Ice climbing …isn't that dangerous? Ice climbing …isn't that cold? Ice climbing…that's not for beginners!
WRONG. Ice climbing can be FUN, SAFE, and SUPER ENJOYABLE!
Climbing a frozen waterfall can be one of the most amazing experiences you'll ever have. Despite the common misconceptions, the sport and art of ice climbing are very accessible to beginners. One great way to experience ice climbing is at a festival. There are several major ice climbing festivals around the country, including The Bozeman, Ouray, Michigan, and Mt Washington Ice Festivals. These events offer clinics that provide professional instruction as well as rental of all the essential gear to try it out.
Vertical ice climbing requires some important gear, which includes: crampons, mountaineering boots, a harness, helmet, ice tools gloves, and warm layers. When I ice climb, I usually bring between 3-6 pairs of gloves. The gloves I pack vary in thickness and use. My typical kit includes a thick glove to belay, a thinner set of gloves to climb in, and a secondary set of gloves to swap out into when my climbing gloves get too wet. Pro tip: When I'm wearing my thick belay gloves, I always keep the thinner gloves under my armpits beneath my coat and mid-layers. This hack heats my climbing gloves, so I've got a warm pair when I'm climbing, and trust me, there's nothing better than warm hands when you're climbing ice. Companies like Black Diamond make specific ice climbing gloves designed in a position to make it easier to hold on to an ice tool. They're different than your typical ski glove or gloves you may get for other winter sports, and it makes a big difference in your comfort when hanging on to an ice tool.
The key to making ice climbing fun is always staying warm and dry. My trick? I always bring an additional base layer. Sweating on the approach to the climb is a very real thing, especially when you're hiking mountainous terrain. Having an extra base layer allows me to swap into something warm when I arrive, so sweaty clothes aren't giving me a chill all day. You may think that stripping out of a base layer into a fresh one sounds cold but staying in that wet layer is way worse!
Basic Technique for Climbing Ice
When new ice climbers walk up to climb a pitch of ice, they usually take two swings and get into an "H" position (see pic 1). I like to say this "H" stands for "hella bad!"
The "H" Position
There are two letters you do want to think about when ice climbing, an "A" and a "C." The "A" is when you make an A-frame above your high tool (see pic 2), and the "C" is when you stick your butt out and move your feet up (see pic 3).
A Frame Position
When I'm kicking into ice, I like to think of a marionette. I imagine a string pulling my knees up (see pic 4) so that when I kick, I get into a seated position (see pic 5).
Pulling the knees up.
If you've ever done yoga, this seated position is much like chair pose. The next step is to extend the hips up and position them close to the ice. I make a reverse "C" or a backbend (see pic 6). This athletic stance puts me in balance and provides the most power to swing into the ice using the strength from my legs.
If you're swinging poorly, look down - it's probably because you have bad feet. Whenever possible, you want to get your feet level like you're on flat ground. You don't want to have one foot high and one foot low. Level feet make for a balanced body position and a powerful swing.
How To Start
If you're new to ice climbing, I encourage you to go out with an AMGA-certified guide. These guides are a wealth of knowledge, trained to keep you as safe as possible and provide you with a fun and educational experience in the mountains. Ice climbing is a mentorship sport/art form. It's passed on from climber to climber.
Leading ice is not like leading a sport route on rock. When leading ice, you never want to take a fall on lead. Learning to climb ice is something that should be done on top rope and at the very least, with a more experienced climber who can provide some guidance on the type of ice and the terrain.
I view climbing ice like a language. The ice speaks to you through your tools. The sound, look, feel, and reaction to your tools in the ice can tell you loads once you gain even a small amount of experience. Like any language, it takes time to learn. The more you climb, the better you'll understand the language of vertical ice! Enjoy.
Follow Ari Novak on Instagram for more ice climbing tips and tricks at @dasnovak !