Ice Climbing Along the Arctic Circle: An Interview with Aron Johansson of Aronski

pelaren-3

Aron Johansson is the founder of Aronski Äventyr och Tillverkning. Based in the north of Sweden, Aronski offers guided ice climbing activities for both the absolute beginner and the experienced ice climber. Sessions can last from half a day to a full day; and come punctuated with lunch, prepared on an outdoor campfire which also grants some brief comfort from the cold. Aron has more than ten years of experience as an ice climber in his own right. Complementing his prowess as a guide, he manufactures ice axes, original works of art, which he crafts to the exacting specifications of those who undertake the pursuit. Ice climbing is easy to sample but difficult to master, and affords the willing practitioner an unmatched engagement with a peerless natural world.

Aron grew up in Älvsbyn, a small town situated along the Pite River: the name of the town translates to ‘the river village’. Älvsbyn is part of Norrbotten County, which is the northernmost county in Sweden, overlooking the Gulf of Bothnia to the southeast, and bordering both the county of Troms in Norway and Lapland Province in Finland. Norrbotten County is located within the Arctic Circle. After cultivating a love of the outdoors from his earliest childhood, which saw numerous fishing trips and initial attempts at carving with a knife he received at the age of four, Aron became an expert woodsman: richly skilled in woodwork, and hiking and canoeing often, alone and with friends. While studying in Umeå, Aron crafted his own canoe, and became an outdoors guide with IKSU, Umeå’s student-centred sports facility. He worked as a carpenter, an organ builder, and a handicraft teacher before focusing his attention on Aronski.

Aron’s travels have taken him to the mountains of Canada, China, and Nepal; but the north of Sweden, and adjacent Norway, offer some of the best ice climbing experiences in the world. This far north, one can climb from October through until May. Aron is equally a good friend, who I came to know through my partner while living for the best part of four years in Umeå. Through the course of the following interview, Aron provides profound and detailed insights into the joys and practicalities of ice climbing; some of the obstacles he faces crafting his own ice axes in the face of high costs and a market dominated by established companies; and the journey which led him to form Aronski.

Aronski can be found at https://aronsski.wordpress.com/ and via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/aronski.adventure

* * *

You and your climbing partner, Johan (Fullcrimp.com), were recently profiled on the front cover of NSD/Norrbottens-Kuriren. The profile noted that you first tried ice climbing in Maltbranna, near Lycksele, ten years ago. Can you describe this first experience?

Yes, even though it is some years ago I still remember this day quite good. We got the opportunity to try during our course to become Frilufts guides. First of all I remember how impossible it looked when we arrived to the almost vertical ice wall of some 25-plus metres. It was a cold day in February and we all had lots of clothes; I was tired from carrying the equipment to the cliff through the deep snow so the first tries didn’t go that well. But after some instructions and help from the guides it went a lot better. And I especially remember the feeling of accomplishment when I reached the top at the end of the day, hands and muscles screaming from fatigue but happy from overcoming something that at first seemed impossible.

While living in Umeå, you helped to run guided trips with IKSU. Did this practise give you the confidence and some of the tools required to become a guide in your own right?

The first years as a guide for Iksu Frilufts I arranged mostly trips connected to my previous fields of expertise, fishing, hiking and canoeing. It was through Frilufts’ internal guiding program I came in contact with many other types of outdoor activities such as water rafting, climbing and back country skiing. Later I became in charge of the education of our new guides; this showed me how rewarding instructing and teaching activities in the outdoors can be. By being involved and responsible for much of Frilufts’ activities I got the opportunity to attend a lot of outdoors courses, but what I learned the most from is all the trips we did, learning from colleague guides and being out almost every weekend and break we had from university. So Iksu Frilufts can definitely take some credit for the type of guide I am today. It was also these years that showed me that you can have these kind of activities as work, not just as an interest.  

What is the essential equipment required for ice climbing?

