Intro to Ice Climbing

March 17, 2015

by Hilary Oliver

Does the idea of climbing frozen waterfalls seem super appealing to you? The sculptural ice shapes, the strength of the climber and the mastery of unique tools all come together for a beautiful experience, whether you’re climbing or just watching. But it’s also an intimidating sport to try. Here are a few things to know before you go.

Bold Betties Ice Climbing near Denver

How It Works

To climb frozen waterfalls, climbers wear crampons on their feet so they can kick sharp front points into the ice for traction. And instead of using their hands to pull themselves up like in rock climbing, they hold an ice tool in each hand. These are technical, modern ice axes that the climber uses one at a time to hammer into the ice and pull down on. It’s a slow process of swinging a tool into the ice above your head with one hand, then the other, and then following by stepping both feet up and then repeating.

Climbers refer to frozen waterfalls as “water ice,” and the grades for difficulty are referred to as “WI” followed by a number, 1 being the easiest and each higher number being more difficult.  Different ice conditions and the angle of the ice determine the grade.

What Gear You Need

Ice climbing requires pretty specialized gear that you might only end up pulling out of the closet a couple of times a year, so it’s great that you can rent or demo much of it. Here are the basics you’ll need to get started:

Bold Betties Ice Climbing
  • Helmet—Before you even walk up to a water ice route, it’s good to put on a helmet. Ice is dynamic; it changes minute to minute depending on the temperature, and falling ice is a constant hazard.
  • Harness—A regular climbing harness will work.
  • Boots—Pro ice climbers use small, lightweight boots. But for a beginner, mountaineering boots work just fine and will probably keep your feet warmer longer.
  • Crampons—First, you’ll need crampons that are compatible with your boots. Second, you’ll probably want crampons with vertical front points instead of horizontal, because vertical points slice more precisely into the ice. So if you already have crampons with horizontal points for mountaineering, you might want to look a buying or renting a different pair.
  • Ice Tools—These are a more hefty investment, and can be rented, too. Demo-ing a couple of sets at an ice festival or from a gear shop is a great way to get the feel for differences in weight, handle shape and size, and how they swing.
  • Gloves And Mitts—Ice climbing might be the coldest sport you ever try, and your hands will bear the brunt of it. When your hands are above your head gripping hard to ice tools, the blood rushes away and your fingers get COLD. Grippy gloves are key to holding onto the tools, but you’ll also need something bigger and warmer to shove your hands into when you finish a route or while you’re belaying. Keeping extra pairs of dry gloves or mittens inside your outer jacket will help keep them warm and dry for cycling out.
  • Lots Of Layers—Starting with a wicking base layer and an insulating layer, then top off with a moisture-shedding hard shell, like a Gore-Tex jacket and pants. And, even if you don’t climb in it, pack the warmest puffy jacket you’ve got—or layer on multiples—for when you’re standing around belaying or learning.

How To Get Started

Bold Betties Ice Climbing near Denver

Ice climbing is a dangerous sport, so getting an expert guide or mentor is key. But don’t despair if you don’t know any experienced ice climbers to show you the ropes—there are other ways to get in the door.

    • Hire A Guide—Hiring a pro for some one-on-one or small-group time is priceless. The individual attention will have you progressing quickly and safely—and you’ll probably get to climb far more than you expected to be able to. One place to look in Colorado is San Juan Mountain Guides, based in Ouray and Durango.
    • Take A ClinicChicks With Picks is an awesome organization that organizes all-women ice climbing clinics. Climbing with guys is great, too, but sometimes it just takes a little pressure off—and adds a little feminine-style encouragement—to learn in an all-female environment.
    • Go To An Ice FestivalThe Ouray Ice Festival, Bozeman Ice Festival and Cody Ice Climbing Festival are all perfect places to get your feet, um, wet. With gear demos, group clinics and competitions to watch, a festival is great for getting psyched on the sport by watching the pros as well as getting feedback and instruction on your own climbing.
    Ice climbing is a unique way to experience pristine and amazing environments—and to push your limits as an athlete and a human. A little tweaking with gear and a few good intro lessons, and you’ll be ready to get the most out of places like the Ouray Ice Park.

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