusting all your weight to that one little spike.


TOM: Part of it’s a mental thing so you just have to, sort of, trust that it will hold. As you go up to the wall, so from here, where you’ve got pockets and ledges and stuff, feel free to use that.

[TOM hits wall with axe]


[TOM hits wall with second axe]

Two. If you’re not sure about an axe, just pull down on it. If it holds, it should be fine. From there you want straight arms, and you want to hang on those axes with your arms straight, so you lock out your arms all the way, it goes through there. You want to avoid being like that with your bent arms, ‘cause otherwise all the weight going through your muscles and you’ll tire out much more quickly. So straight arms, look down and then place your feet a little bit wider than your shoulders.

[TOM kicks the ice wall]


[TOM kicks the ice wall again]

Two. From here, you push up with the legs and bring your hips in towards the wall. So from there, straight arm--

[TOM hits wall with axe]

One. If you’re not sure about it, hit it again in the same place.

[TOM hits wall with axe]

Two. Again, hips out, straight arm, look down.

[TOM kicks the wall]


[TOM kicks the wall again]

Two and push up, move your hips in towards the wall again.


TOM: And then, sort of, repeat really (laughs).

FRAN (in studio): One two. One, two. Push. Repeat. Simple. I clipped myself into the rope, and began to work my way very slowly up the ice wall.

CLIMBING FRAN: OK, let’s go (breathes out)

FRAN (narration): I swung the axe back in my right hand –

[sound of axe hitting ice]

INSTRUCTOR: So, really flick the wrist as you’re doing it--

FRAN (narration):-- and I tried to bring it forward again with that flick of the wrist--

[sound of axe hitting ice]

INSTRUCTOR: And there you go, it bites much more.

FRAN (narration): -- a little bit like Indiana Jones with a whip. And then, I tried it with my left axe.

[Sound of the axe hitting the wall]

TOM: So sort of-- rather than how hard it hit it, it’s sort of the speed. So the faster you swing the axe, the better it’s gonna bite.


[Sound of the axe skittering across the wall]

Woah that was the exact opposite of what you just said (laughs nervously) let me try that again.

[Sound of axe biting wall]

TOM: Good. So if you’re happy with how solid they are, hang off those axes, straighten those arms, hang off.

[Fran kicks a boot into the wall]

TOM: Yep, good foot.

[Dramatic string music score fades in]

[Rustle sounds as Fran kicks her foot in and pushes against the wall]

TOM: Good foot, perfect.

FRAN (as narration): Now, repeat.

[Sound of ice axe hitting the ice]

FRAN (cont’): First axe –

[Ice axe hits ice again]

Second axe.

TOM: Straighten those arms

FRAN (as narration): First foot –

[Sound of boot being kicked into the ice]

Second foot –

[Sound of second boot being kicked into the ice. You can just hear TOM say say ‘good’]

Push with my body pressed against the wall.

[CLIMBING FRAN says ‘oh’ and giggles nervously. The sound of scraping and rustling against the mic as she pushes herself up the wall]

FRAN (narration): So I did this a couple of times, and then when I was a fair few feet up and starting to feel like I was just getting the hang of things...

[Music stops]

[Sound of a boot kicking into the ice]

TOM: Good, good foot.

[CLIMBING FRAN yelps. There is a rustle of material against ice. There is a laugh from CLIMBING FRAN and then:]


INSTRUCTOR: Try and get your feet back in.

[Sound of kicking against ice. Music restarts]

FRAN (narration): My axes actually held solid. But I hadn’t kicked that spike into the wall at the right angle. My foot slid out of the ice and I was hanging by my arms. I could almost hear the dramatic score behind me.

[Music gets louder, than fades out]

But because of Tom and the rope that he was holding, I was of course completely safe the entire time. I’d like to say that was the only time I fell off the wall, but I fell off again--

[CLIMBING FRAN says ‘okay’ quietly, hits an axe into the wall and we hear her fall down the wall]

CLIMBING FRAN: Oh [beep] (laughs).

TOM: You okay?

CLIMBING FRAN: Yeah, I think so. Hang on. Right, let’s (sigh) try that again.

FRAN (narration): And probably a few more times after that as well, if I’m honest. And yes, it made me swear a bit, but you can hear me laughing every time. But it really was tiring work, and as I was resting between climbs, Tom and I had a chat about my challenge, and doing adventures with epilepsy. But remember that fan that he talked about?

CLIMBING FRAN: Yeah, in 2017 I did--

[Fan turns on very noisily, drowning out talk. You can just hear CLIMBING FRAN laugh and TOM say ‘It’s quite sudden’]

FRAN (in studio): It came on right in the middle of our chat so that whole conversation it is not audible I’m afraid. But I can tell you he asked some great questions about how I manage my epilepsy, what I would have to consider if I were to go ice climbing outdoors. Tom was super chilled-- um, I didn’t intend that pun-- about working with me, he had some great questions and really interested in just sharing his sport and getting more people involved.

When I started climbing again after a bit of a break, I was starting to get the swing in the ice axe with a little flick to bite into the wall and trust it would hold. It was so satisfying when I started getting the technique with my feet and legs. I was slowly getting closer to the top of the wall - I could see at the top, there was a little bell that I would ring to signal my victory if I got there. But after nearly an hour of climbing my legs began to cramp up, my arms gave out and I never made it to the top of the wall. Again. But even though it was very tiring and I was really quite bad, I had such fun!

Vertical Chill was absolutely the perfect place for me to try that, it provided a controlled environment to try a sport that becomes a lot more risky when it’s out in the field. And even better, it meant that after I’d finished, I could just pop into the changing room to get ready for my nice birthday dinner. I think that the folks in the store were all a bit surprised to suddenly see me walking around in my fancy dress rather than the outdoor gear everybody else was wearing.

I can absolutely recommend ice climbing to you. Vertical Chill has indoor ice walls in both London and Manchester. Prices start at £35 for experienced climbers. The Learn to Climb session, which is the one I had would cost you £60 it lasts one hour and includes one to one tuition and equipment hire. Ellis Brigham gave me my session for free, which was a really nice birthday present, and it does mean that I could bring you this podcast today. This type of support from places like Vertical Chill, it allows me to open up the conversation about getting epilepsy in adventure, and it allows me to spread some awareness and it allow me to try out some of these challenges, not just for fun although it is obviously fun but also to try and give you some useful information as well.

So obviously, Seize Your Adventure is currently the only place the adventure community and epilepsy community crosses over, and if you’d like to support me in making sure that we can get more people with epilepsy into adventure in a safe and accessible way, you can support me in a couple of ways. The first is I really like it when you just share the comments, share the posts, tell me what you think of the posts, and make sure I’m just doing what you need me to do. And you can actually help me financially as well. On the website you can either make a donation and that money would come directly to me and it goes towards aspects such as web hosting, it pays for things like my internet, and it also pays for the time that I spend on making this podcast, or you can actually purchase some things on the website as well. If you haven’t got one of the enamel mugs, then make sure you go and grab one of those because they are actually running out now, so you should get one quick.

If you’d like to join me on one of my thirty adventures, please head to my website You can see what the other adventures are and you can tell me if you’re interested in any of them.

I really hope today’s episode was exciting, useful or possibly inspiring to you. Thank you very much for listening and until next time, safe adventures everyone.


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