A Beginner’s Guide to Ice Climbing

Seriously, who wouldn't want to play with these?
The Petzl Nomic ice tools are pretty awesome.
Getting out in the cold weather can be a challenge, but when you’ve got a sport like ice climbing, spending all day outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures can be great fun. And even though the ice isn't near ready yet here in Pennsylvania, that doesn't mean we can't start thinking about how to feed our ice addictions around here.

Prior to my first route in the Adirondacks three years ago, ice climbing was one of those sports I viewed with a furrowed brow, eyes full of skepticism. The concept of donning sharp, pointy things on all of my limbs and throwing them at a wall of ice, repeatedly, in the brutal cold seemed a bit too much for me to handle. Several ice climbing trips later, I’m blissfully addicted to the sport and have learned a lot I’m happy to pass on to anyone willing to listen.

Ice Climbing, Defined
In the most basic sense, ice climbing is the act of ascending frozen waterfalls or rock slabs in ice while wearing a harness and using ropes. It’s also, in my humble opinion, one of the coolest outdoor sports there is. Climbers use crampons, aluminum or steel boot attachments with points, and ice tools, specialized axes, to ascend the ice walls in a combination of kicking and swinging movements. As with rock climbing, knowledge of rope management, belaying and lowering are key skills to have and for beginners to learn. It’s also a great chance to expand your perspective of the vertical world!

What to Bring
Winter on the east coast can be beautiful, but also quite cold. Cold weather is a good thing for ice climbers; the ice needs to stay frozen! If your first day on ice is with a guiding company, they’ll have a clothing and equipment for you like this one from EMS. Basic equipment includes ice tools, crampons, helmets, harnesses, carabiners and more, all of which can usually be rented (or borrowed, if you're lucky!).

With respect to personal gear, make sure you have a clothing system that will keep you warm, but still allow for movement. I like to have waterproof outer layers on my legs and torso to make sure I don't get wet. It’s also essential to have a heavy insulated layer, like a down jacket, to slip on when you’re not climbing. Unless you’re just climbing with one partner, you’ll be standing around quite a bit throughout the course of the day.

Sunglasses or other eye protection, a first aid kit, headlamp, lip protectant and a camera are a few other things I always have with me. With respect to food, bring snacks you’ll be able to eat when they’re almost rock hard, or that will fit in your pockets so you can keep them warm. I’m also a fan of bringing a mug full of soup in addition to hot tea or cocoa. I often forget to drink water when I’m out in the cold, but if I’ve got tea, it’s easier to stay hydrated.

A piece of advice based on experience: keep all batteries in your pockets until you need them. Batteries don’t work when they’re frozen!

Practicing tip #1 in the Adirondacks last January.
Two Key Technique Tips
As a beginner/intermediate level ice climber, I’m still learning about the most efficient way to climb. Being efficient means you’re less likely to fall and you won’t fatigue as quickly. Your guides/more experienced friends will have all sorts of advice, but in general, there are two things I always try to focus on:
  • Keep your heels down once you’ve got the front points of your crampons into the ice. Kick in, trust yourself and stand up. You only need a centimeter or two of the front points in the ice. Wiggling your feet around will cause your crampons to dislodge.
  • Pick a spot to swing your ice tools at and try to be as accurate as possible. Swing the tools from your elbows and flick your wrists when you’re placing your tools. You don’t need to swing too hard; remember, you only need a centimeter or two of the tip of the pick in the ice to be able to hang from it. Swinging too much can damage the ice, and ice is a valuable commodity for us east coasters.
Communication and Staying Safe
Ice climbing is a risky sport, but there are a number of things you can do to help prevent accidents and injuries. Communication is key in both ice and rock climbing, and your guides will have standards for effective exchanges. A few key pieces of advice:
  • Even if you’ve climbed before, do all basic safety checks every time.
  • Make sure you’re always on alert. Ice is impermanent and the act of climbing it means stray pieces will fly off. Put your helmet on at the beginning of the day, even in the parking lot, and don’t take it off. Stand away from the base of the route and out of the fall zone when you’re not climbing.
  • Make sure you know what to do if you’re climbing and a large chunk of ice breaks loose. On a recent trip, my friends and I used the “beer can rule;”  if a piece larger than a beer can chips off, the climber yells “ice!” as loudly as possible. I’ve seen climbers drop tools before as well.
  • Don’t kick the rope in half with your crampons, step on it, or stab it with your ice tools. Sharp things and ropes don’t mix. Be aware of your gear at all times.
Why on Earth Would Anyone Want to Do This?
Every climber has a different reason for pursuing such seemingly dangerous, even ridiculous sports. For me, it’s about being outdoors year round, spending time with people who enjoy the same, and the mental challenge that comes with facing one of my most debilitating fears. If you’re not convinced, check out Six Reasons You Should Give Ice Climbing a Try. And don't let not having easy access to ice climbing destinations stop you. If you don't have access to ice climbing areas near you, there are plenty of opportunities to find cheap flights to all sorts of great spots.

