Ice Climbing Essentials
I have been rock climbing since I was about 10 years old (I’m 31 now) and am absolutely addicted. Up until a couple years ago, though, I limited myself to rock because, quite frankly, ice scared the crap out of me!
The crazy variables—the cold, the foreign surface, the odd equipment—always kept me away but fortunately, I have friends who gently corrected my flawed thinking; all of those things are easily remedied and are actually what make ice climbing so awesome! Seriously: the cold is combated by the right layers, the ice surface is complex and interesting, and swinging an axe is satisfying no matter who you are! In fact, the skills used on ice are not all that different from the ones used on rock. Anchor building can be a bit more complicated, using tools and crampons is foreign, and dodging ice and snow-shed takes astute awareness, but a few hours on the wall with the right equipment can turn a first timer into a lifer.
Ice climbing is not really a sport to learn on your own, and the transition from rock to ice is best made in a safe and (relatively) controlled environment. If you’re interested in giving ice climbing a go, there’s no better place to start than the magical town of Ouray, CO. There you can enlist the services of a guiding outfit such as San Juan Mountain Guides and experience ice climbing at the legendary Ouray Ice Park. The park provides the perfect environment to top-rope your heart out and your guide will teach you the technique and skills you need to progress quickly. Falling on ice is a serious matter and building the skills to prevent a fall will take time and practice, but Ouray is the perfect place to build your expertise.
Expert Tip: After your smile is permanently frozen on your face from a day in the park, head to Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa and Lodgings to lounge in the vapor cave and soak in the pool. It’s an amazing experience your worn-out body and mind will appreciate.
As might be expected, much of the equipment you’re using for rock climbing can be used for ice climbing, with some variations and additions.
For ice, a general climbing/mountaineering helmet will do the trick. I prefer in-mold foam construction with a polycarbonate shell (as opposed to an ABS hardshell) that offers lots of adjustability so that it fits over a beanie or balaclava comfortably and is easy to adjust with gloves on. Besides looking better, this construction is lighter, much more comfortable, and offers more ventilation. My favorite is the Camp USA Speed 2.0—perfect for everything from ice and rock climbing to general mountaineering.
A harness is one of the most important pieces of gear for any type of roped climbing since you sit in the thing all day long. As with a helmet, almost any climbing harness will do and your choice is largely up to personal preference. However, there are some advantages ice-specific options. Ice climbing harnesses will typically feature more adjustability to fit over multiple layers, ice clipper slots to help carry screws and holster tools, and padding that’s designed to shed snow (mesh constructions tend to collect moisture).
The Arc’teryx AR – 395a is the bee’s knees of harnesses. Unlike most low-profile harnesses, this one is actually comfortable. It allows for full freedom of movement, the clipper slots and gear loops are well positioned, and it packs away nice and small. For an even more streamlined option, check out the FL-365.
Boots for ice climbing should be warm, stiff (¾ or full-length shank), waterproof, and crampon-compatible (ideally step-in). You will also want a boot that offers adequate ankle flexibility for walking and general comfort. Modern mountaineering boots offer all this and more which makes them the ideal choice for ice climbing.
I climb in the Scarpa Phantom Techs and there’s a reason they are the most popular ice climbing boot everywhere from the Canadian Rockies to Ouray. They are lighter, more comfortable, and warmer than any other boot around. Scarpa’s NAG last is slightly more narrow than previous iterations and combined with SockFit technology, you get a fit that is secure, comfortable for walking and sensitive when front pointing. Once you put these on and zip up the FlexSeal zipper, your feet will stay warm, dry, and ready to get after it. For a traditional leather option, check out of the Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX, which features the same last and fit, an amazing lacing system, and an integrated gaiter. Both will work with any crampon but I find Petzl crampons, followed by Grivel crampons, tend to fit these boots best.