The additional equipment that you specifically need for ice climbing is crampons with steel frontpoints and an ice axe, later when you want to try leading you also need a number of ice screws for placing protection along the way. To complement this you also need the climbing equipment that you normally use in summertime or climbing indoors: rope, harness, karabiners, slings and helmet.   

aron klättrar (1)-2

When climbing, do you always use crampons (traction devices which attach to boots), or does an ice axe sometimes suffice?

When I am on winter adventures and have climbing as the main priority I always bring crampons. Ice is slippery and even very low angle ice is risky crossing without crampons (just think of an ice covered street). I also bring crampons on most skiing trips when I expect hard conditions or steeper peaks even if you most often just need an ice axe on these occasions, and with ski boots you can kick and make steps in quite hard snow. Sometimes when exercising I climb on the top rope without crampons which is good for improving your foot work and hard on the arms. 

How much can you understand about the ice you are about to climb from simply looking?

Before even going on a trip you check the weather for the last week to get an idea of how the ice is. Lots of snow on ice of a low angle tends to give layers of ice with air between, these conditions are difficult and a bit unsafe to climb on; really warm weather and rain for longer time can make thinner icefalls loosen from the rock and fall down. Sun can make the surface slushy and make it harder to place good ice screws. Really cold weather makes the ice brittle so it cracks easily and free hanging icicles can shrink from the cold and crack and fall down. The best is of course to speak to a climber that has been in the area recently. With some experience you can see how the ice will perform at a distance even before you get to it and start to hit it. But when the temperature has changed from a longer period of warm to cold or vice versa it takes some time before all ice has changed in temperature. During this period it is a lot of tension in the ice that makes it crack and causes big pieces to fall off. How big problem this will be is really hard to see in advance and you never know for sure before you start to climb.

How do the challenges of leading, and placing ice screws or anchors, differ from those of following?

In theory there is almost no difference, you need the same strength and technique for both. It does takes slightly longer to place an ice screw than to remove it but the big difference is mental. While following you know that you are always secure from above and an accidental slip at any point of the climb won’t result in a long fall. Despite this you don’t want to slip while following, you never know the actual strength of the anchor above or if the belay [rope fastening] is prepared, maybe your colleague is taking a sip of tea right now and a slip can result in a thermos coming down and hitting you. But the main reason is the ropes have a lot of stretch so if you slip with a lot of rope out you will “fall” a short distance. With crampons attached it is easy for them to catch in the ice and twist your wrist or knee, or the sharp points on axes and crampons can pierce clothes or skin if you don’t have them under control. So even following demands full focus!

And when you reach the belay it is your turn to lead. While leading you need to plan ahead more and calculate how strong you feel; where should I place the screws and when can I rest my arms? Most important is to evaluate and control your fear of falling – is it imagined or is it an actual risk that you will fall off? If this fear is not controlled it will make you place a lot of screws, you will get more tired and as a result feel more scared and place even more screws, and as a result you won’t get very far or in the worst case fall off while placing a screw because you got so tired.

Personally I have been more scared belaying a leader than leading myself. Belaying someone that is high above their last protection and seeing them struggle makes me worry and feel helpless, at this point there is little I can do to help, and after the potential fall the self rescue and first aid is up to me. When leading myself I generally climb well below my limit so I feel I have some reserve strength if it would be needed. Or on harder routes I stop and attach myself to an ice screw for a short rest, before I get too tired to place a new screw or if I feel I need to calm my nerves.  

Mixed climbing involves ice climbing in combination with rock climbing. Have you ever tried mixed climbing, or does mixed climbing interest you at all?

I have tried mixed climbing and dry tooling in the easier grades since it is good practise and good to know how to when closing in on a peak and the ice disappears. I am more interested in alpine climbing when you aim for a peak, and the way to get there is through couloirs [a narrow gully with a steep gradient] with snow and ice climbing and maybe some short sections of rock climbing along ridges. The type of mixed climbing that you will find from a search on Google or YouTube that consists of overhanging rock and free hanging icicles don’t interest me so much. This type of route is hard to climb safely and protect naturally with ice screws, nuts, hexes and cams. I haven’t had the opportunity to try any bolted routes of this type yet, but if I do in the future maybe I’ll change my mind?

