20-Year-Old Slovenian Phenom Twins Explain Competitive Ice Climbing

By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph by Rožle Bregar

Climbers are the academics of the action sports world: Although they constantly behave like their minds are occupied by loftier notions, they are mostly just concerned with one-upping one another. Ergo, the climbing competition. Such competitions don’t always produce the most beautiful lines in the most scenic outdoor settings, but they do tend to unite international groups of wall scaling mutants in raucous brawls for supremacy.

Just such a gathering happened this past weekend in Cheongsong, Korea, with the kick off of the 2011 UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup, which will make further stops in Switzerland, Romania, and Russia. Ice climbing as a competition is a relatively new institution which began during the long, cold winters in the former USSR in the 1970s. This weekend marked the first time a UIAA World Cup event had taken place in Asia, and while it was Europeans who took top honors—Austrian Markus Bendler won the men’s lead climbing category, while Russian Maria Tolokonina won the women’s—Koreans placed second in both categories, which contained athletes representing 20 different countries.

Adventure caught up with two of the competitors, twin Slovenian ice climbing phenoms Matevž and Jernej Vukotič (pronounced “Matevz” and “Yur-nay” respectively) to get the low-down on what competitive ice climbing is all about. At 20 years old, the two hold a host of speed and lead climbing titles in their home country and on the world stage. 

“For one thing, the equipment is very specialized for lead climbing and speed climbing as opposed to climbing for fun,” Matevž and Jernej said, speaking in a funny sort of tandem where one finishes the other’s sentence. “Usually when you are climbing on natural ice, you use self protection (placing your own screws in the ice through which you attach quick draws and ropes) and you are not climbing to the limit because if you fall when you are at the lead, you can suffer some bad injuries…. In competitive ice climbing, everything is protected by bolts. You have quick draws in there (the wall), and you have to climb to your limit. Even if you fall, the wall saves you so you only have a small risk of injuring yourself.”

The next obvious question is: how hard can it be climbing a wall with big, sharp axes? “Even if you have ice axes in your hands and crampons on your feet, which makes you even more precise, power is still very important,” said the brothers Vukotič. “Keeping an upright position and squeezing all the time is no easy task. “Sometimes you are climbing on ice, sometimes on rock. Sometimes a combination of the two. Routes differ in length and complexity of movements. Moreover, differences are apparent very quickly in the slope of the wall, whether it is around 75 degrees, 90, or overhanging 180 degrees.” If you don’t believe them, check out this short video on the UIAA web site so see these frosty spidermen and women dangling by a few millimeters of axe and crampon embedded in ice. 

In order to prepare themselves for heavy physical exertion at cold temperatures, athletes undertake a specialized training regime that consists of strengthening hand muscles (instead of finger muscles, as in rock climbing) in order to withstand long periods gripping ice axes and inuring themselves to the cold through training sessions in sub zero temps.

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