It’s the middle of winter, and you’re anchored to the side of a frozen waterfall.
Your hands are going numb from clutching two sharp objects, and you’re kicking your way up the ice with sharp spikes on your feet. Stopping makes it worse since your sweat has a chase to freeze in the below-freezing temperatures.
When you get to the top, you have to descend by using bits of metal and string attached to the ice to lower yourself and your partner to the snow-covered ground.
Welcome to ice climbing.
I always say I have no idea why I continue to climb ice. It's probably the strangest activity I do, especially for someone who hates being cold. And yet there’s some (probably masochistic) reason, I, and many others, keep going back to these frozen blue waterfalls to climb this fickle substance.
Before going any further, I want to make one important point, although this article gives the basics of how to ice climb, there is no substitute for mentorship and in-person instruction. I will go over some of the basic ice climbing techniques, what gear you need to ice climb, and how to learn more.
Hopefully, it will shine a light on how much there is to know in this crazy sport and inspire you to seek the mentorship and instruction of experienced ice climbers if you want to pursue it further.
I also know outdoor recreation is complicated and expensive, and highlighting all that there is to know but not encouraging people to go out on their own can quickly turn from safety and liability to gatekeeping.
For that reason, and since I have also experienced countless challenges getting into these sports and learning the skills I now take for granted, I always want to highlight affordable and accessible ways to learn safely and thoroughly for a beginner ice climber. See the last section of this article for some suggestions.
There are two main types of ice climbing, alpine ice and water ice. Alpine ice is typically on a
mountain and is part of a summit or longer climb, but it can also be a part of a glacier.
I learned how to climb on glacier ice, on a giant valley glacier in Alaska: the Matanuska. The unique thing about this glacier and a few other glaciers in Alaska is that you can drive to it. It’s incredibly accessible, and I had the privilege of working for a summer guiding glacier treks and ice climbs on this sheet of ice.
There are not many places in North America where you can climb glacier ice without embarking on an expedition, but there are also some popular areas in Washington where you can hike to a glacier and climb on seracs and other walls of ice on the glacier.
Seracs are formed by a part of the glacier that is falling over a cliff, imperceptibly slowly. This
movement creates cliffs and pillars of ice that sometimes, in the right situations, are safe to climb. When climbing on a glacier, there are lots of hazards to keep in mind, like falling ice from seracs, holes in the ice called moulins, and many more features of an active glacier.
But mostly, if you’re learning to ice climb not in Alaska in the summer, or the Pacific Northwest, you’re probably going to climb on water ice. Water ice is just that — water turned to ice, typically found from frozen waterfalls.
Often, water ice can be more accessible than alpine ice since it could potentially be roadside or have less of an approach. But, many ice climbs involve long approaches by foot or on skis. But water ice only forms in areas where it gets consistently cold enough for waterfalls to freeze enough to climb.
You can ice climb wherever there is ice.
But the reality is sometimes more complicated, especially in areas that don’t consistently or rarely develop ice. While you can find (sometimes ephemeral) ice all over the country, there are some places that are more reliable than others to start to ice climb. Colorado, Montana, Wyoming Canada, the Upper Midwest, and the Northeast are places that reliably have ice all winter. But in good conditions, you can find ice in many other places around North America.
A great place for someone getting started with ice climbing is a festival. You can take clinics, find guides, meet potential partners or mentors, and experience the ice climbing community at an ice climbing festival.
Ouray, Colorado, Bozeman, Montana, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula all hold ice festivals throughout the winter. They are also just great places for accessible ice climbing for the beginner since they have accessible top rope access. Ouray’s Ice Park is perfect for someone who does not yet lead ice but wants to get better at it.
The Northeast is also an ice climbing hub. Adam Gellman, an ice climbing guide based in the northeast, says that Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont, Frankenstein Cliffs in New Hampshire, and Chapel Pond in New York are some of the best places to start with good top rope options and reliable ice.
Ice climbing gear can get complicated from the ice tools to the proper types of crampons. But it's also easy to get started even if you don’t have everything you need.
Ice climbers need most of the same climbing gear that rock climbers use, such as a rope, harness, quickdraws, belay devices, and slings.
