Ice Climbing: How to Get Started
Maybe you have some friends who won’t stop talking about their weekend ice climbing excursions. Maybe you’re a rock climber looking for a new way to extend your climbing season that doesn’t involve shredding your hands on plastic holds. Or, maybe you’ve just seen some rad photos of people scaling what appear to be monstrous icicles and can’t help but think I need to try that!
No matter what your motivation for getting into ice climbing may be, you’re in for a treat. As long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into and take the time to properly prepare, you’ll find yourself quickly falling in love with a new sport that you just can’t get enough of.
Learn the Ropes
The most important piece of advice we have when it comes to getting into ice climbing is probably also the most obvious: take a lesson! Whether it’s with our Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School, another guiding service, or even just some well-trusted friends who have been ice climbing for years, you need to spend some time with people who know what they’re doing and can teach you how to climb ice safely.
In addition to learning the tricks of the trade from a professional, taking a lesson also means you’ll save some money on equipment since they’ll provide the boots, crampons, ice tools, harness, helmet, rope, and climbing hardware. If you were to attempt to learn ice climbing on your own, the gear alone would set you back more than $1,000...and without knowing how to properly use it all, your first ice climbing excursion could potentially also be your last.
Have the Right Gear
While we’re on the subject of gear, let’s take a moment to discuss the equipment necessary for ice climbing. Assuming you’ll fall in love with the sport after your first lesson, you will eventually need to start buying your own stuff (unless you have a friend who has extra gear they’ll let you borrow). Here’s what you’ll need:
Harness and helmet: If you’re already a rock climbing, you probably have these two things, and can use them for climbing ice as well. Just be sure that your harness will fit over bulkier pants and that there’s enough room under your helmet to wear a hat.
Boots: When you take a lesson, you’ll likely be given a pair of plastic mountaineering boots. Once you start shopping for your own boots, though, you’ll have more options. Check out How to Choose Mountaineering Boots to get an idea of what you should be looking for in a boot for ice climbing.
Crampons and ice tools: Like boots, when you take an ice climbing lesson your guide will give you a pair of crampons and a set of tools without giving you much say in the matter. But when you start shopping around for your own, you’ll see that there are lots to choose from. How to Choose Crampons and How to Choose an Ice Axe should help you figure out what you need.
Climbing Rope:Ropes for ice climbing aren’t much different from ropes for rock climbing. They come in a wide range of diameters, and you can climb on single, half, or twin ropes. The only difference is that your rope for ice climbing needs to be dry treated. For more tips on finding the right rope, check out How to Choose Climbing Rope.
Ice Protection: Even if you only plan to climb ice on top rope for a while, you’ll still want to have at least a few ice screws with you. If you’re going to be leading, you’ll need several screws of each length. You’ll also need quickdraws to clip in to (if you already have some draws for rock climbing, there’s no need to buy more).
Backpack: You’ll need a pack that’s big enough to carry your rope, ice screws, extra layers, and crampons. Many climbing packs have convenient tool loops to attach your ice tools to the outside front of the pack, but you can also use the side compression straps to hold them.
Dress for the Occasion
Ice climbing is an incredibly enjoyable way to get outside in the winter. But if you aren’t dressed properly for the conditions, you’re going to be miserable. The key—as with all winter sports—is to have several layers that you can take off and put back on as your body temperature changes throughout the day. For an in-depth look at how to dress for a day on the ice, check out What to Wear Ice Climbing.
Getting Out on Your Own
After you’ve taken a lesson or two and invested in your own gear, it’s time to head out on your own. If you’re not sure where to go, ask around at your local Eastern Mountain Sports (or other outdoor shop if you must) or climbing gym. There are also great online resources to help you plan your trips (if you’re in the northeast, NEice.com is an invaluable trip-planning tool).
Top-roping on ice can be just as exciting as leading, and when you’re just starting out it’s a great way to build confidence. Most new ice climbers have a hard time believing that the pick of their ice tool only needs to be about a centimeter into the ice to be secure, and running laps on a short top-rope route will help you learn to trust your tool (and crampon) placement.
Once you start to feel more comfortable on the ice and are ready to try leading, make sure to go with experienced climbers. They’ll be able to help you fine-tune your newfound skills...and they’ll likely know the best places to go!
While rock climbers are sometimes a little lax about wearing their helmets, remember that wearing your helmet while ice climbing is a must at all times. Chunks of ice are much more likely to break off than rock, so you need to always assume there’s a chance that you could get hit. (Also, when someone above you yells, “Ice!” they’re warning you that some ice is falling down, so don’t look up! This is a mistake many new ice climbers are prone to making.)
When ice climbing, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature, who can be quite unfriendly in the winter. Remember to always let someone know your trip plans and keep these other Winter Survival Tips in mind every time you head out to the cliffs.
Ice Climbing Grades
A beginner rock climber wouldn’t jump right on a 5.12 route or a V5 boulder problem, and a beginner ice climber needs to know how ice routes are graded so they don’t make a similar mistake. When you look up ice routes in a guidebook or online, you’ll see that they are given a “WI” grade. Here’s what the grades mean:
|WI2||Low-angle (about 60°) ice that could be climbed with one ice axe with good technique (basically, an ice slab)|
|WI3||Slightly steeper ice (60-70°) ice with occasional and short near-vertical sections|
|WI4 / WI4+||Near-vertical ice; routes graded WI4+ are both vertical and highly technical|
|WI5 / WI5+||Near-vertical to vertical ice with few good rest opportunities; routes graded WI5+ are extra technical|
|WI6 / WI6+||Totally vertical with no rests, requiring superior technique and a high level of fitness; routes graded WI6+ will also have overhanging sections|
|WI7||Sustained overhanging ice (extremely rare)|
Ice Climbing Jargon
You’ll learn a lot of new terms when you start ice climbing. Here’s a list of some of the more common terms that you should know:
Adze: the shovel-like blade on an ice axe, used for chopping away loose ice
Bollard: a large knob of rock, ice, or snow that can be used as a belay anchor
Couloir: a steep gully or gorge that is frequently filled with snow or ice
Dry tooling: using ice axes and crampons to climb the rocky sections of mixed routes
French technique: walking on (low-angled) ice in such a way that all but the front points of your crampons are in contact with the ice; also known as “flat-footing”
German technique: kicking only the front points of your crampons into the ice on steep slopes; also known as “front pointing”
Neve: permanent granular ice the forms during repetitive thawing and refreezing
Piton: a piece of protection that is pounded into the ice using the hammer on your ice tool; not nearly as commonly used as ice screws
V-thread: a type of anchor made in the ice using two ice screws in a V formation
Verglas: a thin layer of ice that forms when rain and/or melting snow freezes on rock (hard to climb due to thinness)
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