I first met Sarah Hueniken early on a September morning in a cafe in Canmore, Alberta. Hueniken was not quite awake and had had a long day before — to say she was grumpy would mischaracterize her. I immediately approached her like a puppy wagging my tail, sticking out my hand to shake hers. Kind of confused, she shook my hand and continued to wait for her coffee. I was determined to make friends with the only woman who has climbed Niagara Falls.

That day I learned a lot about Hueniken. She doesn’t ever say the opposite of what she means and she usually only says what she needs to say — like in her climbing, she conserves. She is also one of the kindest and most supportive teachers I have ever met. Gracious and kind, she helped me grasp some basic dry-tooling techniques on some of the hardest routes on this continent. We laughed, climbed, and had a great time. At the end of the day, I could say she was a friend, just like most of the people she takes climbing.

IMG_2459The extent of how many people she has taught to climb I had no idea until I returned to the States. In casual conversation with one of my yoga buddies, I learned that during her time working at St. Lawrence University’s Outdoor Program, she must have taught hundreds. Not many competitive/pro climbers can say that. It seems that Hueniken gives it all away: her knowledge, her secrets, but still manages to stay on top.

IMG_2364My views of Hueniken were recently shared and seconded by participants of her ice climbing camp. It had been a few months since I last saw Hueniken and I had hoped to take her full camp, but could only make it for the first day. Having driven what seemed like a billion miles, I was late that morning and told Hueniken I would meet her there. Finally getting to the Marble Canyon crag, I saw that she was setting up some climbs and decided to talk to the participants of her four-day course. I was not prepared for the awesome ladies I was to meet.

First, there was Mary Ann, 69-years-rad. Then the 56-year-old mum named Deb who learned to climb at 50 and kept calling the younger gals punks. I also met a young aspiring alpine guide named Tiffany Painton.

“One evening at another one of Sarah’s camps, she overheard me say to another girl that the reason I was not trying to be a guide was because I was sure I was too old and past any chance of guiding,” Painton told me. “Sarah interrupted and told me I was being ridiculous and that with focused time spent climbing, commitment, and progression there is no reason for me not to achieve that goal. This definitely spoke to the stubborn and determined in me. I left my job back in August in order to climb.”

IMG_2253 (1)Of course not all of Hueniken devotees are as dedicated — most are weekend warriors and some didn’t catch the climbing bug so quickly. “I took some rock climbing courses with Sarah and she tried to convince me to ice climb,” joked Sheena Lambert, a participant and camp comedian. “I kept telling her that ice climbing was a stupid sport it is cold and there are ice chunks falling. I spend most of my time ski touring.” Lambert continued, “I’m still convinced that ice climbing is a stupid sport but I really love it, and I’m really glad Sarah convinced me to get into it.  When she is teaching technique she’s really encouraging and is really good at breaking down movement and making corrections that really improve efficiency.”

IMG_2453Hueniken has been doing her camps for nearly a decade. Her ice climb camp is particularly special, since it isn’t such a well known sport and certainly not a big women’s sport. The week before, I had visited the same crag, and I was the only woman. During her camp, there were more women than men climbing the ice.

Her camp only spent the first day at Marble, the rest of the days were done around Field, BC. Each night they returned to the Fireweed hostel to eat delicious dinners made by camp manager Sonja Johnson Findlater. “I met Sarah ten years ago when I did a women’s intro to alpine climbing,” says Findlater. “My favorite part of the camps is the diverse women that gather from all over and leave as friends and climbing partners. It’s such privilege to meet these strong, fun women through Sarah’s camps. I think she has that knack for keeping the verbal instruction to a minimum and gives great feedback. She really is also a master of teaching through modeling, she climbs the way she teaches us to climb — no shortcuts.”

IMG_2280As the day progressed, so did the climbers. One by one they each tried new skills at their own pace and level, whether it was placing screws, trying mixed climbs or just belaying more efficiently.

If you want to get started in ice climbing, what do you need?

Ice climbing is cold and having the right gear can make or break your day.

IMG_2249For clothing, a good set of woolies are a must. I recently tried a few pairs and found that Arc’teryx’s new Sator AR zip neck shirts and the bottoms are pretty much the cat’s pajamas, literally. They are light, warm, comfy, not stinky, and don’t break shape. I am also fond of Smartwool’s wool legging for the waist band, oh, and, of course, Conrad Anchor’s PhD socks that have yummy toes and heels.

Next…for brutal cold, I love to wear Outdoor Research Centrifuge pants over my woolies and under my bibs, for some, this is overkill, for me it is heaven. For bibs, I like the SV bibs from Arc-teryx. Some people prefer a slimmer leg, which you can find for sure, but I like GORE bibs. Pants are much harder to fit on women, so I recommend finding a brand that fits your butt and trying on a ton of options. Just remember, you are climbing ice, not rocks, you are bound to get wet.

Shoots_Kate-26I think my favorite mid-layer for the season hands down is the Alpha Direct jacket from Rab. They put so much thought into this jacket, every design feature is perfect — the cuffs, the cut, the fabric in the neck, the zippers, the weight. It does not have a helmet adjustment, but it is not needed as the hood fits well in helmets.

For waterproof, I will always be an Alpha SV devotee. I like the cut and how it fits over my layers as well as the pockets and functions. New for 2016/17 — they some shaved weight, added some pockets, trimmed up the hem. It is noticeably different from 2015/16.

A belay jacket is key too. Love Patagonia’s Fitz Roy, but doesn’t handle well when wet. The Firebee AR has solved that uses GORE® THERMIUM™, makes a huge difference.

Of course, you will find what works best for you and your body type, comfort level and budget. For harnesses, I’m super keen on the Xenos from Black Diamond. Great for ice climbing with loads of ice clippers and durable and comfortable. The Vapor helmet is the lightest helmet from Black Diamond and my favorite. A good pair of glasses that aren’t too expensive will go a long way protecting you against flying ice. Julbo has large selection of styles with all kinds of fits and great lens. And of course packs. Any pack made for tools will be a lot nicer than one that isn’t. Try Gregory’s Alpinisto.

Après climb: it isn’t a thing but if it were it would involve everything cozy, like Columbia slip-ons or Patagonia’s hybrid sleeping system for the car ride home.

For basic hardgoods, I’ll let Sarah take it away!

IMG_2442Nomics Ice Axe: I still have my original pair of Nomics when they first came out and have used and abused them throughout the years. Everything from steep cave style mixed climbing, to techy or vertical ice, the nomics are the tool for the job.

IMG_2492Lynx Crampons: The lynx crampons offer the versatility and performance that you want for all types of winter terrain.  Interchangeable front points allow for the option of mono, dual or asymmetrical positioning and the ability to change out old front points with fresh ones!  These crampons are game changers!

IMG_2498Phantom Techs: These boots truly are the best out there.  They are warmer, stiffer, lighter and more comfortable than the older Phantom models.  Comfy and warm feet make a happy climber!

Sarah’s Tip: Always come armed with several pairs of gloves. One for the hike in, a big pair for belaying and couple pairs for climbing.  As soon as you get your harness on, put your climbing gloves under a few jacket layers to keep them warm.  When it is time to climb, you can pull out, warm, dry gloves!

Guest Contributor
Kate Erwin is a freelance writer who loves potatoes & mayonnaise (together), riding single track, surfing, pizza, trying to ski, large puppies, and, of course, climbing.