IMG_0264-3

I have personally seen examples of your carpentry skills: I remember seeing a wonderful canoe which you had worked on and finished in the basement of your accommodation in Umeå. In crafting your first ice axe, you undertook every part of the process yourself: carving the wood, forging and hardening the steel blade, and bolting the blade to the shaft. You experimented with the procedure three times before arriving at an ice axe which worked, and which you have successfully used for a number of years. How difficult was this process, and what wood do you now think works best for the shaft?

Thanks for the nice comment on the canoe, it was a big project for me since I hadn’t worked with the specific technique before using epoxy and thin spruce strips, but it went ok and the canoe looks good and works. Well, [for the ice axe] it took about 3-4 tries to make the first shaft of wood that worked well. Forging a blade was much harder and after some tries it did work but not as good as the already existing blades. So after a couple of tries I managed to bolt a Petzl blade to my working wood shaft. This axe I used exclusively for 4 years and it still works great after 6 years and many climbs.

The work of making a shaft that protects your hand and knuckles more started as soon as the first working model was complete. After some years of failed attempts with this new shape and Petzl’s blade I decided I had to develop my own blades to get it to work with this new shape of shaft. During 2013-14 I developed a better process of how to make the shafts for this new axe; it was extremely difficult making a shaft that is light, strong and allows me to make a lasting bonding between the shaft and the blade. Since wood is my field of expertise the choice of wood was not so hard. Our Swedish birch has very good elasticity and is easy to work with plus it literally grows in my back yard ☺. The downside is that it is a bit heavy. The birch is complemented by harder woods in exposed parts that can withstand more tear and wear.

One of the reviews of the Aronski ice axe mentions the profile of the handle, and states that the shaft resembles a Petzl Nomic ice axe. Are Petzl the industry leaders when it comes to ice climbing equipment? What axe did you use before you started making your own?

In the beginning I borrowed axes from Iksu Frilufts and friends. These included a Simond Piranha and a similar axe from Camp. I also climbed a lot with Petzl’s old Quark model; this was the one I liked best and the first axe I made myself tried to resemble this axe. The industry leader… that depends on who you ask and on the type of equipment. But Petzl, Black Diamond and Grivel axes are the most commonly used. Today most technical ice axes have a shaft with two hand rests and the lower is constructed so the hand and knuckles are protected from hitting the ice. The majority of local ice climbers I know use Petzl Nomic.

When designing an ice axe, is the process always purely functional, or is it often also aesthetic?

As with any kind of consumer product you have to work hard with the design process to make a product that works and last for a long time and also looks good. Also, climbers are conscious about how things look and no one would use ugly ice axes no matter how good they are. The challenge is not to make something that looks well out of wood, this is easy for a skilled carpenter; the problem is to make the axe strong enough without making it too big so that it looks awkward and feels unwieldy.

Is there any connection between the process of designing an ice axe and your previous work as an organ builder?

In fact there are some similarities, on my previous work we sometimes made replications of things that were built before electric machinery existed. Of course we use machines today but we still had to make moulds and special tools because no special machinery exists to do that kind of stuff. It is the same with making shafts out of wood for technical ice axes. No such special machine exists; you have to make the moulds, tools and machinery needed by yourself.

kajak-3

What are some of the barriers you face in producing the Aronski ice axe and getting it to a wider market? Is the main issue – as the NSD/Norrbottens-Kuriren suggests – in sourcing good steel blades? Are there other requirements which you have to meet, and what is your perspective on advertising?

