Ice Climbing Basics – How, Where, Why

Are you interested in climbing ice but have no idea where to start? The sport is foreign to most people and intimidating to get into. There are many questions to consider. Where to go? What gear is needed? Is it safe? This article will touch on the basics that you need to know to get your feet wet-or stay dry!

The first step to climbing ice is finding it. This is usually associated with mountainous terrain. So think mountains and think cold weather. Ice forms where water drips off a cliff or steep embankment and it is cold enough for long enough to freeze. It builds day after day and is climbable once it reaches a certain thickness.
Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana contain the majority of ice in the country, and Colorado is by far the most accessible. Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York are another concentrated region. Alaska has plenty. Many other states have ice climbing that is less often formed or less understood-but don’t rule them out! Utah, Washington, California, Idaho, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine, and there are more. But to pinpoint one top destination: Ouray, Colorado.

The second step is deciding when to go. Ice can be found year round, but December—February is most reliable. The middle of summer is also a great option in Alaska. These climbs are shorter, warmer, and on a glacier! This is an easy, simplified ice climbing option if traveling to the far north, but not a destination for only climbing.

The beauty of ice climbing is you make your holds, you don't find them.

The beauty of ice climbing is you make your holds, you don’t find them.

Clothing

What are the proper clothes for climbing in the winter? Warm ones! And as with any outdoor undertaking, cotton kills. It doesn’t handle moisture as well as other fibers, so don’t wear cotton. Next is a list of the types of layers you should have. For many of the recommendations, there is a direct link to what I suggest in the Red Fox lineup. These clothing options will translate to general mountaineering, skiing, backpacking, and most outdoor endeavors. So if you play outside a lot, the basic layering system is worth the investment.

Base layer top and bottom (men’s & women’s). Medium heavy fleece or mid layer up top. Then a softshell top and bottom for the outer layers. Medium gloves, warm hat, and at least one hood. Thick merino wool blend socks. This is a standard outfit to wear when alpine climbing.

You will also need a very warm jacket to put on when you stop climbing and wait for your partner to climb. In your pack, have extra layers to stay warm or switch out when they get wet; light gloves, heavy gloves, medium jacket, face mask/buff, and hard shells. Hard shells, or raingear, are usually only needed in high winds or when climbing in warm weather that melts the snow and ice and drips on the climber.

Other things to take: sunglasses, sunblock, easy to eat food (and a lot of it); warm water (so it doesn’t freeze as quickly), camera, map and route information, and a positive attitude! Ice climbing is often miserable. Hands are usually cold; the wind blows snow in your face; body temperature skyrockets when climbing and plummets at the belay, it is very hard work and often scary. Know this going into the adventure and be willing accept a level of discomfort.

On ice you need warm clothes for belay, light layers for climbing.

On ice you need warm clothes for belay, light layers for climbing.

Hardware

How about the climbing equipment? There are a lot of expensive tools needed to safely climb up a frozen waterfall and here is what you need to know. First, it is unsafe to buy all of the equipment and go climbing without someone who already knows how to use it! This is most often found in the form of a guide. If you are really lucky and live in an ice climbing area maybe a friend can take you. Think about buying them dinner if this is the case-because they are guiding you for free.

If it is your first time trying ice climbing, rent or borrow as much gear as possible. It doesn’t make sense to spend $1500 on equipment and realize this game is not for you. If you know you like it and are on a budget, start frequenting used gear stores for boots and hard goods.

In any case, this is what you need, with average costs:

  • Single or double boots. Doubles are warmer. $250 used, $550 new
  • Crampons. $75 used, $200 new
  • Ice Tools. $200 used, $500 new
  • 12 to 15 Ice Screws. $25 used, $60 new

Basic climbing equipment is also compatible with rock climbing. Buy the following gear new:

  • Helmet, $75
  • Rope, $175
  • Harness, $75
  • 10+ draws, 2 anchor cordelettes, 4+ lockers, belay device, etc. $300

If a professional guide is hired, most of this gear is supplied and the rest is easily rented. If going with an experienced friend, look to rent your personal gear from a local climbing shop or University outdoor program. Either way, make sure you 100% trust this person! Most all formal guides in North America are trustworthy. Look them up online for the area you want to explore. One recommendation I will include here is Absolute Alpine in central Colorado.

When you are ready to buy your own equipment there are many options to consider. Here are just a few: Anything from a legit climbing manufacturer (Black Diamond, Petzl, Red Fox, Grivel, Bluewater ropes, etc) is UIAA rated for safety. You can trust it. Most any harness, rope, crampons, tools, etcetera will work. Buy beginner/intermediate level ice tools. Petzl Nomic tools are excellent, but they don’t climb moderate angle ice well. I don’t recommend mono point crampons for a beginner. Buy dry treated rope if mostly using it on ice.

Once you are at the climbing location, at the right time of year, and have all the gear, it is time to climb! Here are a few thoughts on efficient technique:

  1. Keep your heels down and toes up! This is the number one mistake in learning to climb ice. The bottom of your boot should be at a 90 degree angle to the slope of the ice.
  2. Big moves with your arms, small moves with your feet. You want uphill progress as fast as possible, but big steps with your feet will negate tip #1.
  3. Ladies, swing those tools harder! Men, calm it down and use your feet more. Sorry to stereotype here, but this should help most of us and I mean nothing negative I promise!
  4. Being thoughtful trumps all in the mountains. For example, if there is a flat step a little higher, utilize it! No need to kick into brittle ice to follow tip #2 if you can step 4 inches higher and stand flat footed.

The first step to ice climbing is picking a location that entices you, and getting there in the winter. Next you will need to get outfitted with the proper clothes for cold weather. Bring plenty of food and water and extra warm layers in a pack. Buy or rent the harness, helmet, boots, and sharp objects to climb this exotic terrain! Hiring a guide is often the easiest way to get started. Think about those four movement techniques mentioned above.

Lastly, if you are considering ice climbing for any reason, go for it! Climbing a frozen waterfall or icy mountain is just as wild as you can imagine!

© 2017