Ice Climbing Essentials
Tips and Gear to Get Started
Equipment intensive, sharp objects, freezing cold—ice climbing may seem intimidating to some. But once you experience the stoke of sending your first frozen waterfall, you won’t be able to put down the ice tools.
The good news is that if you’ve already got basic knowledge of belaying, rappelling, anchors, and knots, the learning curve isn’t quite so steep—and you probably already have at least some of the gear you need to get started.
Perhaps even more so than rock climbing, ice climbing is not a great sport to learn alone, and the transition from rock to ice is best made in the safe and (relatively) controlled environment of the ice park.
One of the best places to start in the west is 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, where the annual Ice Fest is held in late January.
Gearhead Tip: After your smile is permanently frozen on your face from a day at the Ouray Ice Park, head to Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa to lounge in the vapor cave and soak in the pool. It’s an amazing experience your worn-out body and mind will appreciate.
A couple other notable ice parks exist in Lake City, CO and Sandstone, MN, as well as an indoor ice climbing wall over near Glasgow, Scotland, if you’re ever in that part of the world. The park provides the perfect environment to top-rope your heart out, plus easy access to local guides who can teach you the technique and skills you need to ice climb confidently alone.
Essential Ice Climbing Equipment
As might be expected, much of the equipment you’re using for rock climbing can be used for ice climbing, but you’ll also need a few additions to your gear closet to get on ice—here’s a rundown of everything you’ll need.
For ice, a general rock climbing/mountaineering helmet will do the trick. In-mold foam construction with a polycarbonate shell (as opposed to an ABS hardshell) offers easier adjustment (even if you’re wearing gloves) for fitting over a beanie or buff. This construction is also lighter, more comfortable, and vents well.
As with a helmet, almost any climbing harness will do and your choice is largely up to personal preference. However, there are some advantages to ice-specific options, which typically feature more adjustability to fit over layers, specialized slots to clip ice screws and tools, and padding 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 up nice and small.
Boots for ice climbing should be warm, stiff (¾ or full-length shank), waterproof, and crampon-compatible (ideally step-in, which means you need a heel and toe welt). You will also want a boot that offers adequate ankle flexibility for walking and general comfort. Modern mountaineering boots offer this and more, which makes them the ideal choice for ice climbing.
As one of the lightest and most comfortable boots out there, Tte Scarpa Phantom Techs has long been a favorite choice everywhere from the Canadian Rockies to Ouray. Scarpa’s NAG last is slightly more narrow than previous iterations and combined with SockFit technology, delivers a fit as secure and comfortable for walking as it is sensitive for front pointing. The FlexSeal zipper keeps your feet warm, dry, and ready to get after it.
For a more 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 Petzl or Grivel crampons tend to fit these boots best.
Crampons are designed either for general mountaineering or for vertical ice climbing, so make sure you get the right kind. The main differences among crampons are the materials they’re made from and the shape and angle of the front points.
Crampons for ice climbing have steel points that are vertically oriented, which allows the climber to kick the front points into hard, vertical objects to get a grip.
The main difference among ice climbing crampons is that instead of opting for dual front points, you can get a mono point. One point (vs. two) is ideal for super steep, technical ice climbing and mixed climbing that involves both rock and ice.
One reason to go with a crampon made by 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’re tackling a technical summit, throw on the Sarken front section.
Ice tools designed 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.
A classic option is the Camp USA Cassin X-Dream Ice Tool—a well-balanced tool that produces 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) keeps you from getting pumped. Another great lightweight option is the Grivel Carbon Tech Machine.
For ice, it’s ideal to use a dry-treated rope. 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), go for something in the 9.5-10.2 range of thickness and a 70m length.
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. An auto-blocking option is highly recommended as it’s common to have to belay the second from above off a solid anchor. Assisted locking devices like the Petzl Grigri 2 are usually not recommended 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, turn to Petzl headlamps. The Petzl Swift RL Headlamp offers reactive lighting that automatically and instantly adjusts brightness to the level of natural light. It also comes with a rechargeable battery or can be switched out for standard batteries on 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, lean towards a lighter-weight option as opposed to a more burly and durable construction intended for climbs with short approaches.
Other factors include rope, helmet, and external ice tool carrying systems, as well as the ability to affix crampons to the outside of the pack. In places like Ouray, you’ll be moving from one area to another constantly so being able to quickly strap sharp gear 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 and carries tools, crampons, and a rope on the outside, with a rear entry panel for easy access.
Ice Climbing Rack
Like building a trad rack, assembling a rack of gear to lead ice climbs requires a significant gear commitment. Even if you’re not leading and are setting up top ropes on fixed anchors available at some ice parks , you’ll still want a couple screws to use as directionals. The ice holders are also nice to have for racking your tools when you’re ready to be lowered or if you’re rapping.
The basic requirements of an ice rack include ice screws, ice clipper carabiners, quickdraws, slings, locking carabiners, cordelette or webbing, and a V-thread hook. A V-thread hook isn’t necessary in a place like Ouray since everything can be set up off chains or natural anchors. Here are a few specific recommendations:
- Ice Screws: Screws come in a variety of lengths, depending on ice thickness. 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 protection.
- Ice Screw Clipper: A large non-locking carabiner like the Black Diamond Ice Clipper racks your screws and tools.
- Quickdraws: 10 of these guys will do the trick. You can mix and match carabiner size and length for preference and need.
- Slings: Mammut Dyneema Contact Sling—4 of these in the 120cm length will give you 2 for anchor building and 2 extras. Pair with the Camp USA Nano 22 Carabiner to build alpine draws.
- Locking Carabiners: Stock up on 4 for anchors and 4 as extras.
- Cordelette: Great for anchor building, v-thread, and prusiks—Sterling makes cordelette in a variety of widths. You can also use a piece of cord to make a v-thread.
When choosing what to wear for ice climbing, layers are key. A versatile layering system will keep you 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 big puffy) to throw on over everything else and keep you warm while you’re standing on belay.
- Baselayer: Merino wool is comfortable and antimicrobial, perfect as your foundation.
- Insulated Midlayer: The Arc’teryx Atom LT is a classic ice climbing mid piece.
- Shell: A waterproof or water-resistant hardshell will keep you dry on the ice, especially if it’s getting melty out there or the snow is falling. The Mammut Nordwand Pro HS is a great option, paired with the Mammut Nordwand Pro HS Pant on bottom.
- Belay Jacket: Get a extremely warm big puffy jacket that can easily fit over your harness and layers and will keep you warm when you’re dishing out rope.
- Gloves: With an ice climbing glove, you need a careful balance of warmth, dexterity, and waterproofing to keep you from getting the screaming barfies (it’s totally a thing). You’ll want an additional warmer pair of mittens or gloves for belaying—heated gloves or at least a few hand warmers can be a game changer on frigid days!
Gearhead Tip: Be sure to bring along a spare pair of climbing gloves since they often end up getting wet.