Ice queen is ready to scale new heights

An Irishwoman from Co Tyrone will be ringing in the new year as she spent most of 2016: hanging off the side of a frozen waterfall in Korea.

Eimir McSwiggan, 38, came third in the first leg of the ice climbing world championship that was held in Colorado earlier this month. She hopes to fight to remain in the top ten as the contest continues to five other locations, starting with Beijing next week.

Ice climbing is one of the most difficult sports and competitors must be nimble, strong, and quick. Climbers use a variety of tools to pull themselves up frozen sculptures while navigating unpredictable terrain in freezing temperatures.

Although most climbers train outdoors, the world championships use man-made indoor walls that mimic real-world scenarios by including a variety of obstacles that climbers have to manoeuvre around.

The walls that include ice in their design are actually the easiest, McSwiggan said.

“Artificial structures in controlled environments increase the difficulty while removing the danger. They enable the designers to make the course tall enough so that the difficulty level is consistent for each competitor,” she said.

There are two different branches of competitive ice climbing: speed and lead races. Speed racers use small picks to climb straight up the wall as fast as possible, while lead racers encounter a series of 20-30 technical moves they have to overcome in a certain amount of time.

The obstacles can include wooden panels, hanging ice blocks, or curves in the course that test a climber’s ability to balance without support.

McSwiggan said that the races can still be scary even though she has years of practice.

“Every race pushes me to a new limit or forces me to try something different which is brilliant. As you move up the wall the techniques required become more difficult. I think there is a huge element of gymnastics involved in the sport which a lot of people are not aware of,” she said.

Ice climbing is popular in South Korea, where McSwiggan has been living for the past six years. Her uncle had worked as a priest in South Korea in the 1970s and recommended it as a great place to live because of the kindness of the Korean people.

Despite working as an architect in Dublin for years, she found that most of the work had dried up after returning from a travelling holiday in Australia in 2008. It was there that she had tried rock climbing for the first time, but thought it would never be something more than an occasional holiday activity.

When she moved to Korea, she decided to try climbing again as 80 per cent of the landmass is made up of mountains. She worked three different teaching jobs last year to save up to enter this years’ competition.

McSwiggan credits her success to a supportive coach, and a natural love of competitions.

“My family in Tyrone did not know what to think at first, but they understood that when I put my mind to something it is very hard to convince me not to do it. My coach in Korea told me that I could do it, and it has really opened my eyes to being able to do anything you put your mind to.”

The plan after the competition is to return to Ireland in order to recruit an ice climbing team for the 2022 Olympic games, the first ever to include ice climbing as a sport.

“I love competing for Ireland, but it is slightly painful to do that while being so far away. I have not been home for longer than a week in six years, and I am looking forward to being able to see my nieces and nephews grow up.

“Sometimes I get worried about being a 38-year-old ice climber and not having a family of my own yet, but I also feel so lucky to have gotten the chance to do it. One thing I know for sure is that there are pros and cons to everything, and I am excited to see where my path will take me next,” she said.

The competition will conclude on February 4 in France, after climbs in Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, China, and the US. Final rankings are determined by an average of the scores received.