Ice climbing is one of the most surreal ways to experience winter. Picture this: The tree branches are heavy with fresh-fallen snow. Around you, chandeliers of ice hang in glassy curtains. As the sun comes over the ridge, they glimmer, and the dense blue ice at the core of the frozen waterfall before you almost seems to glow. Your breath plumes the air as you start up, the silence broken by the thunk of steel picks finding their mark. You settle into a tempo. Kick, kick. Swing. Kick, kick. Swing. The climbing becomes almost meditative. It’s a rhythm. It’s a heartbeat. It’s just you, the ice, and the gray winter sky.
Sound serene? It is! Intimidating? It doesn’t have to be. Ice climbing comes with plenty of inherent dangers, but many of these risks are easily managed in a top-rope setting, and the basic techniques are surprisingly simple. Unlike in rock climbing, ice routes are rarely overhung, there are holds wherever you want them, and you’ll never have to grip anything smaller than the handle of an ice tool. And thanks to the growing popularity of ice climbing across the U.S., there are more opportunities to learn how to ice climb than ever before.
Here’s what you need to know to get started:
- Where to learn to ice climb
- Essential gear
- What about the screaming barfies?
- Basic techniques
Where To Learn to Ice Climb
Signing up for a professional clinic or guided outing is the best way to learn how to ice ice climb in a safe environment. One of the most affordable ways to get out for your first time? Attend one of the handful of ice climbing festivals that occur throughout the U.S. in the winter. Most of these festivals offer free or heavily discounted gear rentals, a multitude of clinics to choose from, and tons of ice-climbing related films, speakers, games, and other festivities. Here are some of the better known fests:
- Michigan Ice Fest, MI
- Bozeman Ice Festival, MT
- Ouray Ice Festival, CO
- Lake City Ice Climbing Festival, CO
- Valdez Ice Climbing Festival, AK
- Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival, NH
Ice climbing is a gear-intensive sport, but it’s easy to rent good stuff, find discounted items, or purchase second-hand if you look hard enough. Here are the must-haves.
Mountaineering Boots: Stiff-soled boots with “welts” that allow them to take crampons and plenty of insulation. Some are only rated for three-season use, so check before you buy to make sure they’re adequate for the conditions you expect to encounter. Fit is paramount, so if you’re going to blow a paycheck on one piece of gear, make it your boots.
Crampons: Underfoot spikes that grip snow and ice. For ice climbing, you’ll need steel dual-point crampons that are compatible with your mountaineering boots.
Ice Tools: Similar to ice axes but with a curved shaft for easier swinging. If you’re buying second-hand, look for ice-specific picks that are sharp and in good condition.
Gloves: The more, the merrier. Most ice climbers have at least one pair of medium-weight gloves that are dexterous enough to climb in, and a separate pair of heavyweight belay gloves.
Shells: Waterproof jacket and pants; part of a smart layering strategy. Softshell outer layers are often sufficient for cold weather and dry climates, but in temps above 30 degrees F, you’ll want to break out the hardshells.
Helmet: A must-have for deflecting falling ice. Make sure your helmet is warm (no need for all those ventilation holes) and sized to wear a hat underneath.
Tube-Style Belay Device: An ATC, Reverso, or similar. Assisted-braking devices like GriGris don’t work on frozen ropes.
Dry-treated Rope: A 60-meter or 70-meter climbing rope with a special waterproof treatment. Dry treatments keep ropes from getting waterlogged, which can help prevent freezing.
Leashes or Ice Clippers: The former is a double-pronged leash that attaches your ice tools to your harness in case of drops; the latter is a pair of plastic carabiners that you affix to the sides of your harness. Both are optional but nice-to-have items for tool security and storage.