Crampons are designed either for general mountaineering or for technical pursuits like ice climbing, so you want to make sure to get the right kind. The main differences between them is the materials they’re made from and the shape of the front points. Crampons for ice climbing will have steel points, especially in front—aluminum may be lighter, but it’s too soft for ice climbing. They’re also oriented vertically so they look like ice axe spike sticking out of the front of the crampon; this vertical design allows the climber to kick the front-points into hard objects to get a grip.
Most ice climbing crampons offer dual front points but there are some instances where a mono-point is preferable, such as in mixed climbing. Most manufacturers offer at least one modular model that can be adjusted for either dual or a mono point.
I climb in the Petzl Dartwin crampon, a lightweight (1 pound 11 oz), dual-point option that offers awesome ice penetration and excellent holding power. My favorite thing about Petzl is that their crampons are modular and you can easily customize them depending on your needs. If you want to go from a dual point to a mono point for some mixed climbing, you can purchase the Dart front separately and throw it on the heel piece (which is the same on all of Petzl’s steel crampons). If you are doing a technical mountaineering pursuit, throw on the Sarken front section. Pretty awesome!
Ice tools, those meant specifically for ice climbing, shouldn’t be confused with ice axes, which are generally used for mountaineering. The latter tend to have a long, straight shaft while ice tools are shorter and have curved shafts. You’ll also notice a different shape to the pick; ice tools usually have what is called a ‘reverse curve’ shape, a protrusion at the end of the curve that makes it easier to pull the pick out of the ice. Mountaineering axes generally have a simple curved pick, since you’re generally a lot more interested in it grabbing and holding during a self-arrest!
I use the Camp USA Cassin X-Dream Ice Tool —it’s all about the swing and nothing quite compares to the X-Dream. This tool is well balanced and produce an amazingly natural swing. It may be a high-end tool, but it’s not just for advanced climbers; the X-Dream will turn novice climbers into veterans and transform seasoned climbers into experts. It really excels on delicate ice and the angle of the handle (which is adjustable for dry tooling) greatly reduces fatigue. It comes with a Mixte pick, which is a great all-around option. The Ice pick excels at ice and alpine, and the Race option is for those people who do competitions or train on plastic. This is a popular tool, so if you find it’s not available, the Grivel Carbon Tech Machine is also a great choice.
For ice, you’ll need a dry-treated option and for the type of climbing we’re talking about in this article, a single rope will do. Diameter and length choice should be based on the routes and end use, but if you’re doing a lot of top roping (like in Ouray), I’d go for something in the 9.5-10.2 range of thickness and a 70m length.
I own the Mammut Infinity Dry 9.5 which fits the bill; it’s bi-patterned and is a delight to climb on and belay with.
Not every belay device is ideal for ice climbing. For sheer versatility and affordability, it’s hard to beat a tube style, auto-blocking device such as the Black Diamond ATC Guide. I highly recommend an auto-blocking option as it’s common to have to belay the second from above off a solid anchor. I’m not a fan of assisted locking devices like the Petzl Grigri 2 for ice climbing. It’s not uncommon for the rope to ice up during a climb and dealing with an icy rope is much more difficult on a Grigri than a tube style device.
When choosing a headlamp for ice climbing, you’ll want something with a bit of power to it. For active pursuits, I always turn to Petzl headlamps. The Petzl Reactik offers ‘reactive’ lighting that automatically and instantly adjusts brightness to the need of the user. This means that you don’t have to handle the Reactik nearly as much as you would a regular option. It also comes with a rechargeable battery or can be switched out for standard batteries for those longer excursions.
When choosing a pack for ice climbing, you’ll probably want something in the 50 liter (3000 cubic inch) range since you’ll be carrying a lot of gear. For alpine-oriented pursuits, you will want to lean towards a lighter-weight option as opposed to a more burly and durable construction intended for climbs with short approaches. Additional things to consider include rope, helmet and ice tool carrying systems, as well as the ability to carry crampons on the outside of the pack. In places like Ouray, you’ll be moving from one area to another constantly so being able to strap these items on the outside (versus having to stuff them back in your pack) is ideal.
