Intro to Ice Climbing

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

For those who didn't see our Instagram post earlier this week, today we will be talking about the wonderful sport of ice climbing. There is something surreal about ice climbing that contributes to a mystique that often keeps adventurers from giving it a shot. Maybe its that you're climbing up something that can be brittle and fickle? Maybe its all the sharp objects attached to you? Maybe its the long outings in the cold? Whatever it is, we at outdoorpals enjoy a good ice climb and want to provide people the information they need to get started with it. Our first tip is...

Go with someone experienced when starting out!

This is a go-to tip for trying any new activity, but it is especially important for ice climbing. Experience will help keep you safe. An experienced climber will be able to help you with where to belay from, what different kinds of ice are and its characteristics, or how to put on crampons properly. When you know what you're doing, many of the risks of ice climbing can be mitigated. The problem for many is that the ice climbing community is much smaller than the rock climbing community and so it can be difficult making connections with people who can mentor you. This is where outdoorpals can help out. Ice climbing is one of our supported activities and we look forward to helping people connect to enjoy this great sport.

Top rope exclusively when starting out

The number one rule of ice climbing is: "don't fall." The number two rule of ice climbing is "don't fall." Unlike rock climbing, falling is not something to embrace while ice climbing. Learning to trust crampons and tools, building up your endurance and confidence, and learning the nuances of climbing should be the goal of all beginners. Don't rush this process. You need to top rope a lot and have a ton of confidence before leading. Leading on ice is very risky, top roping done right on ice is quite safe. Yes, ice screws can catch a fall, but they are dependent on the quality of the ice and their placement. Even if they do catch, you are falling with a lot of sharp objects and unlike rock climbing you usually don't know when you're about to come off. Don't underestimate the psychological difference between leading and top roping on ice. It will make everything much harder and if you are not truly ready for it, it will lead you into unsafe situations. I know everyone can't wait to screw in an ice screw, but in your first season of ice climbing, its probably not a good idea. Find good spots to top rope or let others lead the pitches. Relatively early in my ice climbing experience, I began to lead and it led to a couple situations that truly terrified me and that fear became an obstacle I had to overcome to get back into it the next season. You won't regret getting lots of experience on ice before leading, but you may regret leading too soon.

Bring a long rope(s) and a helmet

When ice climbing, falling ice is inevitable. As such, you don't want to belay from right below the climber. Top belaying is actually ideal for a lot of routes if it allows. If not, you want to be away from the wall and to the side if possible. Often anchoring the belayer to something can be very helpful and safe, especially if the weight difference is significant. In order to accommodate a farther back belay, bringing a long enough rope (or two ropes if using a twin rope system) will allow you to belay from safety. Falling ice is a real danger and needs to be taken seriously. Just like if you dislodge a rock while climbing, always call out large chunks of falling ice. Helmets are great and 100% necessary for ice climbing, but they will not prevent injury or death from a large piece of falling ice. Avoidance is your safest strategy. Know the height of the climbs you are doing and bring an appropriate rope(s).

Bring some extra warm layers and other supplies

In order for there to be good ice to climb, it usually means its pretty cold. So do yourself a favor and bring a warm jacket for belaying/resting. While climbing a thin jacket and maybe a shell are all you will need, but you'll want a warm layer to put on when on the ground. An extra pair of gloves to belay with is also a good idea and can keep the rope from wearing out your climbing gloves. Snacks and a thermos with a hot drink can also be a great pick me up, especially if you have a longer approach. It is winter, so be prepared with food, water, and layers and know what the weather report is. No one wants to get stuck in a surprise blizzard half way up a mountain without supplies.

Trust your feet and use your feet

Getting used to crampons is difficult for a lot of people. Unlike rock climbing where you can "feel" your feet on the hold, when you're ice climbing you will need to trust your front points instead. Depending on the features in the ice, you will sometimes be able to place you foot on something, but learning how to efficiently kick in to the ice will be important. Many beginners don't trust the crampons and keep their weight on the tools, burning out their arms in the process. Just like rock climbing, your vertical movement is through taking good steps. Get used to getting two good tool placements and then taking two or three steps up for each one.

Don't overgrip the tools

The final piece of beginner advice is to not overgrip your ice tools. There are a couple things that contribute to the natural tendency to overgrip. The first is the psychological factor. Most people will trust their tools more than their feet, so they'll cling to them for survival. You need to think of the tools just like you would with an awesome hold rock climbing by only gripping it just tight enough to hold on. As you get higher up, a lot of people will face some anxiety. This will often also lead to you overgripping. Oftentimes this is associated with holding your breath, so make sure you're breathing and actively managing any stress responses. The final thing that contributes to overgripping are the gloves you are wearing. The thinner the glove you use, the easier it will be to grip the tool. If the glove has a lot of insulation on the palm you will likely grip the tool more than you have to. Our brain relies on feeling the pressure against the surface we are gripping to determine how tight we need to hold onto something and gloves interfere with it. So invest in some ice climbing specific gloves that have a thin palm with a good leather (or similar material) surface. They will make a huge difference, especially as you start doing longer and steeper climbs. You will also reduce the strain on your arms the more you trust your feet and keep your weight on them, so practice, practice, practice!

For all your ice climbing and other outdoor friend needs, check out outdoorpals. Our app will be launching this winter and we look forward to helping ice climbers connect. outdoorpals is the best way to meet other adventurers for outdoor activities. Let's climb together!