The 2021/22 UIAA European Tour kicked off in November. After the cancellation of last season (apart from a single competition in France) it was amazing to have the competition circuit back up and running at last. The GB Ice Climbing Team, consisting of four athletes - Caitlin Connor, Matt Foot, Willis Morris and Neil Blake - had been training hard throughout the past year of the pandemic in the anticipation that this year's season would go ahead as planned.
The results show what a team of self-funded climbers with limited access to training facilities, but bags of psyche, motivation and commitment can achieve. With the addition of new senior athletes to the team this year, and two more youth climbers, funded and trained by The Scottish Dry-Tooling Club, we all hope this position will only improve and that the sport will grow in the UK.
The GB team headed out together to Bern, the capital city of Switzerland for their first competition as a group and the season opener. As in previous years, it proved to be a difficult competition. The combination of a large field of world class athletes including big names such Nikolay Primerov, Sina Goetz, Gordon McArthur, Virgile Devin and Enni Bertling combined with routes set by the World Cup winner Yannik Glatthard was never going to be easy. Despite that, Team GB put in a solid performance with Willis making finals, the first GB athlete to do so since the late Tom Ballard. A devastating slip at the second move quickly ended a highly anticipated final for Willis, an unfortunate end to a successful day. However, the combined performance of the team resulted in team GB sitting in second position in the team rankings after the first round. The afterparty showed that some members of the team (well, Matt) can dance almost as well as they climb!
The tour then moved on to Žilina, Slovakia on 27 November for round two. Then, just days before the comp, Slovakia went into lockdown... Hours chasing for answers returned only more uncertainty. Exchanges of "It's on, it's off, it might be on, no one knows!" followed. Then finally, a definite - the event would go ahead. The team headed out as planned, however this round they were accompanied by members of The Scottish Dry-Tooling Club.
The Scottish Dry-Tooling Club was set up at the beginning of 2021 as a non profit organisation with its goal to introduce the sport of Dry-Tooling and competitive ice climbing to new climbers and offer a safe and supportive training opportunity for seasoned climbers in the UK. To try and remove the 'dark art' reputation of the sport, the club has been inclusive, bringing total beginners on at events all across Scotland. With the GB Team athletes providing coaching alongside route-setters that offer tooling-specific routes for all abilities, it's been a great grassroots entry into the world of using axes and a development pathway to progress climbers in the sport towards competition climbing. As open events, the European Cups can be attended by non-federation (GB Team, for example) climbers. This makes them a brilliant training ground for climbers aspiring to join the GB team, which in turn gives athletes access to compete in the Ice Climbing World Cup Competitions.
With the nerves from Bern shaken off and the camaraderie of a large British representation in Zilina, the GB athletes performed brilliantly. Matt was first up on qualifier 3, a steep, pumpy route with long, powerful moves and the dreaded intellect holds. Despite some nerves, he put in a solid performance and climbed high on the route, gaining valuable ranking points. Neil climbed well but fell victim to an evil stone hold on qualifier 1 resulting in a dramatic head-first fall (quite usual in Dry-Tooling, as you tend to explode off the holds rather than gently pop off). Caitlin climbed well again and showed that all the home training had been paying off, bagging herself a place in her first ever European Cup final. Willis followed with another top performance to ensure his place in the finals, managing to improve his position all the way up to second place in the European finals. From the SDTC members, both Scott Dearie and Rob Taylor put in brilliant performances in the qualifiers to place comfortably in the mid-field. Exceptional work when you consider that they only began tooling a matter of months before.
The following weekend saw a huge field of competitors attend round 3 in Brno, Czech Republic, on a Dry-Tooling structure that started life as the supports of a bridge which was ultimately never completed. Luckily for us, it was donated to the local alpine federation who crafted it into one of the best route venues on the tour.
With around 50 competitors, 5 qualifying routes up to lengths of 25 metres and subzero temperatures, it was going to be a long day. With continuous snow falling from early morning, conditions were almost as challenging as the routes. Good job then that the organisers had provided tea, coffee, sausages, a curious cured cheese and continuous Drum and Bass to fuel the competitors and keep them climbing well into the darkness.
Team GB fielded 3 athletes for this round. Neil climbed well to achieve his personal best results of the tour so far, with two tops and high finishes on the other routes. Willis again put in a strong performance to continue his finals streak and put in another great performance on the monster 30-metre finals route. After last week's confidence boost from finals in Slovakia, Caitlin delivered yet again a stellar performance, making finals and expanding the gap between her and the other British female athletes in the Cup. The finals route for both men and women started up a gently overhanging wall, followed by a techy traverse left into a section of hanging box volumes and a super steep head wall; figure 9s, figure 4s and cutting loose being the order of the day, it made for some very exciting action high up on the wall. Caitlin's superb performance resulted in her taking 6th place overall on the day. Oz Miller and Kasia Zadrozniak, two of the SDTC regulars, attended Brno as their second Cup round, with Oz making huge improvements especially in his pace on the wall, and Kasia improving her European ranking all the way up to 15th place.
11 December saw a strong British representation preparing to climb in the first ever UIAA European Ice Climbing Cup round to be held in Utrecht, Netherlands. In the senior event Neil continued his run of good form to top route 2, Willis topped both qualifiers seeing him into the final, meaning a clean finals streak for every round this year, and Caitlin once again secured her place in the finals as well. The finals route was a tough roof-capped tech fest, which received only one top from the French Climber Virgile Devin, although it was close in both male and female categories, with only a handful of holds splitting the top 5. Willis performed consistently again and put in a strong performance to finish in 4th. In the women's, local legend Marianne van der Steen took the gold medal with Caitlin not far behind in 4th place after an exceptional performance in the senior women's category.
