Ice climbing equipment and techniques are used to ascend frozen ice features, including frozen waterfalls and glacial icefalls. Similar to rock climbing, a rope and harness are used to provide fall protection. Ice climbing also requires a pair of special crampons and two ice axes, called “ice tools.” Just like rock climbing, ice climbing requires at least two people: one to climb and one to belay. There are two primary ways to setup a belay: top rope and lead.
Top rope ice climbing involves setting up an anchor at the top of an ice wall. Next, the climbing rope is passed through the anchor so that both ends of the rope reach the ground below. One end is tied to the climber’s harness. The other end is placed through a belay device that is attached to the belayer’s harness. Once this system is properly setup, the climber can begin to ascend, allowing the belayer to take up slack and arrest any falls.
Rather than using a single anchor point at the top, lead ice climbing utilizes multiple anchor points (called protection placements) that are inserted directly into the ice face during an ascent. As the climber ascends, he places special screws into the ice face and clips the rope to the screws, usually with a quickdraw. Instead of taking up slack, as with top roping, the belayer must let slack out as the climber ascends, watching closely to arrest any potential falls.
The sport of mixed climbing involves using ice climbing equipment (ice tools and crampons) to climb both ice and rock features. Climbers use a technique called “dry tooling” to navigate rocky sections in between sections of ice. Similarly, a mixed climber may ascend a rock wall in order to reach an ice feature near the top. Dry tooling occurs when a climber uses ice tools and crampon spikes to scale rock, instead of grasping the rock with the hands and feet directly. Mixed climbers can often utilize smaller cracks, indentations and protrusions that traditional rock climbers may not be able to grasp.
Similar to traditional rock climbing, ice climbing and mixed climbing require technical equipment and specialized skills, such as belaying. If you’re interested in learning to ice climb or mixed climb, consider enrolling in a class with a local guide company, attending a workshop hosted by a reputable climbing club or learning from another experienced climber.
Ice Climbing Safety
It’s very important for new climbers to understand the differences between climbing on ice and climbing on rock. Due to the nature of ice formations, climbing on ice involves different risks and hazards. Although pieces of rock can occasionally break off and fall during a climb, it’s relatively uncommon. Breaking off a chunk of ice, on the other hand, is much more common. For this reason, both climbers and belayers should always wear helmets. Belayers should also minimize their exposure to falling ice by standing back and off to one side. Although a belayer should always be looking upward and watching for a fall, it’s still helpful for a climber to immediately yell “ice!” in the event that a piece does break loose, just in case the belayer doesn’t see it. If multiple groups are climbing an ice feature, leave adequate space between each group so that nobody is standing in the drop zone.
Anyone new to ice climbing should learn to climb using a top-rope belay. Only experienced ice climbers should attempt to climb lead and place protection (i.e. ice screws). Falling while lead climbing on ice is inherently more dangerous than falling while lead climbing on rock. Experienced ice climber Alexa Siegel explains: “It’s almost always a bad idea to fall while leading, which contrasts sharply to the countless airy whippers I’ve taken sport climbing. Learning how to care for your gear, when conditions are safe, and how to place protection takes time and experience. The best way to gain this knowledge is spending time with someone who knows their stuff. Ice climbing is [also] a completely different movement than rock climbing.”
Because the vast majority of ice climbing is performed outside in the middle of winter, having the proper apparel and footwear will be crucial to your comfort level. Layering is an important strategy that will allow you to adapt to changing weather and/or activity levels. While climbing, you’ll be exerting much more energy and creating a lot more heat, therefore requiring less insulation. Belaying, on the other hand, requires minimal movement, which means you’ll need more layers to stay warm as you stand in one place. If your climbing location is remote, it’s also important to be prepared with additional winter hiking gear and clothing, just in case the weather turns ugly.
Base layers are ideal for layering underneath your jacket and pants. Base layers should be made of lightweight, breathable, quick-drying materials, such as nylon, polyester or merino wool. Avoid cotton fabrics that absorb sweat and dry slowly.
Waterproof breathable jackets and pants are best for ice climbing, since most climbing is done in cold, winter conditions. Most climbers prefer a non-insulated shell for layering versatility. Pit zips are a great feature for climbing, allowing you to vent excess heat during a rigorous climb and button things up when it’s your time to belay. Make sure you choose a jacket and pants that allow good range of movement. Brands like Marmot, The North Face and Mountain Hardwear are all good options for rugged, waterproof outerwear.
A good pair of gloves is essential for ice climbing in colder conditions. The best gloves have a waterproof breathable membrane (such as Gore-Tex®), light insulation and a durable, grip-enhancing palm. The palm is probably the most important feature when choosing ice climbing gloves, especially if you’re using leashless ice tools. Brands like Outdoor Research, Black Diamond Equipment and Mountain Hardwear offer very good mountaineering and ice climbing gloves.
Similar to hiking boots, mountaineering boots have a stiff, all-terrain outsole and additional support features for rugged alpine terrain. For ice climbing, be sure to choose mountaineering boots that are waterproof and compatible with crampons. Most crampon-compatible boots have a special indentation just above the back of the heel, called a heel bail. This allows certain types of crampons to be mounted more securely.
Designed to protect the lower legs, gaters help prevent snow from getting inside the cuffs of boots, especially when trekking in deeper snow. Gaters are typically made of durable, waterproof or water-repellent fabric, such as nylon. If you need to hike through snow to get to your ice climbing location, a pair of gaters is a must-have accessory.
Without the right pair of socks, your feet will probably get pretty cold on the ice face, so don’t skimp. Go with midweight or heavyweight hiking socks, since these will provide added cushioning and warmth. Leave the cotton socks at home and go with wool, synthetic or a blend.
Axes used for ice climbing are lightweight and have a sharp, curved pick. Axes designed for ice climbing are often called “ice tools.” Most have a curved handle, which makes it easier to maintain a strong grip when clinging to a vertical face. Some models have a wrist leash for additional support. Other models are “leashless,” meaning they are specially designed to be used without a wrist leash. Ice tools can also be used to climb rock faces (called dry tooling) or a combination of ice and rock (called mixed climbing).
The spiked metal cleats that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots are called crampons. Most crampons designed for ice climbing are different than those designed for mountaineering. Ice climbing crampons have one or two spikes that protrude directly outward from underneath the toe. This design allows an ice climber to gain footholds in a vertical ice face. Some crampon models allow the user to add or remove front spikes as needed, allowing the crampons to be used for either mountaineering or ice climbing.
Wearing helmets is always essential for ice climbing in order to protect both the climber and belayer from any falling ice fragments or rocks. A helmet may also protect the climber’s head in the event of a swinging fall.
Ice screws are the primary type of protection used in ice climbing when climbing without a top rope (i.e. lead climbing). Threaded ice screws have sharp tines, allowing them to be screwed directly into an ice face and later removed. Ice screws are available in a variety of lengths. Proper placement of ice screws is crucial for creating safe anchor points and protecting against a fall. Only experienced ice climbers should climb lead.
Other Climbing Gear
Additional equipment required for ice climbing includes a dry climbing rope, harness, carabiners, slings and a belay device. These particular items are all used for belaying and require specialized knowledge to operate safely. For more information on belaying, equipment, climbing gear strength ratings and more, check out our Rock Climbing Guide.
This guide is intended to provide an introduction to basic ice climbing information and gear. This is not a substitute for a climbing course or program. Climbing and other related activities are inherently dangerous. Anyone purchasing or using equipment for this purpose is personally responsible for getting proper instruction on its correct and safe use. Please seek out a professional climbing guide or certified climbing instructor to address any questions you may have about climbing gear or gear usage.