It is so many obstacles and barriers that friends often ask me why I continue. Honestly I don’t really know, I have made some prototypes that work and I have more axes than I can wear down during my climbing life so why continue? I like a challenge and this project provides many ☺. As NSD suggested [obstacles include] finding proper steel for the blade, and someone that can provide this steel in smaller quantities, and finding partners that can cut out the steel parts and heat treat them properly in small batches for a reasonable price. And engineering and design challenges so the axe can meet the high demands to get the CE EN certification for personal safety equipment, which is needed to sell the axe in Europe.

When I start something I want to finish it and it’s rewarding to make things for someone else. I also get a lot of encouragement, many people show an interest in the axes and like what I am doing and they believe that I can make a beautiful looking ice axe that is strong enough and climbs water ice as good as any other axe. This goal and the possibility to create a new and unique product is what is driving me. My motivation is not economical, I have abandoned the possibility to make money out of this endeavor; there is no way to compete with the big established brands. Making a first batch of 15-20 pairs of axes will be really expensive for me since I can’t do everything myself. Hopefully enough climbers will want a unique ice axe custom made to their climbing style and size so I can break even financially sometime in the future.

My thoughts on advertising are a bit divided. Today we are literally using up the resources of our grandchildren and these resources are not even close to being divided equally between countries and individual human beings. Most of the environmental challenges we face today are a result of the consumption society we live in. Advertising and commercials encourage this behavior. But in order to reach potential customers I have to advertise in some way, they need to know Aronski exists. Can a person that tries to be environmentally friendly justify buying another ice axe from Aronski? I think the answer is maybe, wood is a renewable source and an Aronski axe has much less steel and aluminum than a normal one. Metal has a much bigger impact on the environment than wood. I have also thought of a concept where a customer can return the axe after the shaft is worn down and I replace the wood parts in the axe.               

What is the process when someone commissions an ice axe from you? How much does an Aronski ice axe cost?

Today I am not really in the stage that I can deliver an axe on request: the new model is not tested properly so I can’t guarantee how much it holds, therefore it has no CE marking yet. Right now I am choosing between two different concepts. The first is an axe with a fixed blade which you can’t replace, and without a hammer or shovel. This type I could make as soon as I find a supplier of good steel in smaller quantities. The other is an axe with interchangeable blades and the possibility to attach a hammer or shovel. For this type there are still some design problems, and I need to establish relations with a partner that can machine the complicated metal parts for the model.

The price is always the hardest for me, some climbers that have been really interested have persisted on knowing the price, but I have never come up with a good answer. For covering all my expenses during this project I either have to charge an insane amount or sell a huge number of axes and none of that will work. What I have done is I have adapted the price to the customer’s wallet; I have sold axes for almost nothing as well as for more than the double the price of a conventional technical climbing axe. I kind of like the idea of customer adapted pricing but it probably won’t work in the long run. A price some steps above that of a normal technical ice axe of good quality will probably be what works for me and most customers. If someone is interested they just contact me and we discuss their climbing to see if an Aronski axe would suit them and what type they want. After that they need to take some measurement of their hands so I can make the handle fit perfectly.

complete axe-3

How did the profile with NSD/Norrbottens-Kuriren come about?

Well a journalist called on my phone out of the blue one day when we were out ice climbing. Asking for an interview and a day that suited to take some photos. Apparently they had seen some links to my activities on Luleå tourist office home page. They try to write about a local company and events that happen in the area every week. Then someone on the newspaper obviously liked the pictures and decided to make a bigger article. I didn’t know about the front page until I saw the newspaper in the store ☺.

What sports and outdoor activities were you interested in before you began ice climbing, and do any activities in particular complement the pursuit of ice climbing?

When I was young I played soccer and hockey as everyone else from the region. My family was also out in the wilderness a lot both winter and summer. The goal then was almost always fishing. When I got a bit older I went on trips for myself or with friends: the canoeing, hiking, skiing and sleeping in a tent was just a way to get to the nice fishing areas. Later the interest in fishing declined and I started to go on trips just for the sake of being outdoors, exploring and searching something new, the longer and more remote the trip the better. Because I live just south of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden I can climb ice close to home from late October to early May. During the summer I rock climb and that gives almost the same adventures and feelings as ice climbing minus the cold; even though it snowed during a climbing trip last midsummer, it is generally much warmer and easier to climb in the summer. Back-country skiing in the spring time and green woodworking in the fall are two other things that give me joy.