As well as this being round 4 of the European Cup, it was also the first Youth Championships of the 2021/22 season. GB managed to excel all expectations, bringing two gold medals home. Not quite finished after her performance in the senior event, Caitlin went on to claim gold in the under 19s category, alongside Rory Watson (15) from Glasgow who also took gold. Rory, the SDTC prodigy who has taken to the sport as a natural over the last year managed to top both his qualifier routes with ease and stood atop the podium in the under 16s category. He'll certainly be one to watch over the coming seasons and a hopeful for the GB Team as he progresses into the senior events next year. These medals are a real testament to the work being done by the Scottish Dry-Tooling Club and the opportunities they have created for athletes to train on competition style holds and moves.
After the Utrecht competition, the team returned home for a well-earned break over Christmas. There wasn't much time to relax though as round 5 of the European Cup was held in the ski resort of Malbun in Liechtenstein. Willis, Neil and Caitlin travelled out to participate and hopefully improve on their individual and team European rankings. 3 qualification routes would decide who went through into finals. Route 1 and 2 were both steep and pumpy, on a 40 degree overhanging wall with hanging barrels, ice walls and a dyno to finish. Route 3 was vertical with technical climbing on stone holds, rounding a corner and finishing up an ice tower. One of the major challenges of the day was simply keeping warm, with a temperature of -6 degrees Celsius and steady snowfall.
All 3 team members put in a solid day's work to consolidate the results already achieved throughout the season and it proved also to be a good warm up for the UIAA World Championships at Saas Fee a few days later. Caitlin had a slightly concerning moment dropping an axe then catching it between her knee and the wall. A tense few moments later and it was back in her hand and she was able to continue with the route. An interesting conversation with UIAA competition events organiser Rob Adie regarding the rules of dropped tools below the first clip ended with Rob saying that if that happened and the climber jumped off and landed before the tool did then the climber would be allowed to climb again assuming time allowed! Fortunately that wasn't the case and Caitlin got her axe back and continued up the route without any other incident. There was a strong field at Malbun, including the Ladevant brothers (Louna being the current World Champion) and one hold separated climbers by 5 or 6 places.
World Championships - Saas Fee
Next stop on the competition circuit was the World Championships at Saas Fee. The legendary venue that has been hosting the Championships for the last 20 years, Saas Fee really is the pinnacle of competition ice climbing and the dream venue to compete in. As Neil, Caitlin and Willis took the scenic drive from Malbun to Saas Fee, with a quick training stop in Kandersteg on the way, other members of the team were on their way from the UK. Arriving in Saas Fee and meeting up with Scott, Oz, Rory, Kasia and Matt the team were super psyched to get on the legendary 32-metre structure situated in the car park in Saas Fee. With a day free for relaxation before the competition the team headed to Saas Grund to get a few ice routes under their belts before having to pull on the super sketchy stone holds of Saas Fee.
165 athletes from nearly 20 nations ensured that the next few days were going to be busy. Day one started with speed qualification for the under 19 and 21 categories. Caitlin, Rory and Scott all made it into finals by posting times of under a minute. Next up were senior qualifications. 2 contrasting routes - one steep and one technical- awaited the team, who all put in solid performances again to consolidate their world rankings.
Sadly there was no GB representation in senior finals, however with a super strong field it was no surprise that World Champions Louna Ladevant and Nikolai Kuzovlev went straight through to be joined by other World Cup winners in the men's final and Maria Tolokonina, Petra Klingler and Vivian Labarile amongst others in the women's senior final.
The youths were a different matter, though. Kasia Ogilvie delivered a stellar performance in the under-16 category, easily getting into finals and finishing equal 5th with three other climbers - an amazing performance in her first ice comp. However, she is no stranger to indoor climbing competitions and a consistent winner. Rory Watson was next up in the under 19s and easily made finals. Unfortunately a slip low down ended his lead route chances, but he was still to climb in the speed finals for under 19s. Scott Dearie put in a good lead performance and also went through to speed finals, posting a very respectable time. Keep an eye out for these guys in the future as I'm sure they could be medal winners.
Caitlin got through to finals in lead and speed in her category and also put in solid performances, out climbing the current (at the time) World Champion Maria Tolokonina. This was the first time in a 20-year career that Maria didn't reach the finals.
Neil, Matt and Willis were next up in the senior speed competition. This was always going to be challenging as no one had actually been able to participate in or train for speed. Respectable times for all on their first speed ice runs ever were posted and the team decided that an ice speed structure is needed in the UK to train on.
The event closed with senior lead and speed finals, which can be seen on the UIAA YouTube channel. The finals for all categories were amazing to watch.
The season is coming to a close soon with just the European Championships in Finland left for the GB team when Willis, Caitlin and Neil will be competing again.
It's safe to say that GB Ice Climbing has a great future and we are all looking forward to training hard for next season.
You can follow their progress on social media via the @gb_climbing instagram account or by searching #gbclimbing and #gbiceclimbing.
If you are interested in trying out Dry-Tooling or competitive ice climbing get in touch with The Scottish Drytooling club via their social media accounts or their website: scottishdrytoolingclub.square.site/