Ice Climbing 101: What You Need to Know

For those not fortune enough to live in an area with mountains and a winter season, the idea of grabbing an axe, attaching some spikes to the bottom of your shoes, and scaling a frozen waterfall seems like something from a movie. But it’s actually more do-able than most people think.

Here’s a list of what you should know about ice climbing before you decide to adopt the thrilling sport.

The two main pieces of equipment that you need for ice climbing are crampons and an ice tool. Crampons are sharp, metal spikes that clip on to the bottom of your boots. They are used to dig into the ice when you are climbing. Crampons vary in styles with either one or two points in the front, which are the primary points of contact and grip with the ice. The next vital piece of gear that is essential for ice-climbing is your ice tool. Your ice tool acts like an axe as you firmly swing it into the ice to help you climb. Ice tools vary in shape, size and weight so it’s important to find the one that fits you. Most ice tools have leashes that secure tightly around your wrist so you don’t drop them. As the majority of ice-climbers use ropes it’s not a complete disaster if you lose your ice tool, but it makes things nearly impossible to go on. The final piece of equipment needed to go ice-climbing are ice screws. These are put in place while you climb and are secured to a rope in the same fashion as rock-climbing.

True ice-climbing involves crampons and the use of two ice tools. On vertical faces of ice, the technique is known as front pointing. It is composed of kicking one leg up and sticking the toe of the crampon in the ice followed by a swing of the ice tool above the head. The distance between your ice tool and crampon determines your pace, but the strength of the ice can seriously inhibit your speed. Abseiling, leading, belaying, lowering in and tying in are all similar techniques as rock climbing.

Ice-climbing can be done in virtually anywhere that a thick sheet of ice hangs off a sleep slope, but frozen waterfalls are one of the most common places among climbers. A process called ice-grading rates the different difficulties of potential climbing locations. Everything from the thickness of ice to the incline of the slope factor into the ice-grading process. Depending on the time of the season the ice/snow can be in different conditions, which can change the grade of the ice.

Because ice changes every year the best spots to climb follow the same patterns. Unlike rock climbing, the temperatures and snowfall effect the physical elements that you are climbing on so it’s impossible for anywhere to claim they have ‘the best ice-climbing.’ That being said there are a number of areas which seem to produce solid ice year after year. In North America some notable locations are in Colorado of the United States and Alberta/British Columbia in Canada. Across the pond Switzerland and Norway reign supreme in their large variety of ice climbing terrain.

By Alex Vere Nicoll