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Ice Climbing in Europe | An Essential Guide

Europe has so much to offer ice climbers. Here's our guide to ice climbing on the continent

Ice climbing in Europe is an institution – far more than ice climbing in the UK. With much more consistent conditions and higher, colder landscapes there is more than enough ice to keep any climber busy all winter. It’s not exactly a mainstream sport, but ice climbing does have a European Cup and an international governing body based in Switzerland. Europeans can arguably claim to have invented ice climbing as a sport in the first place – the first recorded ice climbing competition was in Courmayeur, Italy way back in 1912.

Now, a few words before we get our ice tools stuck in. Obviously, ice climbing isn’t one of those things you read a few sentences about online and then have a crack at yourself. Not unless you’re ice climbing with two Lego men at the back of your freezer. We’ve got a primer that covers the basics, a beginner’s guide to ice climbing, but you’ll need to know your way around ropes and crampons before you start. Never mind understanding winter weather conditions, how to place ice screws and all that fun stuff. Basically, what we’re saying is that – as awesome as it is to develop these skills for yourself from the ground up – it’s not cheating to go with a guide. Especially if you just want to give ice climbing in Europe a go. All good? Now let’s brandish our ice axes and head off into the snow.

Slovenia Ice Climbing

Topping out on Mala Mojstrovka in the Julian Alps (Credit: AM+A / PKoren)

Ah Slovenia. It’s almost unfair the amount of adventure options packed into so small a space. And winter, here, is no exception. Assuming you want a break from ski touring, snow shoeing, and horse riding there’s plenty of ice here to go climbing on. Fancy winter mountaineering to high peaks? Slovenia’s got you covered. The highest mountain, Triglav, is 2864m above sea level. The real ice climbing gems of Slovenia though have to be its waterfalls. There’s nothing quite as impressive as climbing up a frozen snapshot, with their tumbling pillars of ice.

In the Julian Alps, the town of Kranjska Gora is a good starting point to base yourself from. For newbies, Mlačca gorge in Mojstrana has good options. But you do have to pay a small fee to get in. Or choose your favourite waterfall in Prednja glava, at Prisank mountain. Tamar valley, is a well-known alpine destination too. And unlike Oscar Wilde, we believe popular is quite often right. It’s an oldie but a goodie

Don’t forget that it’s not just the Julian Alps for ice climbing in Slovenia either. The Kamnik-Savinja Alps are often forgotten, small compared to their Julian cousins they still have plenty of frozen waterfalls to enjoy over winter.

Ice Climbing in France

Climbing on the icefall at Oz-en-Oisans, Isère
(Credit: Heaven Publicity)

Moving west a bit… okay quite a lot, France is home to the other end of that great big European mountain range, the Alps. It can be hard to know where to start here, especially when ice climbing can form only part of a huge alpine day. For water ice, how about the Argentière waterfalls falling from the eponymous glacier? For alpine ice there are 4000m peaks a plenty – pick a north face or a ‘normal route’ and get climbing.

That said, you can do pretty well here just by embracing ice climbs with only a short walk in. The Grandes Rousses massif, in Isère, can have you on ice within a 20 minute walk of town. You might try Symphonie d’Automne, a beautiful 70m waterfall, especially if you time it to abseil down at sunset. The nearby Vaujany waterfall offers sunny climbing for all levels. Chamonix makes a good base for ice climbing too, with lots of routes within fairly easy access. You could even make it to the Cogne Valley in Italy from there. Which brings us nicely on to…

Ice Climbing In Italy

Beginner ice climbers on Capanna Alpina
(Credit: Hotel Sassongher)

All of the borders in the Alps are a bit messy, and you can accidentally end up in a corner of Italy from France (or Austria or Switzerland, to be honest). Courmeyer, in the Italian Alps was the place where ice climbing as a sport got started, with a competition on the Brenva glacier.

But Italy is pretty darn big and we can’t do a guide to ice climbing in Europe without mentioning the Dolomites. These towering spires of rock, so iconic in the summer, are decked with ice in winter. The area is very well set up for ice climbing, thanks in part to the ski infrastructure. Some hotels, like Hotel Sassongher in Alta Badia, offer ice climbing sessions with an alpine guide and all equipment thrown in. Not a bad way to learn the ropes, and you can dive into a hot tub afterwards.

Ice Climbing in Switzerland

Ice climbers in the 2022 World Championships on the Saas Fee Ice Dome
(Credit: Kaspar Kellerhals/Saastal Tourismus)
Ice climbing on the edge of a glacier near Saas Fee
(Credit: Saas-Guides/Saastal Tourismus)

With the UIAA based in Switzerland, it’s not surprising that the ice climbing scene is on point here. We’ve got a few ideas for where you could start your adventures. First, Saas Fee is a small village in the Valais region but has been hosting the Ice Climbing World Cup since 2000. It’s got routes for pros and newbies, well-protected against wind and weather. There is also the actual Ice Climbing Dome in Saas Fee, used in the World Cup. It’s an artificially made ice wall, in a space that’s affectionately known as the “world’s coldest car park”, now open to the public (as is the nearby Ice Tower on the Kalbermatten sports field)

Pontresina is another little village that’s becoming a major hub for ice climbing. It’s in the Engadin, right in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by glaciers and gorges. Kandersteg is considered one of the world’s top ice-climbing destinations too, with long routes on ice falls. (N)ice one Switzerland!

Austria Ice Climbing

A blue sky day ice climbing in Ötztal
(Credit: Ötztal Tourismus / Elias Holzknecht)

It’s hard to choose where to focus on ice climbing in Austria. This country’s got high mountains, frozen waterfalls and glaciers. The Tirol, for example, has Salvesenklamm gorge, Sellraintal Valley for beginners, Kaunertal Valley for frozen waterfalls… The Ötztal Valley has a huge selection of routes to choose from.

I had my first ever ice climbing experience in the Austria Alps, top-roped off the edge of a glacier. We were meant to be on an alpine tour but the weather had held up our progress – ‘no problem’, said the guides, we’ll climb glaciers instead!

Norway Ice Climbing

There’s plenty of icy glaciers to be explored in Norway. Credit: Getty Images / iStock

Finally, we can’t finish this roundup of ice climbing in Europe without talking about Norway. Because if you want to go ice climbing on a seriously impressive waterfall then you need to give this country a look. There is plenty of steep water ice to dig your crampons into. Rjukan is considered to be the ice capital of Norway by many. Lots of stuff to climb, and short walks to get where you need to be. It even has an ice festival, usually held in February, that’s a mix of climbing and expert clinic; fun and competition.

As well as waterfalls, Norway has glaciers. You can get inside some of them, climbing up and through tunnels called moulins. Ice on all sides and a blue sky above you. That’s pretty exciting.

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