But for the actual ice climbing, you’re going to need ice tools and crampons. Ice tools are slightly different from the ice axes you would use to climb snow. Ice axes typically have a straight shaft with a spike on the bottom that acts as a walking stick while hiking up steep snow. They also have a pick at the top that you can use to self-arrest or climb snow or low-angle ice.
An ice tool differs from an ice ax since you use it for much steeper terrain. Ice tools come in a variety of shapes, all with different strengths and weaknesses. An aggressively curved tool is your best friend for steep ice or dry tooling (climbing rock with ice tools). For lower angle ice, a curved tool might be overkill, and you can get away with a straighter shafted tool that might also work for mountaineering.
Other things that differ in different ice tools are the shape of the pick, whether it has an adze (used to chop away ice) or a hammer (used to hammer in pitons or other protection) on the back of the head.
Crampons are another critical piece of your ice climbing arsenal that comes in different varieties, all with specific purposes.
For ice climbing, you’re going to want vertical front points on your crampons. Horizontal front points sit flat and provide much better float in snow but don’t anchor into ice very well. However, I’ve top-roped a lot of ice with my horizontal front point crampons, and they work fine if you have some already and don’t want to invest in yet another piece of expensive outdoor gear. But if you need crampons and just want to use them for ice climbing, don’t buy
Another thing to look for in ice climbing crampons is whether they are step-in, hybrid, or strap-on. Step-in crampons, also called automatic crampons, work best for ice climbing because they use ski binding style attachment that clips into your boot. They depend on your boot to stay on and provide plenty of stiffness, allowing you to use your front points to their fullest capability. However, to use step-in crampons, you need to have compatible boots with a heel and toe welt or groove — typically full shank mountaineering boots or ski boots. Most crampons with vertical front points will be step-in crampons.
Strap-on crampons work best for mountaineering and fit over any shoe or boot but just don’t provide enough stiffness for ice climbing. Again, they can work if that's all you have, but they won’t feel as secure as an automatic crampon with compatible boots.
Hybrid crampons use both straps and a binding to provide a middle ground. They work with boots with a heel welt or groove but not a toe welt.
Having comfortable boots can be the difference between having a good time and not. And feeling confident in your feet is also one of the most critical things while climbing ice.
Boots come in half shank, ¾ shank, and full shank options. The shank is a piece of material built into the bottom of your boot to provide a stiff feeling. Standard hiking boots typically have a half shank allowing them to flex with your foot and is more comfortable while walking. ¾ shank boots ride the line between comfort and stability for mountaineering. Full shank boots are not known to be comfortable for long periods of walking but provide the most stiffness.
Full shank mountaineering boots are the best for ice climbing because they are stiff enough the boot holds up your feet. It's possible to climb ice in ¾ shank boots, but you probably won’t feel as confident in your footing.
Similar to other winter outdoor activities, layering is essential. But especially in ice climbing, where you alternate between climbing — a high output activity, and belaying — a very low
output activity, it's incredibly important to avoid sweating as much as possible. Wearing layers allows you to take things off while climbing and add on as many layers as possible for standing around and belaying in below-freezing temperatures — without the dreaded freezing sweat.
Of course, layering is incredibly personal. It can take a long time to figure out the perfect layering system for you. But here are a few good tips to keep in mind, especially while just getting into ice climbing:
I reached out to a few guides who teach ice climbing for a living to learn more about the best ways to teach ice climbing techniques to beginners. It's important to learn the proper technique first, because it is much harder to correct later.
Lindsay Fixmer, an AMGA certified rock and alpine guide based in Bozeman, Montana, told me that one big part about ice climbing that she likes to emphasize while teaching is that you can be more delicate than you think with ice. By choosing to swing and kick into concave spaces that are more receptive, you can more easily avoid the danger of breaking off ice, as well as save energy.
Both Fixmer and Gellman say that there are three main areas they notice beginner rock climbers struggling in.
To kick correctly into ice to engage your front points, Fixmer says to pick your foot up instead of letting it sit in its natural position pointing down. Engage your shin and feel your toes at the top of your boot. Then, place or kick your foot onto the ice once your toes lift up.
