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Ice Climbing Tips

Ready to get on the ice? Use all that sharp pointy stuff? Here are expert tips on how to ice climb safely and (perhaps) more comfortably.

Get up and get dressed

You need a real versatile layering system out there. Ice climbers experience comfort only fleetingly. In theory, we pass through a nanosecond of comfort sometime on our way from sweat-soaked, anxiety-enhanced exertion to the totally mind-numbing, frigid inactivity at the belay. No ice climber can ever seem to recall this moment, but it must exist. So, optimize it by skipping the cotton, sorting out your pit zips on the way up, and keeping a big puffy near the top of your pack for use at the anchor.

Grab the right ice climbing gear

Skip the overly-specialized boots, and go with something warm, rigid, and versatile. Choose crampons designed with ice climbing in mind (vertically-oriented frontpoints, aggressive secondary points, varied sizes of points under the arch), but tolerable for mountaineering (every ice climb has an approach and descent). Tools need to address the angle of the terrain: two short hammers (leashed or leashless) for climbs with steep sections, but substitute a longer axe if you're on lower-angle stuff.

Learn to walk

Log some miles in your crampons - and I mean just walking around. Crampons need to feel so normal that you forget you've got them on. Hike in them through deep snow, on hard ice, frozen turf, and even rock. Master the fluid transitions inherent in French technique - or flat-footing - so you can adapt to any terrain without stumbling, breaking stride, or shredding your gaiters. This is how you'll avoid long falls on the approach, the top-out, and the descent. You'll climb better too, and find good rests on the steepest pitches.

Stay paranoid

Keep those old familiar safety practices in mind all the time. Be prepared to self-arrest, even at the oddest times. Don't get complacent at the belays: even if the cold is getting to you, your belay skills need to be as sharp as when you're in the gym. And wear a helmet, for crying out loud. It's ICE climbing.

Reconnaissance

Scope out the local routes, and compare what you find to past seasons: more ice than usual, or less? If the route is wet, is that because it's still forming, or is it melting? Whack it with your tool: does it sound well-bonded to the cliff, or hollow and detached? Look for hanging icicles high overhead, and seek out a sheltered belay so your partner doesn't get clocked. Also - how are you gonna get down?

Instruction = major head start

You can figure out a lot about ice climbing on your own; it just takes too long. Realize that the learning curve can be real steep and real scary, and you'll want to keep all nine lives in case you take up mountaineering. A qualified instructor can accelerate the whole process: he or she will cut to the chase so you'll be climbing more (and harder) way sooner. Plus, guides know the shortcut approaches, the uncrowded classics, the sunnier variations, and the best coffee shops.

Start low

When you're starting out, ice climb on short stuff. Many falls occur on that awkward transition from steep ice to the less steep - so practice topping-out on six-foot bulges until you have it dialed. Work on traverses across the bottom of a route. See how it's easier ice climbing in the negative space of a groove vs. on a positive feature like a column, and remember that when you go big. Take a step off the ground and practice placing ice screws one-handed, while on frontpoints.

Work with what you've got

Look at your arms, then look at your legs. Now quick: guess which ones should do most of the work? Sure, it's fun to practice bashing those tools into stuff, but once you actually start up, turn your focus to your feet. Ice tool placements are to assist you in getting your feet in position, not to haul yourself up, so swing sparingly and precisely. Aim for little divots instead of domes so you'll shatter less ice. And be happy with shallow placements, rather than burying your pick to the hilt with every swing.

Climb smart not strong

If you're a girl, climb like a girl. If you're a guy, climb like a girl. Rely on smarts and efficiency rather than forearms. Plan where you'll swing those tools, then eliminate every other placement. Think like a rock climber and solve problems with subtle shifts in body position instead of resorting to brute force. Remember to seek out the rests: a place you can get your heel on an ice cauliflower, or a corner that allows you to bridge. Got a good stick with one tool? Pause, drop the other arm, and give it a shake.

Acknowledge problems unique to ice climbing

Use care when yanking out an over-driven ice tool, or you'll whack yourself in the face. Remember this isn't like sport climbing: we don't take leader falls, because you get hurt every time. Keep your hands warm so that you don't suffer from the "prickly barfies" (ask any ice climber). Don't put carabiners in your mouth "just for a second," and guys: mind the belay device that's dangling from your harness when it's time to answer nature's call. See, when warm things come into contact with really cold metal things, they stick.

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