Eventually all rock climbers get the itch to ice climb. Ice climbing can cause you to be cold one minute but then hot in the next 10 minutes. If you don’t like the cold, and cannot tolerate some level of being uncomfortable, become a climbing gym rat for the winter, or perhaps this isn’t the sport for you. Otherwise, welcome to one of the most challenging, exhilarating, and rewarding forms of climbing! This is intended to describe the what and the how as you transition to this great Winter sport.
Gear: You are going to need a quite a few pieces of gear. There is just no way around it. If you are a skier or snow boarder then you probably have a good start on the clothing. Think warm, layered, and waterproof. As you know, ice forms from water. Many climbers use a Gortex fabric which is very water resistant and very breathable. Make sure you get a pair of gators to protect your pants and keep the snow out on the hike into the ice fall.
Ok, so you should be warm. Make sure your hat fits beneath your helmet and your over-jacket is big enough to wear a fleece under it. One of those puffy coats are great for belaying which is the time you can get very cold if you are not dressed correctly.
Besides warm clothing, what are the four most important equipment items: Gloves, Tools(ice axes), Crampons(spikes), and Boots.
You can usually rent the last three, but the Gloves you are going to need to buy. Don’t skimp out. You are going to need a glove that is very warm, has a leather palm, and is waterproof. One trick to waterproof the leather is to treat it with Nickwax boot wax the night before every climb; you will find that this even makes the leather sticky. Climbers will sometimes use a liner glove inside the outer shell. You will find that a sweaty palm is pretty hard to put back inside your glove when you are hanging on your axes, with your arms all pumped from climbing pumped.
Ice Axes. There are a number of available axes you can buy on-line. Find a local shop and test them out. Many will let you borrow them for a day. Don’t skimp on the tools either. You can expect to pay around $250-$300(and higher) for a decent set of new tools. You can find great used ones at www.mountainproject.com in the for sale forum. You are also going to need leashes for those axes, because going leash-less is not a good idea if you are just starting out. Some leashes are designed to easily detach from the axe which is allows you to go leash less quickly. Make sure you can get your leash off in whatever method you choose in case of emergency.
Crampons (these go on your feet/boots for kicking into the ice) – Again, renting is a practical method to choose the right ones for you. Some people like mono points, some go for the dual points. Most people start with the dual points which make a more stable platform for ice climbing. Getting crampons that at least have replaceable front points is a good idea.
Boots – Like climbing shoes, fit is everything. Try to find boots that have enough room in the toe box because you will be kicking into ice with these things, and you don’t want to bash your toes. It’s a good idea to have the socks that you will be wearing out there when you try them on, a thin liner sock and a thicker sock will do fine. A pair of Thinsulate socks work great as liners under your thicker sock. Leather boots flex more and are easier, in my opinion, to hike in, especially if the hike is rocky rather than snowy. Plastic shell boots are stiffer though some people swear that this makes them more stable to kick and climb in.
Ok, so what’s next?
All right, so you have all the gear. If it has not dawned on you yet, you are going to need to actually get to some ice to climb it. There are no gyms (yet) that offer ice climbing so you are just going to have to suck it up and go outside. Try climbing our Ice structure to be opening soon in the South Suburbs of Chicago, IL. Details at: www.PlayWildIL.com
Due to the risk involved in ice climbing it is a good idea to take lessons from a professional guide and it was worth every penny. You can learn more about how to read the ice and actual climbing techniques than you can on your own. If you have someone who has been out there on the ice for years who wants to mentor you, that will also work. Just don’t head out to ice thinking that you are a great rock climber so you will be great on ice– ice is DIFFERENT.
So you are geared up, tied in your rope, and axes are in hand. A professional is holding the rope for you. What is he likely to tell you? Swing less but Swing hard. Aim for shallows in the ice, not the bulges. If you find nothing but hard bulging ice, you are going to have to chuck a few dinner plates(large ice pcs) before your axe will sink in. For every one good axe hit you should move both your feet up. Kick your feet in firm and with the same precision as your tools. Try to keep your body in a “tripod” stance with your legs at shoulder width and your axe(s) towards the center. Try to keep your feet fairly even when you swing your axe. Try to keep your heels down and low as much as possible.
You have reached the top of the formation and now you have to finish over the less steep part at the top, this can the hardest part. Reach your tools up and above this bulge as high and forward as you can. Step high and pull to the top. This will feel weird. Congrats, you just finished your first ice climb. You are probably pumped, and you will feel muscles you never knew you had. Your calves are pumped too for sure.
Ready, get set, ICE CLIMB!
So now you want to see what it’s really like, out from under the watchful eye of a seasoned professional. The thing about ice is that it can be a rare commodity, and it degrades when you climb on it. What if a big hunk of rock came off a rock cliff and hit you in the face while you climbed? Would ever go back there and climb again? Well, with ice, chunks and slivers will be flying at you all. Eye protection is highly recommended!
Remember, that as a beginner, you are going to be throwing less accurately and insisting on more secure placements to move upwards. This may be hard on the ice that someone with a lighter hand would just zoom through. If the ice is constantly chunking off, just rest and go for a hike. Find some fresh ice or just forget it for the day. Conserve the ice today so that tomorrow it will be in good shape to climb. Much of ice climbing is about the art found in the ice formation, and breaking off a big chunk that is about to touch down is not only rude, it ruins the beauty of the ice.
Get out on some Ice!
Ice climbing is an adventurous and rewarding activity. Many icefalls are hard to get to, so the rewards of a good climb are enormous. Many climbers see ice as a doorway to bigger and better climbs and a way to get stronger in the winter without being in a crowded climbing gym and annoyed by chalk covered holds. The beauty of moving over the ice and a good climbing technique relates well to the splendor of our natural world in its frozen state.