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Ice Climbing 101

Submitted by percious on 2007-11-30 | Last Modified on 2007-12-26

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by Christopher Perkins, AMGA TRSM

So you want to climb ice, eh? Never in my life have I been so cold or so hot in the same 10 minutes as I have been ice climbing. If you donít like the cold, and cannot tolerate some level of being uncomfortable, become a rat for the winter. Otherwise, welcome to one of the most demanding, exhilarating, and beautiful forms of climbing. This article is intended to describe the what and the how as you move to the Ďsickle sport.

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Picture By Christopher Perkins
Colorado. Picture By Christopher Perkins.


You are going to need a lot of stuff. There is no way around it. If you are a skier then you probably have a good start on the clothing. Think warm, layered. Think waterproof. Believe it or not, the ice forms from water, and I have even done climbs in the late season where a river of water cascaded down over my ice screws. Many climbers are moving over to Schoeller fabric which is very water resistant and very breathable. Itís also very expensive. Make sure you get a pair of gators to protect your pants and keep the snow out on the approach.

Ok, so you are dressed. Your hat fits beneath your helmet and your over-jacket is big enough to wear a fleece under it. You bought one of those clichť puffy jackets for belaying. Awesome.

Besides clothing, what are the four most important equipment items: Gloves, Tools, Crampons, and Boots.

The last three you can rent, but the Gloves you are going to need to buy. Donít skimp out. You are going to need something that is reasonably warm, has a leather palm, and is waterproof. I have a set of Schoeller gloves, they are great. One trick to waterproof the leather is to treat it with Nickwax boot wax the night before every climb; you will find that this even makes the leather tacky. Many climbers use a liner glove inside their outer shell, myself included. This is handy if you like the technique of taking off your gloves to place a screw. You will find that a sweaty palm is pretty hard to put back inside your glove when you are hanging on your axes, pumped silly.

Ice Axes. There are a number of commercially available axes with flashy colors and even flashier names. Find a local shop and try them out. Many will lend you them for a day. Donít skimp on the tools either. I broke the head off my first set, for which I paid a grand sum of $60. You are also going to need leashes for those axes, because going leash-less is sort of impractical if you are just starting out. I use leashes that easily detach from my axe which is great. Make sure you can get out of your leash in whatever method you choose under duress.

Crampons Ė Again, renting is a practical method to choose the right ones for you. Some people like mono, some go for the dual points. Most people start with the dual which makes a more stable platform for throwing your axes. Manufacturers make crampons which switch from one to the other, which may be a good long-term solution. Getting crampons that at least have replaceable front points is a good idea.

Boots Ė Like climbing shoes, fit is everything. There are plastics and leathers and all different fits, wide to narrow. Try to find something that has enough room in the toe box because you will be kicking into ice with these things, and you donít want to bash your little toes to heck. Itís a good idea to have the socks you will be wearing out there when you try the boots on, a thin liner sock and a great big thick sock. I have a pair of Thinsulate socks that are great. Leathers tend to flex more and are easier in my opinion on approaches, especially if the approach is rocky rather than snowy. Plastics are stiffer and some people swear that this makes them more stable to kick and climb in.

How Now, Brown Cow?

Ok, so now you have all the gear. If you havenít figured it out yet, you are going to need to actually live near ice to climb it. There are no gyms (yet) that offer climbing so you are just going to have to suck it up and go outside. Donít worry, your Wii isnít going anywhere, and besides, WI is much more interesting.

Due to the risk involved in ice climbing I chose to take lessons from a professional guide and it was worth every penny. I learned more about how to read the ice and actual climbing techniques than I could have learned in 1 or 2 years on my own. If you have someone who has been out there on the ice for years who wants to mentor you, that is probably also fine. What I wouldnít do is head out there to lead Tuckermanís ravine thinking you are such a good rock climber that your skills will translate. I donít care if you are a 5.11 trad climber; ice is DIFFERENT.

So you are geared up, tied in, and axes are in hand. A professional is holding the rope for you. What is he likely to tell you? Swing seldom. Swing hard. Aim for concavities in the ice, not convexities. If you find nothing but convex ice, you are going to have to chuck a few dinner plates before your axe will sink in. For every one ice axe stick you should move both your feet up. Kick your feet in hard and with the same precision as your axes. Try to keep your body in a ďtripodĒ stance with your legs at shoulder width and your axe(s) towards the center. Try to keep your feet at the same level when you throw your axe. Keep your heels down as much as possible.

You have reached the top of the formation and now you have to pull over the bulge at the top, this is often the hardest part. Get your tool up and above the bulge as high as you can. Step high and mantle to the top. This will feel awkward. Welcome to the club, you just finished your first ice climb. You are probably pumped silly, and your body reveals muscles you never knew you had. Your calves are pumped too, oddly.