The Patagonia Ascensionist 40L backpack is a great size for ice climbing. It carries tools, crampons, and rope on the outside and has a rear entry panel for easy access.
Ice Climbing Rack
Like building a trad rack, building a rack for ice climbing requires a significant gear commitment, even if you’re just sticking to top-roping for the time being. You still have to build all of your anchors (which is what most of the rack is for) and you’ll want at least a couple ice screws to use as directionals on some routes. The ice holders are also nice to have for racking your tools when you are ready to be lowered or if you are rappelling.
Basic requirements include ice screws, holders, quickdraws, slings, locking carabiners, cordelette or webbing, a V-thread hook, and a knife. Even if you’re only top roping, I would still recommend carrying a couple ice screws in various lengths to use as directionals, along with a couple quickdraws. A V-thread hook isn’t necessary in a place like Ouray since everything can be set up off chains or natural anchors. The following are some of my personal rack recommendations:
- Ice Screws: Petzl Laser Speed — I’ve found that these are the easiest to use. They are color-coded for length and feature a flexible crank, so you’ll have no trouble placing them quickly. The required length will depend on ice thickness, but a standard rack should include somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 screws – 2 long screws for each anchor and 10 in a variety of sizes for pro.
- Ice Screw Holder: Black Diamond Ice Clipper — racks your screws and tools.
- Quickdraws: Petzl Ange Finesse — Light and durable, 10 of these guys will do the trick. You can mix and match carabiner size and length for preference and need. Petzl Niro 3 — these energy-absorbing quickdraws are best utilized in sketchy situations or at the start of a route.
- Slings: Mammut Dyneema Contact Sling — 4 of these in the 120cm length will give you 2 for anchor building and 2 extras. Pair these with the Camp USA Nano 22 Carabiner for alpine draws.
- Locking Carabiners: Black Diamond Nitron Screwgate — I love these biners for their weight, easy screw action, shape, keylock nose, and overall durability. 4 for anchors and 4 extras.
- Cordelette: Sterling Powercord — great for anchor building, v-thread, and prusiks.
- V-Thread Hook: Black Diamond First Shot Thread — use this for a V-thread, clearing an ice screw tube, and tightening bolts.
- Knife: Edelrid Ropetooth— cut everything from cord to meat and cheese. Attaches to tool holder easily.
When choosing what to wear for ice climbing, layers are key. Having a layering system that is versatile for any weather situation will ensure that you are always dry and comfortable. Your approach will be the same as layering for any cold weather activity, except that you will want an additional belay jacket (usually a puffy) to throw on over everything else and keep you warm while you’re standing on belay. Here’s what I like wearing:
- Baselayer: Icebreaker Bodyfit 260 Midweight Tech Top Crew and Icebreaker Bodyfit 260 Leggings — merino wool is comfortable and antimicrobial. I love this pair’s weight and can wear it multiple days in a row without working up a stink.
- Midlayer: Arc’teryx Atom SL — my absolute favorite mid piece. I’ll probably never go back to a fleece after picking this up.
- Insulated Layer: Top — Mammut Eigerjoch Pro IS — warm, technical fitting insulation layer that’s non bulky and moves well. Bottom — Arc’teryx Atom LT Pant — They are non-bulky, the insulation is mapped perfectly, and the full side zips are key.
- Shell: Top — Mammut Nordwand Pro HS Bottom — Mammut Nordwand Pro HS Pant or go with the ultimate Mammut Nordwand Pro HS Suit.
- Belay Jacket: Rab Neutrino Endurance — extremely warm, great fit, and lots of little details such as the Lycra hand gaiters make this an ideal piece.
- Gloves: Rab Icefall Guantlet — they’re warm and provide plenty of dexterity, ideal for ice climbing.
Expert Tip: Be sure to bring along a spare pair of gloves since they often end up getting wet.