Ice Climbing:
How to get started

Believe us, we totally understand the appeal of ice climbing! The idea of ascending beautiful frozen waterfalls on snowy days couldn’t be more exciting. Not to mention how cool the gear is. We also understand how intimidating it can feel to get into the sport. Between the technical skills, movement, finding a partner, and buying expensive gear, you might be asking yourself “how the heck do I get started??” Well, you’re in the right place.

We are so excited to share our personal experiences and recommendations for getting into ice climbing in this video!

Overview


Learning the Ropes

You can typically find ice climbers on frozen waterfalls…which are naturally occurring all over the world! There are also a handful of human-made ice climbing routes, such as the ones found in the world-famous Ouray Ice Park. These are created by faucets at the top of a canyon that are turned on when temperatures reach freezing. Water trickles down the canyon walls and freezes overnight to create massive walls and pillars of ice to climb. Climbers use crampons and ice tools to swing & stick into the formations and climb to the top.

Seasons

As you would probably imagine, the winter months provide prime conditions for ice climbing (mid-December to mid-March). The cold temperatures at night allow water to freeze, and sunny day time temps melt snow/ice to build upon/re-establish the route.

Grades

For seasonal waterfall ice, we use the acronym “WI”. Depending on the angle of the climb and overall difficulty of the route, we associate a number with the acronym. For example, routes with a consistent 60-degree angle (considered low angle) and occasional bulges/obstacles would fall under a WI2 grade. Something that is dead vertical (maybe slightly overhanging) with highly technical ice would fall under WI6. Knowing the grade of the route you are climbing is very important to ensure you don’t get yourself into a bad situation.

What to wear?

Dressing in warm, waterproof, functional clothing is an essential part of a successful ice climbing experience. Not having the proper gloves or jacket can result in a miserable day of climbing. Watch this video for what to wear ice climbing.

Gear.

Harness & Helmet

If you rock climb, you probably have these two things. You can use the same harness & helmet for ice climbing as long as they fit over bulkier clothing (snow pants & warm hat). If you don’t already have this equipment and are buying it specifically for ice climbing, check out harnesses with gear loops and ice clipper slots. The color, leg adjustment type, and padding are all personal preference.

Mountaineering Boots

Ice climbing requires a special kind of boot. These are typically insulated mountaineering boots. They have a rigid sole that keeps the boot sturdy when you thrust your foot into ice. There’s a lot to consider when buying a mountaineering boot. What material do you want? How stiff do you want it? Is it compatible with my specific crampon? Is it stylish?

Crampons

Crampons are basically metal spikes you attach to the bottom of your mountaineering boots and serve an essential purpose in ice climbing. You kick the front points of the crampon into the ice and “step-up” like you would on stairs or a ladder. Having graceful, precise footwork is a very important skill in ice climbing. You cannot “edge” like you would with rock climbing shoes. Some quick tips & common mistakes about crampons:

  • Try not to kick repeatedly to set the crampon points. Kicking too hard is not only tiring but can weaken the ice you’re standing on. You learn quickly enough about “dinner plates,” or big flakes of ice that come crashing out when you’re too rough with tools or crampons.
  • Another tendency is to keep one’s heels up too high, allowing the front points to pop out. Lowering your heels leverages the front points farther into the ice and will help to avoid an unnecessary slip. This is especially important at the end of a steep section or a pitch that ends on a shelf or on flatter terrain.
Ice Tools

Ice climbers always carry two ice tools while climbing. Ice tools are different from ice axes in that they are shorter than 60cm (24in). Anything longer than this will not be effective in technical ice climbing. They also have a more ergonomic (curved) shaft than an ice axe, and typically have a hammer on the head to help drive in ice screws.

  • When placing your tools, look for depressions in the ice, which are stronger than outward bulges and resist fracturing a bit better. If you are following, look for holes left by your partner and place your tools in them.
  • Just as with crampon placement, a single sure swing is far better than several taps or random chops at the ice. It saves energy and the ice surface. The right amount of force is important, too. Avoid swinging your tools too hard, or you will tire out your arms quickly. The more you can align your shoulder, wrist, and tool when you swing, the more direct and secure the placement will be.
  • To remove your tools as you climb past them, lift them out the way they went in. Move the pick back and forth in the same direction it went into the ice, and push up on the adze or hammer to help lift it out. Try not to wiggle the pick side to side as this can break it.

How do you know it’s safe?

It’s not.

But there’s a difference between steep, technical terrain & low-angle, stable ice with limited overhead hazard. Choosing terrain that matches where you’re at in ice climbing is a great way to mitigate risk.

A knowledgeable, local guide adds immeasurable value to any mountain activity. Given that ice climbing is an extreme sport, the presence of a seasoned guide is also important for safety reasons. Climbers need to be aware of freezing temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and potential avalanches and crevasses. It’s also important to be able to read ice conditions. How do you know if ice is safe to climb on? We highly recommend taking at least one lesson before you go out climbing on your own. Peak Mountain Guides is located conveniently in the ice climbing mecca of the U.S., Ouray, CO! Our guides are stoked to get out ice climbing and would love to meet you where you’re at in your climbing journey. Whether you’re brand new and looking to learn & apply the basics, or you’re a seasoned ice climber looking for your next big adventure. We are the service to look to in the San Juans.

Contact Us

The Peak Guide House
311 Main Street | Ouray CO 81427

Peak Mountain Guides, LLC
160 Liddell St. #C3 | Ridgway CO 81432
PO Box 2051 | Ridgway CO 81432

Authorized Permittee

Peak Mountain Guides is an authorized permittee of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison National Forest; San Juan National Forest; Bureau of Land Management Monticello, Moab, Gunnison, and Glennallen Field Offices; Eldorado Canyon State Park; Ouray Ice Park, City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks; and National Parks including Mt. Rainier, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Colorado National Monument. Peak Mountain Guides is an equal opportunity service provider.