Off on your own

So now you want to go out there and see what its really like, out from under the wing of a seasoned professional. The weird thing about ice is that it is a scarce commodity, and it degrades when you climb on it. Its funny, because if hunks of rock came off a rock cliff and hit you in the face you would never go back there and climb. For ice this is status quo.

Keep in mind that as a beginner, you are going to be throwing less accurately and insisting on more secure placements to move ever upwards. This may be hard on the ice that someone with a lighter hand would just zoom through. If the ice is constantly dinner-plating, do what I do, go for a hike. Find some other ice or just forget it for the day. Save the ice today so that tomorrow it will be in shape to climb. Much of ice climbing (at least for me) is aesthetics, and breaking off a curtain that is about to touch down is bad not only form, and ruins some of the beauty.

The scarcity of ice makes ice climbers somewhat secretive about their crags. If you do your best to keep the exposure to those special places down you will find that you will earn respect of those who can help you to succeed on ice. Publishing GPS coordinates of a lesser-known crag is probably bad form. Showing your buddy some backcountry ice in person, or describing a route to him with a topo map and a cup of coffee is probably a better idea. There are many mentor-level climbers out there who are willing to show you the ropes if you donít stomp on their daisies.

Where does this bring us?

Ice climbing is an adventurous activity. Many crags are hard to get to, the rewards of a good climb are enormous. I personally see ice as a doorway to bigger and better ascents, as a way to get stronger in the winter without being plagued with flappers and annoyed by chalky holds. The beauty of movement on the ice and a good hammer throw relates well to the splendor of our natural world in its dormant state.


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8 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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> The snow is flying and you donít ski. Your recent send of ďInterloper (5.12a)Ē gym route left you with sort of an empty feeling. You are seeking adventure, and dammit, and your nubs donít work too well on rock when its 20 degrees out. Where do you go now?

Someplace warmer? Temps in the 30s are not necessarily impossible, if the rock is in the sun.

I climbed ice when I lived in Boston, mainly because I imagined myself as a potential rad mountaineer and my friends did it. We even did some first ascents. But it was often quite dangerous, with scarce pro and shallow penetration of ice tools in cold temps. Only in warmer temps in March was it possible to sink those tools "in to the hilt" which felt secure. So that is a lot of $$ in gear for a very short safe season. I eventually took my only leader fall (while trying a FA on thin ice) and hit the ground, getting a spinal cord injury and broken leg. After that I discovered there was lots of sunny rock climbing possible throughout the winter in Connecticut.

So be careful out there and be aware of your full set of climbing options.
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I've taken two falls on ice:1 on Miller's thriller/Finger of Fate(can't remember which-they're kinda next to each other) in Utah and Linda Ice Nine in Utah it was at least 30+' and in Banff I'm guessing at least 60',both where from poor judgement.
No broken bones,lacerations or severe injuries and both held by a single screw.
I trust a well place screw more than many rock placements.
Use your judgement.stay calm,use screamers and remember no matter what anybody says including Chouinard you can't learn to climb ice in a day.
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Climbing ice leashless is not difficult. Giving up your leashes once you've become reliant on them is. Start leashless, and you'll never need to make the transition. This is a perfectly reasonable way to begin. You're going to be on top rope for awhile anyway, right?
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I used leashes on my first day ever and on a trip to the mountains where a pinky guard would mess up plunging. The rest has been leashless and I'm very happy with it.
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4 out of 5 stars Precious, great article for us ice noobs, pre-noobessent, actually. A bunch of folks from the CCM have been talking up ice and sucking me right in. I'll have to rent the hardware around here- where should I look? I'm going to try to hook up with Frank and LBJ when they head out.
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4 out of 5 stars Good intro. Don't dissuade beginners from leashless, especially if they are gym rats. It is more natural and less stuff to get tangled in.

The leader must never fall. You can climb ice like a cat swinging like a skinny armed wuss or you can clean the dinner plates and move off positive sticks. Leaving a beat out track, just means you were the early riser. "Live" by the philosophy that every stick is a belay. Expending energy cleaning a well placed tool is a smaller price than medical bills from falling on ice.

Ice screws are only as good as the ice they are in. This is hard to judge as most folks try not to test them and lab tests are generally in controlled conditions. Julio seems to have nine lives on ice, while most of the people I have known to take a fall it usually comes out 50/50 on getting seriously injured or not. Falling with sharp things catching on all manner of protrusions leads to ankles and legs breaking, and tumbling (all bad when medieval weapons are involved). Protect yourself and don't apologize for it.

It does take years and (most of all) a lot of mileage to understand the medium. It changes from day to day, it has avalanche danger, and logistic hazards you don't see rock climbing at the local crag.

Be careful and be safe.
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I live in Utah and am planning on learning how to Ice-climb this winter, I want to be a Glaciologist and I figure it would be wonderful to know.
I was wondering the best places to learn, and if there was anyone that I could talk with and go with sometime after that. I live in Cedar most of the year going to SUU. So if anyone's around there let me know :)

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