I first went ice climbing 25 years ago—and the experience was terrifying, educational and, of course, fashionable. (My one-piece suit, plastic boots and helmet resembled Clint Eastwood in the Eiger Sanction.) But after a number of years of literally hacking my way up climbs, I eventually gained proficiency and confidence. As my technique evolved and after ditching the one-piece, I’ve tested my skills around the globe climbing ice in places like India, Nepal, Canada and Norway. I’ve made mistakes, had some close calls and been extremely fortunate that nothing serious has ever gone wrong. Below are a few tips I’ve compiled to help beginners get into ice climbing and improve safely, efficiently and enjoyably.
Take it slow.
With the explosion of climbing and bouldering gyms along with well thought out training programs, new climbers are going outside with fitness levels many veterans have yet to achieve. But ice climbing isn’t like rock climbing, and even further from the controlled environments of climbing gyms. While modern equipment is more reliable, the old adage of “the leader must not fall” should very much still be followed. Ice climbing protection simply cannot be relied upon the same way that bolts or rock climbing gear can be. It’s far too easy to get injured taking a fall on ice. Plus, given the environment where most ice climbing takes place, even non-vital injuries can quickly lead to serious situations like frostbite or hypothermia. The bottom line: Ice climbing should be approached with caution. While the learning curve on ice is steep, mastery comes over time. So don’t rush. There is as much to learn about the environment and the ice itself as there is about the actual climbing. It’s important to understand both in order to progress safely.
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Ice climbing ratings are incredibly subjective and will vary seasonally and even daily. Leave your ego at home when you set out to climb. A WI 4 climb can feel harder and could be more dangerous than a 6 under certain conditions. It will take time to gain experience and make good decisions while climbing ice and it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Being a skilled ice climber requires technique, composure, patience and judgement, which all come from experience. Starting out, you should focus your attention on getting volume in lower risk environments such as top rope climbing. Many of the ice parks that are springing up offer the perfect location to get some mileage. If you don’t have access to multiple climbs, get creative. This might mean climbing with one tool, no tools, blind folded, limit the number of swings or time yourself. The more time you spend practicing different techniques and experimenting, the more qualified you will become to tackle more difficult routes in the future. Mixed climbing or dry tooling is a great way to gain confidence and help your movements with ice tools become more natural and more fluid.
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Never forget what lurks above.
This has two parts, the first relating to the environment. Ice climbing often involves climbing in areas with more exposure to objective hazards, most importantly avalanches. So it’s imperative that you know the terrain where you’re climbing—including the approach and descent. Even a small avalanche can knock you off a climb. And remember, the conditions above a climb may vary considerably from the conditions at start. Many short ice climbs form in the bottom of gullies that may literally run for thousands of feet above the climb. The conditions above—temperature, snowfall amounts, wind—may differ drastically from where the climb is. Make sure to read guide book descriptions carefully and look at local avalanche bulletins before you decide to go to a certain climb.
Part two involves people. Ice climbing is more and more popular these days, and all too often you will find yourself with company on a climb. Climbing below other teams is dangerous, period! Yes, there are ways to climb together and minimize some of this danger, but as a beginner, don’t learn this lesson the hard way. Avoid being under other parties and under your partner! Your belays should be carefully thought out and protected from falling ice. Avoid positioning yourself under hanging daggers even if your partner isn’t planning on climbing near them. Temperatures changes, sun and certain vibrations in an ice structure can dislodge missiles with no warming.
Watch the weather.
Ice is a dynamic medium, contracting in the cold and expanding in the heat. The weather has a direct and often dramatic effect on the structural stability of a given route. When I started climbing, I never looked at the temperature, let alone the temperature trends over a given time period. These days, I never go climbing without a thorough evaluation of the weather. Extreme cold weather can be as dangerous as a heat wave. Typically, steeper ice will be more at risk to these temperature fluctuations. But pay particular attention to any waterfall ice where running water is concerned. These structures, even lower angle ones, can quickly become unstable when temperatures rise. As a general rule, when temperatures change quickly, in either direction, avoid fragile ice climbs—formations with pillars, curtains, hanging daggers.
Take care of your equipment.
It took me a long time to appreciate this one. Modern ice tools are certainly way better than the knuckle-bashing predecessors I learned to climb on, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to maintain every advantage this new gear has offered. Keeping your ice axes and crampons sharp is imperative to your overall enjoyment and your safety. Test an old worn-out pick against a new one on some cold brittle ice and you’ll understand exactly what I’m saying. While you may cringe at the thought of buying new picks more than once a season, this will go a long way in improving your climbing, your confidence and your security. The same goes for ice screws. Make sure you protect these in your pack and learn how to sharpen them or at least take burrs off, if necessary. A sharp ice screw is essential for quick, efficient placements, which will increase your overall safety.
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Climbing frozen waterfalls will take you to some amazing places and magical environments. Finding a mentor or getting some guided instruction will help tremendously with your introduction and apprenticeship into the sport. The many ice fests across the country are a great way to get some tips without breaking the bank. Remember that the climbing is often only one side of the equation when dealing with ice; make sure you are aware and respect the environmental risks associated with a given climb. Ice climbing can be very rewarding, but also very unforgiving. Approach it with caution, respect and with an open mind so you can enjoy many years of kicking and swinging out of harms way.
Photos by John Price.