Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

What Is Ice Climbing? Everything You Need To Know

A useful guide to ice climbing with important information on how to get into it, how to stay safe while doing it, and the various equipment you'll need

Ice climbing is very much like rock climbing, except on ice. You pick a suitably interesting slab of ice and use ice tools to get up however you can. It might seem like you can put your pick anywhere, making it far easier than the finite number of good holds on a rock climb. But in reality, not every placement will hold an ice axe or a crampon point because of the composition of the ice. And some routes are different year on year as the ice freezes and thaws. 

It looks even more unlikely and magical than rock climbing. There’s something about knowing that ice isn’t always there. Never mind how impressive huge cascades of ice look, even without a tiny person providing scale. It’s an ephemeral puzzle as much as a sport.

Ice climbing up a frozen waterfall. Credit: Getty Images

What is ice climbing? 

Ice climbing is the ascent of a vertical, or near vertical, sheet of ice. That could be a frozen waterfall or the ice on a snowy mountain crag. Honestly, any type of ice that can support a person’s weight is up for grabs. You can even get lowered down into a circular tunnel inside a glacier, to climb back up again. Thanks to the nature of ice and the world’s weather, some routes are consistently in season year on year. Others are less reliable or offer once in a lifetime ascents for a handful of lucky climbers, in the right place at the right time.

Mechanically, ice climbing is very similar to rock climbing. You’re using your arms and legs to climb things on or near vertical. The main difference is that you don’t look for hand and foot holds in existing rock. Rather, you’re creating or finding them using metal spikes: ice tools and crampons. As with rock climbing, you can ice climb in pairs – one leading, the other seconding and belaying for each other. Or you might be soloing or simply be top-roped without any gear placement required. More on how rock climbing gear translates to ice in a moment.

As for how you physically ice climb, you’re slowly but surely making your way up a vertical sheet of ice, using four points of contact. Typically you’ll want to keep three points still while you find a good position for the next one. Once you’ve got your axes as high as you can, using the pattern foot, foot, hand, hand is pretty common. If you keep your arms straight you’ll reduce muscle fatigue… well that’s the theory! It goes without saying, ice climbing is a pretty strenuous activity, however easy the pros make it look.

Ice climbers working together. Credit: Getty Images

How do I get into it?

There are a few directions to get into ice climbing. Many people start ice climbing as a progression from rock climbing (but getting colder) or from winter walking (but getting steeper). If you don’t do either of these already – and even if you do – an easy way to get a taster would be to book a day with an ice climbing guide. Or find some very experienced friends that you trust to look after you. If outdoors sounds a bit too full on, you can try ice climbing indoors at a few locations. It’s not as common as an indoor climbing wall but they certainly do exist. 

Ice axes are a big part of ice climbing. Credit: Getty Images

What equipment do I need? 

There are quite a few bits and bobs needed for ice climbing. Lots of them are common with rock climbing. You’ll need a helmet to protect your head in case you fall off – or anything falls on you. You’ll need a climbing rope for security (make sure you get the right thickness and length for what you’re doing). Plus a harness, belay device and some karabiners, to make sure you’re attached to that rope.

Next comes the ice climbing specific kit. Firstly, it goes without saying that ice is cold and standing around belaying your partner is even colder. So make sure you pack lots of warm layers like fleeces, synthetic jackets and winter gloves. Hats, thermals – you get the drill. To be able to get your feet to grip on the ice, you’ll need crampons and B3 boots. These mountaineering boots are very stiff, often made of plastic so they won’t bend. You’ll need C3 crampons to fit on them, which have a single sharp point at the toe. Think like those special shoes at Q-branch but with lots of spikes under the sole too.

Unlike in rock climbing, it’s hard to get a grip on ice with your hands, so you’ll need an ice tool or pick. These are technical ice axes that have shorter, curved shafts and a sharply angled pick. You’ll need one for each hand and we recommend having leases to attach an axe to each wrist. If you accidentally drop one halfway up the climb, you’ll be in a real spot of bother if they’re not on a leash.

Finally, it’s hard to place normal rock climbing gear into cracks and crevices on ice. For a start there’s not much friction. Instead of a trad rack, ice climbers use ice screws for security. They are sharp-ended cylinders that cut into the ice and secure just like a screw in the wall of a house, but much bigger and cooler. You’ll probably want some more karabiners and slings to make sure you can connect your rope to the screws too.

You’ll need some specific kit to ice climb. Credit: Getty Images

How safe is ice climbing?

Like any mountain sport, there are risks associated with ice climbing. It’s similar to rock climbing really. You could fall off and hit something – placing good gear and using ropes helps to mitigate this. Something could fall on you, hence protection like helmets. The extra factor to think about is the condition of the ice. For example, if it isn’t thick enough or well bonded, it could simply fall down – taking you with it. It’s important to know how to assess whether a route is in good condition and when not to climb. And finally, perhaps one that’s easily forgotten: you need to be able to manage your temperature well in very cold conditions. The act of climbing is warm, but belaying is very stationary. If you sweat lots and then allow yourself to get very cold, hypothermia could set in. Be winter smart.

Ice climbing can be a physical and mental challenge. Credit: Jon Hieb

Who are some of the world’s best ice climbers?

Ice climbing has two sides: the athletes and the adventurers. It has a regional and world championships overseen by the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation – yeah, it’s a French acronym). Competitions are split into women’s and men’s with the categories of lead climbing and speed climbing. Ones to watch are Louna Ladevant and his brother Tristan, they’re top in the men’s lead world championships. Petra Klingler from Switzerland won the most recent women’s lead world championship.

Of course, not everyone who ice climbs thinks of it as a competitive sport. Far from it. Many people climb ice for the thrill and just being outside in winter. On the more adventurous side, check out Will Gadd who went ice climbing on Kilimanjaro, highlighting the loss of the mountain’s ice cap over the years.

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