Want to try ice climbing? 4 Tips for getting started.
A version of this post originally appeared on CruxCrush.com.
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and started my climbing career in the only gym in town. Obviously, I was pretty cool, because that’s where I would hang out Friday nights. I couldn’t get enough. I focused my energy around sport climbing, mostly because it was so accessible, and between my best friend Jamie and I, we could scrounge up draws, a rope and a vehicle to make the two hour pilgrimage to Rumney, our climbing mecca. By the time college came around I dabbled in trad climbing, but my sport climbing background followed me like a shadow and somehow I ended up with the nickname “sport weenie.” I ticked my way up the grades, learning how to move on real rock. The frigid thought of ice climbing never crossed my mind. My wiry, lanky frame doesn’t stay warm all that well—even during the summer months, my hands and feet remain ice cold to the touch. So I never gave ice climbing a second thought. I avoided the cold. But everything changed when I moved to North Conway, New Hampshire, after college, where there is not a climbing gym for miles.
What’s a girl to do during the long, cold winter months without a gym? Enter: ice climbing. I thought to myself, “How bad could it be?”
My first day out, I climbed the long, meandering Hitchcock Gully on Mount Willard. I couldn’t trust my tools and my feet skidded out from under me on more than one occasion. When sport climbing, I can read a route from the ground, but ice was a completely different experience. I was out of my element. I assumed being a strong rock climber would translate well to ice climbing. My faux pas.
After catching myself trying to smear in ice boots and high stepping until my pants were tattered, I realized my transition from rock to ice would take more effort than I thought.
Despite the steep learning curve, mixed climbing is where I really fell for ice climbing because it combines gymnastic moves with the challenge of steep ice climbing, the perfect objective for a sport climber gone ice climber!
Now I’m happy to say that this winter I’m getting close to completing my first M9 at Tohko Crag, a mixed line that busts out of a steep cave to a hanging icicle.
If you are also looking to make that switch from “sport weenie” to ice climbing crusher, here my best tips:
Get the right gear.
This is huge. My first day out, I had boots that were too big, snow pants that were shredded to smithereens, and crampons I didn’t know how to adjust. Having a pair of boots that fit well will make such a difference! Another must have is a puffy. Wear it for belays to keep yourself warm and ready to climb. A snug pair of gloves will give you the dexterity to take out a screw or unclip a carabiner without having to expose your skin. Also having a loose, comfy pair, plus a few extra pairs in case one gets wet is a must. I stash the pair I’m not using in my jacket so when I put them on, they’re toasty warm.
Find a mentor or instructor.
Just like rock climbing, if you spend some time following a strong leader, you will quickly learn the minute details that make it easier and safer. From perfecting the art of sharpening tools and crampons to learning how to clean an ice screw, there is a lot to know. When placing ice protection, the leader needs to know how to read the ice and where would be a safe spot to put a belay. Ice is a dynamic medium and by following an experienced leader in variable conditions, you’ll start to learn what to look for in order to stay safe.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when learning to ice climb is that it’s almost always a bad idea to fall while leading, which contrasts sharply to the countless airy whippers I’ve taken sport climbing. Learning how to care for your gear, when conditions are safe, and how to place protection takes time and experience. The best way to gain this knowledge is spending time with someone who knows their stuff.
In addition to the safety aspect, ice climbing is a completely different movement than rock climbing. I assumed it would come naturally, just as rock climbing did, but I was wrong. One late winter day, an experienced friend of mine gave me a tutorial. It was as simple as, “hips in, hips out,” and everything started to come together. Having a proper mentor or instructor will get you climbing better much more quickly than trying to figure it out on your own.
Be proactive with staying warm. Eat and drink more then you feel like. I always carry a hot drink with me and lots of snacks in my pockets, since keeping them near your body will prevent you from breaking a tooth on a frozen bar. In order to avoid a sufferfest, choose your partner carefully. Staying on the move is important for staying warm, and if your partner is still trying to figure it out up there, you will surely freeze. My best buddy Hanna and I learned how to ice climb together. As we learned on our own, we swapped quite a few shiver belays all in the name of learning to be hardcore. But for your first day out, make sure you’re able to enjoy it.
As a sport climber, your footwork is probably stellar. With mixed climbing, you can use that strength to get creative. As a sport climber, you’re already ahead of the curve. Modern tools are leashless, meaning you can shake out, match, or even cross through, which was almost unthinkable in the days of leashed tools. The movement is fun and translates well for sport climbers who can hold onto jugs for days. Swinging a tool into ice, on the other hand, might not come so easily. To get dialed, use the same ice tool and practice swinging over and over. Unless you’re ambidextrous, gaining some coordination on your weak side will take some time in order to swing and place protection with both arms.
Ice climbing is a great way to stay in shape during the off season. I always come into the rock season feeling refreshed and psyched. Plus, one of the major benefits of leading ice climbs is that it keeps you in the right mindset for leading. Ever feel a little shaky your first day of the season? After leading on ice during the winter, I feel ready to tackle my rock projects come spring.
Being a total beginner at something can be pretty fun if you embrace it. I enjoyed trying something totally new and feeling myself progress quickly. I noticed improvement every time I went out, plus it feels pretty badass to swing tools.
If you’re looking to break into winter climbing this year, Cathedral Mountain Guides is hosting a Ladies Only Series focused around teaching ladies the skills they need to be independent in the mountains. We’ve planned three separate weekends throughout the coming winter, one as an introduction to ice climbing (January 10-11), one as a skill building workshop for ice climbers (Feb 28-March 1), and one as an introduction to mountaineering (March 7-8). Each workshop is limited to eight participants. You can choose one weekend to suit your interests, or, better yet, join us for all three weekends and gain a full repertoire of winter skills and experiences.
The lovely Janet Wilkinson and I will be guiding all three sessions. With first ascents from Newfoundland to the Indian Himalaya, Janet gets after it on all forms of climbing. We hope you’ll join us!
Photos by Adam Bidwell and Anne Skidmore.