Some of your courses allow beginners to experience ice climbing. They require no prior experience; but is a certain level of fitness necessary to climb?

Yes my activities focus on allowing beginners and novice climbers to experience ice climbing, for these groups I can make an event that exceeds their expectations, and the days are almost always a success. Arranging trips and activities for experienced climbers is harder, more demanding and needs more luck with the ice quality, weather, and so on to become a success. I would say that almost anyone can try ice climbing and have fun. If you manage a normal life, like biking to work, shopping your groceries and carrying them back to your home, you will have no problems joining on an ice climbing day. On the other hand I live just below the Arctic Circle and the winter days are cold, and most people are not used to spending a full day out in -15, so you need to be prepared with warm clothes. And if you have problems with dislocating shoulders or knees ice climbing is maybe not the best activity for you.

For the NSD/Norrbottens-Kuriren piece, you and Johan were climbing at Kalsberget. You mentioned Abisko in Sweden, and more broadly Norway as other excellent locations for climbing. Which have been your favourite climbing spots?

Many climbs and areas have a special place in my mind. I remember one night outside Älvsbyn in January, it was -20 and me and Johan climbed in the lights of the stars and the full moon; reaching the top and looking down on our home town seeing the lights from his house in a distance was amazing. Or when Mattias and I stayed the night in an ice cave behind a thin curtain of ice halfway up a route. Stora Sjöfallet [in Norrbotten, one of Sweden’s largest national parks] is maybe the most diversified place I have visited with easy access to long, short, hard and easy routes. For me the ultimate climbing trip is based on a remote mountain with a day or two approach on skis. This way you get more of an adventure. The climbing itself would be as long as possible but not necessarily so hard and hopefully a finish up to a peak with a view, all of this with the company of good friends.

IMG_1608-3

Is the quality of the ice always the deciding factor when choosing a location, or do you sometimes choose locations more for their scenery?

Hmm… The ice is of course the most important; there is no point going to a place if the ice is too bad to climb safely on! Sometimes in springtime this is hard to know in advance. The ice the sun hits directly changes and melts very fast. The condition of the ice can be good on Thursday and spoiled on Sunday during a weekend of intense sunshine. For me the scenery is important as well as the sounds, the wind, the snow; the overall feel and experience of the trip is far more important than how hard grades I have climbed and how long the route is. Many people seem to focus on what they have accomplished instead of what they have experienced.

The NSD/Norrbottens-Kuriren piece indicated that groups of Swedish ice climbers meet annually in late February at Stora Sjöfallet, in the Laponian area. How did this year’s meeting go?

It went really well, the weather was excellent with some sun and -5 to -10. Some 30-plus climbers from all of Sweden came this year, more than for many years. This year also had representatives from the Swedish climbing association, and the experienced alpinist Rafael Jensen attended. And the Sweden/Kiwi climber Rick McGregor, who has written the guidebook for the area. The weekend had plenty of climbing, clinics, lectures, pictures and climbing stories from European as well as north and south American mountains. All this together with some good food, sauna and a few beers made for a successful trip.

What are the future plans for Aronski?

I have many plans. Short term I stay in north Norway this spring to earn some money and hopefully have some time off to go back-country skiing as well. This summer I will probably be home repairing an old log hut in my forest and experimenting with the ice axes, hopefully having some with interchangeable blades ready for testing in October. Then the winter comes with guiding and new adventures. In the long run I would like the Aronski business to finance itself and maybe work with that a part of the year and maybe go back to teaching woodcrafts part-time, or just take care of my farm and forest and grow things. You never know what happens. To see what I have been doing recently just visit my Facebook page, new pictures shows up now and then.