I’ve been a climber for a few years now, but my climbing is pretty much limited to climbing in the summer time. Last winter as a surprise for Menno, I decided to take him on an ice climbing course for beginners to see if we also enjoyed this totally different form of climbing. And *spoiler alert* – we did!
Getting started with ice climbing isn’t as easy as learning to boulder or sport climb, where indoor gyms around the world provide a safe, easy and welcoming space to give it a go. Ice climbing requires specific winter conditions, some special outdoor equipment and a knowledgeable instructor, since the dangers of ice climbing are arguably higher than with most other forms of climbing. The barrier to entry is much higher, but you shouldn’t let that stop you.
Whether you’re a complete beginner, or an experienced climber looking for a new type of adventure, here’s how you can give ice climbing a try this year.
In this post I’ll cover:
What Is Ice Climbing?
Ice climbing falls is an extreme form of climbing, but is also often found in high-alpine mountaineering. It involves ascending ice formations, such as frozen waterfalls or ice cliffs. While it does share some similarities with traditional climbing, it also requires many new skills.
Ice climbing requires the use of special equipment, such as ice axes, ice screws and crampons, as well as standard climbing equipment such as ropes and a belay device.
Although ice climbing can be more dangerous than other forms of climbing, with the right guidance, it can also be a fun and rewarding experience that allows climbers to explore some of the most In inaccessible and beautiful places on earth.
For many climbers, the challenge of ice climbing is not simply about getting to the top of the climb, but about pushing their limits in an environment that is both mentally and physically demanding.
How To Get Started With Ice Climbing
Getting started with ice climbing can be really daunting. Because it requires so much more specialist knowledge and equipment than regular climbing, it’s not so easy to simply decide to “give it a go”.
But thankfully the popularity of the sport is increasing, and there are a number of ways that you can try it out as a beginner.
Find A Taster Session or Beginner Course
This is exactly what we did. We found a local guiding company who were offering half-day, small group “Ice climbing taster sessions”.
For our beginner course, the guides told us what to wear in advance, and on the day they provided all of the specialist gear that we needed. We split into smaller groups, with two mountain guides watching over four students. The guides helped us fit our crampons, and took us down to the ice where they had already set up some top ropes for climbing.
At the start they did a demonstration, but since all of our group had either tried ice climbing before or were climbers and knew how to belay, they let watched on as we took it in turns to climb the easy routes they had set up, giving us tips and advice to help us improve throughout.
The four-hour experience absolutely flew by, and we left with a determination to try ice climbing again.
While we only took a half-day taster course, there are some adventure guiding companies that offer full-day and multi-day courses, that can take you from a total beginner to an independent, novice climber.
To find a course in your location, I recommend reaching out to local mountain guides directly, however, in my experience some guides aren’t so great at responding to messages. Alternatively you may be able book a taster session through an experience company like Jochen Schweizer.
Visit An Ice-Climbing Festival
Yes, there really are such things as ice climbing festivals! As the sport grows and becomes more popular than ever before, so do the events that surround it.
Not only are there ice-climbing competitions that you can go and watch, but there are many festivals all around the world that include clinics where anyone can give it a try under the supervision of experts.
For those folks who already have some ice climbing experience, festivals are a great way to test out all the latest gear and to improve your skills, as most offer workshops focusing on different techniques for all levels of climbers.
Some of the biggest ice climbing festivals around the world include:
- Eis Total Ice Climbing Festival in Pitztal, Austria
- Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival in Montana, USA
- Arctic Ice Festival in Norway
Go To An Indoor Ice Wall
Just like you can visit indoor ski halls with artificial snow, there are also a small number of indoor ice climbing walls or climbing walls specifically for dry tooling out there that allow you to try ice climbing for the first time in a safe and controlled environment.
What Gear Do You Need?
When you first get into ice climbing, it can be quite daunting when you see what gear you need. The good news is that for most people, their first experiences climbing ice are on a course, where most of the gear will be supplied for you.
But if you do decide that ice climbing is for you, at some point you’ll probably want to start investing in your own gear.
Here are the main bits of gear you’ll need:
The ice axes used for ice climbing, often referred to as “ice tools“, are designed specifically for climbing steep ice. This makes them different to the ice axes that you may be familiar with if you’ve ever done any mountaineering or winter hiking.
They typically have a more aggressive shape with a curved shaft and are shorter in length than a mountaineering axe. Their blades are made from steel and their shafts are typically made of either aluminium or carbon.
A climber will always climb with a set of two ice tools. Some climbers like to have their ice tools attached them with some kind of lanyard or leash, while others find these get in the way and climb without anything to prevent them dropping one (or both) axes.
Similarly to ice tools, the crampons best suited to ice climbing are different to those used for mountaineering. If you are just starting out and already own mountaineering crampons, you may be able to use your existing crampons for ice climbing, but as you progress, you may want something more suited to climbing on steep ice.
