Beginner’s Guide to Ice Climbing

What is a climber to do in the winter?! Our beautiful, wonderful, rocks are covered with ice and snow!! Our gyms get overrun with climbers, rowdy children, and everyone else looking for something to do in cold.

Are you in love with the great outdoors? Do you find yourself getting antsy and depressed being cooped up inside for months? Have you contemplated becoming one with the frozen mountains? Maybe ice climbing is the new sport for you! I guess that depends. What is ice climbing like? Is it really different from rock climbing?


1. Forget about placing

Ice climbing is more aggressive than rock climbing. Trying to find a good spot for your feet to go? Better start kicking the wall with your spikey crampons. Want to move your arms up higher? Better start swinging that ice pick hard enough for it to sink into some ice!

2. It’s all in the wrist

It takes more than shoving the ice tool into the wall as hard as possible. Though I assume that could work! It turns out that the upper body side of ice climbing is all in the wrist! In order to get the ice tool into the ice, it takes a flicking motion-which is a lot less energy than shoving the tool into the wall! I was surprised to learn that I was able to ice climb just as well as a different beginner, who could out climb me on one of their bad days.

3. Burning barfies do exist

While finger strength may not be a priority, forearm strength is really important! That flicking motion from the wrist? It pumps out those forearms like none other! When the forearms are so pumped, compared to the cold outside, that they feel like they are burning. So much so, that in extreme cases it can cause the climber to vomit.

4. Waterproof clothing is a must!

This sport requires a strange clothing mix. It’s obviously icy and cold outside, but at the same time you are exercising and getting pretty warm! When I went ice climbing, any time I dug my foot into the wall, or whacked my ice tool in, ice chunks sprayed out at me. By the time I got to the top of my climb I was soaking wet! Luckily I had decided to put on an extra waterproof jacket despite how warm I was going to get. Being wet in cold temperatures does not sound like an ideal mix.

5. It takes experience

In sport climbing I was always told, “If your’e not flying, you’re not trying”. In contrast, the first rule of ice climbing is and I quote, “Don’t fall!” Sure, falls can be traumatic in rock climbing. A higher percentage of falls in ice climbing have traumatic consequences. Why you ask? To ice climb a lot of traction is required. For example think of those spiky crampons. With those crampons it’s really easy for a foot catch during the fall. 

Ice climbing should be approached cautiously. Accidents can be common. It makes sense that they do too! In sport climbing we do drill holes in the rocks while the route setter (most of the time) is hooked into different anchors. If the drill shatters the rock the setter is still safe! When ice climbing every move involves puncturing the wall that is supporting the climber. Each of those punctures can cause the wall the shatter. When the ice shatters like that, it is called dinner plating. Now imagine the climber has their full weight on that wall when the ice dinner plates!

Experience means a lot in this sport. The more ice that has been climbed the more one knows how to read the ice. Reading the ice can help to know when something has high dinner plating potential. Even experience isn’t the end all for accident prevention!

Does this mean you should never ice climb?

For beginners to this sport, take it easy and have a partner (or two, or three!) who are experienced. Top roping is a great way to get experience and lower the risk (sound familiar rock climbers?). 😉 There will always be risks, just like in any sport. At the same time, I know avid ice climbers that have never had a problem! It’s really up to personal preferences at what risk the climber is willing to take.

I’m itching to get back out! Is ice climbing something you will try?


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