This post was originally written for Discover Outdoors, but the concept of ice climbing for beginners is too much fun not to share here! Have you tried ice climbing yet? Are you addicted? Any other pieces of gear or technique advice for beginners that I left out? Leave a comment!


Heather Balogh said…
I tried it for the first time last year in Ouray and I really enjoyed it, although I kinda sucked :) I wish you lived here so you could teach me!
Haley D said…
Can't wait to get out on the ice again. (Im)patiently waiting for it to come it. We only have one route that's in this early and it's 3 hrs away :( Great post though. Lots of good stuff for beginners or those thinking of trying it :)
Katie said…
There seem to be many, many reasons for me to move closer to where you are, Heather :) I'd love to go to Ouray...maybe I'll ask for a few plane tickets for Christmas!
Katie said…
Nice! We're lucky to get routes in PA at all, and last winter was dismal. Hoping for some really, really cold weather this year! Also hope you're able to get out too, even if it involves a little trip.
Jon Z said…
Tip suggestion. Once a crampon is set slowly move your knee in towards the low angle ice until it touches. If you do not move your knee your heel will stay low.
Jon Z said…
DO NOT put your face behind you tools for any reason. If they pop out, your face will hurt.
Jon Z said…
As a beginner always have 3 points of contact in the ice. Move one arm or leg at a time.
Katie said…
These are all awesome tips, Jon! I'd definitely agree with this one, three points of contact at all times. And I always try to remember to wear eye protection. Even if it's not your tools that pop out of the ice, there are always pieces of ice flying everywhere!
Lynn said…
I've always joked that ice climbing is right behind base jumping and spelunking in my list of "Outdoor Activities I Never Want To Try", but you make it sound much more fun (and doable!) than I would have thought.
Katie said…
I'm so glad to hear that! Just like any outdoor pursuit, there's a level of risk involved, but if you manage that risk, it's definitely do-able! Mitigate the risk by going with people who know what they're doing :) And as far as strength and all of that, it's like any other sport - you learn by doing. Would love to hear if you end up trying it! What are your main reservations with it?
Lynn said…
I think it was just that it seems so far and away from anything I've ever done before, but knowing that "real" people are out there doing it makes me want to try so much more! Plus, I tried spelunking this summer, which was #2 on my "Never" list!
Susan said…
I had my first ice climbing season this past year in New Hampshire. My husband and I camped in a three-season tent (dumb dumb dumb!) for 3 weeks and climbed everything that he could drag me up. It was cold.... and mildly miserable. I recommended easing into the sport instead. I hope to have more fun this year! http://rockriverrun.blogspot.com
Katie said…
ahhh, yes, that would make for a cold three weeks! good for both of you for spending that long outside, though, holy cow! I don't know if I could handle that :) thanks so much for linking to your website as well, I love it!