Ice climbing crampons will have a semi-rigid form and made out of steel. Many modern models offer a hybrid binding system, allowing you to adjust them depending on the type of boots you have. The semi-rigid construction is important for keeping them fixed in place and giving you a stable position when you are kicking at ice (which you do a lot when you’re a beginner) and standing with your whole body just on the front points of the crampon.
The main difference between ice climbing crampons and mountaineering crampons are the front points. Ice climbing crampons have much more aggressive front spikes than mountaineering crampons, since ice climbers spend most of their time on just the front points of the crampon. On specialist ice climbing crampons, these front points are often adjustable and interchangeable, letting you choose the angle of the points, as well as if you want two points or a just a single point.
The shoes you wear for ice climbing can make or break your enjoyment and performace, just like in regular climbing climbing.
For ice climbing, you‘re looking for a crampon-compatible mountaineering boot with a stiff sole. Winter mountaineering boots are usually ideally suited, as they are designed for snowy and cold conditions, often with some insulation as well as waterproofing.
If you already own a climbing harness for sport or trad climbing, that‘s fine for ice climbing too. Once you advance in ice climbing, you may wish to purchase a more specialized ice-climbing harness, but at the start it‘s not necessary.
If you sport climb, you‘re probably used to belaying with a semi-automatic braking device, such as a Petzl Gri-Gri. Since ropes in ice climbing can get wet and ice can freeze to the rope, an auto-blocking device runs the risk or jamming or freezing too.
The most popular belay device for ice climbing is a tube-style device, such as the Black Diamond ATC or Petzl Reverso.
When you start with ice climbing, you‘re going to be mostly climbing on a single top rope. The ideal diameter is between 9mm – 10.5mm, with dry treatment. When it comes to length, 60m is really the minimum, but you could also opt for 70m.
As you advance in ice climbing, and start climbing in lead, you‘ll probably want a set of either twin or half ropes.
Once you‘re confident on a top rope, you may start learning to lead, which means you’ll be placing ice screws for protection as you climb up the ice.
Ice screws coming in different lengths and materials, and what you use will depend on the type of climbing you plan to be doing.
Clipped into your ice screws, you’ll use quick draws, since you don’t clip your rope directly into the screw.
A climbing helmet is needed for ice climbing. Climbing helmets are specially designed to protect you from rocks or ice that may fall from above.
What Should You Wear For Ice Climbing?
Unlike summer climbing, where you don’t really need any specialist clothing, for ice climbing what you wear is very important. Ice climbing requires some specialist technical clothing.
Gloves are an important piece of ice climbing kit. The best gloves for ice climbing are waterproof and warm, but not too thick that you can’t use your hands properly to climb and to belay your partner.
There aren’t many outdoor brands that manufacture an ice climbing-specific glove, but there are a few companies such as Rab and Black Diamond who make winter mountaineering gloves, which are designed to be used for mixed-mountaineering routes and ice climbing.
I recommend taking a few different pairs of gloves with you when you go ice climbing, as you may want to wear different gloves when you are climbing to when you are belaying, and have a warm and dry pair for when you’re taking breaks too.
Can you wear ski pants for ice climbing? I did when I first tried ice climbing, but quickly found them to not be suitable.
It’s not completely necessary to have fully waterproof pants when you start ice climbing, as you’re unlikely to find yourself in extremely wet conditions, but they should be at least water resistant. What’s more important is that they are not too wide in the leg. You want something that’s narrower cut so that you’re less likely to catch any loose material with your crampons.
Winter hiking or mountaineering trousers an ideal option if you have them.
While ski pants aren’t ideal, a ski jacket can be ok, but similarly to the pants, it shouldn’t be too loose and baggy. It should fit you well enough to give you full upper body movement, including raising both arms above your head.
A lightweight waterproof jacket without too much insulation, such as a gore-tex shell, is ideal, as it will keep you dry and allow you to layer-up underneath for warmth.
In a similar fashion to many winter adventures in the mountains, you’ll want to have a few layers underneath.
Merino base layers, a thin long-sleeved fleece or soft shell and a packable insulated jacket are ideal options to have underneath your outer layer, allowing your to remove or add layers if you need the extra warmth.
Do You Need To Know How To Climb To Go Ice Climbing?
No, you can try ice climbing even if you’ve never been climbing before. The main benefits of already knowing how to climb come from already knowing how to belay, and having more trust in the rope and being less afraid to fall (especially on a top rope).
Is Ice Climbing Dangerous?
It can be if you don‘t know what you‘re doing. Ice is a natural and changeable surface that can be affected by a number of variables. Going ice climbing with professional instructors or certified mountain guides hugely reduces the risk of accidents.
Do You Need to Train For Ice Climbing?
For your first time trying ice climbing, you don’t really need to train any particular skills. If you’re already a climber, you’ll find that it’s very different skills and body movement involved to rock climbing. You should however, have a good level of physical fitness for ice climbing, even as a beginner, as it’s a physically demanding sport.
Ice climbing can be a pretty daunting sport for beginners. But renting the gear and taking a course or hiring a mountain guide is a great way to get an introduction to this exciting winter sport without having to go it alone.