Gellman agrees that one of the most significant things he sees people do wrong when getting into ice climbing is not dropping their heels enough and pointing their toes instead. He also often sees rock climbers keeping their feet at different levels. He says keeping your feet at the same level helps a lot with stability.
“Keep your elbows in!” say both Gellman and Fixmer. When you're swinging, swing with your elbows in line with your shoulders, instead of out, like a chicken wing. Then stand into your tool with your elbow and arms at your side. When hanging on your tools, keep your arms straight with elbows pointing in to put the weight on your skeleton instead of your muscles.
When you kick, stick your hips out from the wall to walk your feet up (so you can see your feet and place them properly). Then, when you swing, get your hips into the wall as much as possible with your back arched so you can be in your strongest position to move your tools up the wall.
Ice screws are metal screws with sharp teeth on one end to help you screw into the ice and a loop of metal on top to clip a carabiner or quickdraw (two carabiners with webbing between them). Newer designs also include an integrated crank handle to screw in the ice screw quickly. Ice screws come in various lengths, from about 10cm to 21cm.
To place an ice screw, first find the correct location. You want it to sit flat against the ice, so don’t choose a place with any significant bumps or indentations. Also, make sure the ice is thick more than thick enough for the length of screw you are using.
Make sure the screw is perpendicular to the ice or in the direction of loading — aka slightly down. It's a common mistake for beginners to place ice screws angled up since that is often the most straightforward direction to get them started.
Push the screw against the ice with your wrist and turn it a few times to get it to bite. Once the screw is attached to the ice without you holding it, you can let go and just use the crank to screw it into the ice.
You could write a whole book about anchors, and there are many out there, so this is just a brief overview. Please get instruction from a guide or mentor before attempting an ice anchor on your own.
Ice anchors can be built out of many things, from ice screws to bolts, to trees. One way to make an ice anchor is by using a v-thread.
V-threads (or A-threads built vertically instead of horizontally) are a v-shaped hole in the ice made by screwing in a long ice screw at an angle, taking it out, and then screwing it in at an opposite angle to create a v that connects inside the ice. Then you can thread a bit of cord or rope through the holes to create an anchor out of the ice.
V-threads are a popular way to rappel or belay from, and are a good way to set up a top-rope anchor (use more than one v-thread if you will be using it for a long time).
There’s no room for error when leading ice — you simply don’t fall. Falling causes all sorts of
injuries — or worse, due to the sharp objects in your hands and on your feet, as well as the unstable nature of the ice itself.
Because of this, it can take many seasons for someone to start leading ice. Many beginners get on lead too early because they are unaware of the risks. Unlike rock climbing, protection can be incredibly spread out, and it's also not guaranteed that it would catch you if you did fall.
Some recommend climbing up to 100+ pitches of ice before even thinking about getting on lead. But generally, feeling confident and secure on ice is a prerequisite. Getting pumped or scared on the grade of ice you would be leading is a big no-no.
Before leading, it’s vital to know how to read ice and how to find the most solid placements for crampons and tools. To feel confident placing screws and building anchors and v-threads. Also, knowing how to get down safely from a route is just as important as getting up.
All that to say, if you’re just getting started with ice climbing, you should only be top-roping.
Ice climbing is hard to get into. It's expensive, there's a huge learning curve, and mentorship is vital. So how can more people get into the sport?
Ice festivals, as I mentioned above, are a great way to get started, as there are often clinics that would cost less than a typical day of guided climbing, and rentals are easy to find.
If you want to take a guided course or class, look for scholarships through the guiding company.
Also, buying used gear is a great way to lower costs to start ice climbing. Pretty much
everything needed for ice climbing specifically (boots, crampons, tools, screws) is easy to find used as they tend to last for a long time and can be resharpened and repaired easily. However, there is some climbing gear that you should not buy used, such as ropes and harnesses.
Another, albeit unique way to learn how to ice climb for cheap is how I did it. I had zero ice climbing experience before working as an intern at a guiding company on a glacier. If you want to pursue guiding or just want a fun summer job while learning to ice climb, look into glacier guiding companies (mainly in Alaska in North America however, there are others in New Zealand and Iceland!).