What Is Ice Climbing? And Why Do People Do It?
Smashing ice up a frozen waterfall initially might not be everyone's idea of a good day out. I mean, it sounds kind of scary, right? But there's no denying it, once you've tried it, it’s freaking fun! Climbing amongst impressive scenery, surrounded by glittering ice, this is a trip many adventurous people may want to try.
So what exactly is it all about?
WHAT IS ICE CLIMBING?
Ice climbing is the sport of climbing frozen water features. Ranging in height from a few meters to several hundred, ice climbing varies around the world depending on the terrain and climate. You can get hard ice, soft ice, plastic ice... yep, there's tons of different types!
Using crampons attached to boots for secure foot placements, and ice tools (also known as ice axes or ice picks) for secure hand placements, you ascend the ice kicking and swinging away on inclines that can range from 50° all the way to overhanging!
Ropes are used to keep you safe and a lead climber will use ice screws for protection as they move upwards.
While it may look easy in a way, just smashing away at the ice to lodge your ice tools and crampons, there is a bit of technique involved to make it easier and conserve energy. And conserving energy is key when ice climbing!
WHY DO PEOPLE ICE CLIMB?
Ice climbing developed from the pursuit of mountaineering. Ice is frequently encountered on mountains so people quickly worked out ways to ascend the icy sections.
Since then, it has become a huge sport in its own right.
Being outside with vistas that take your breath away, ice climbing combines the beautiful with the challenge of climbing a medium that frequently changes. Each day the ice can change, grow and shrink, which adds a unique element over other climbing styles like rock climbing.
IS ICE CLIMBING DANGEROUS?
Like all roped climbing styles, it’s perfectly safe provided all safety guidelines are followed, and a respect to the environment and the nature of what you are doing is adhered. There are a few environmental hazards (objective hazards) in areas such as avalanches, but this comes with doing any activity in the backcountry in winter.
There are always mishaps and accidents of course, no matter the sport, but at no rate higher than all the traditional sports that are played. Any accidents that do occur are almost always caused by human error. The gear used is made to well above minimum safety requirements so gear failure is almost nonexistent. You can read more about that over HERE.
Many people ask me if it’s easy to stab yourself? After all, you effectively have sharp points attached to every limb! While it is a possibility, it’s also quite rare.
Starting out, you would always be on a top rope setup. This means the rope runs to the anchor above you and if you fall, the rope (which is held by your belayer with a belay device) catches you immediately. This is the same for almost all climbing styles which makes it very safe to give it a go.
WHO CAN TRY ICE CLIMBING?
While there is a minimum level of fitness you should have to begin, both males and females of all ages can ice climb!
Swinging the ice tools doesn't require as much strength as it does technique. Using brute force will exhaust you quickly. Holding onto the ice tools is quite easy as they are perfect sized handles. The rest is in the technique. Swinging with the tools, kicking with the feet, its all about getting just the right amount of force for a stick and not wasting any energy.
To begin, you should have good cardiovascular fitness and be generally healthy. Some ice climbs require hikes to get there. And to get truly ‘ice climbing fit’ there's only one way… go ice climbing!
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
Having good technique and knowing the in’s and out’s are the most important way to enjoy ice climbing and keep it safe.
Here's a few tips when getting started:
► Go with someone experienced or hire a guide
Your first time can be extremely fun and relaxed if you go with guides. America, Europe, New Zealand; they all have multiple venues and areas for ice climbing. Just google search your state of country to find the closest one. And of course, winter is the time to do it!
► Forget about looking good
Like all climbing styles, there is a learning curve. Forget trying to look good or that you appear to know what you are doing. We all started there, awkwardly flailing away, so there's no judging going on. Just have fun and embrace the journey!
► Stay warm
To make it enjoyable, be sure to keep warm! Have a good puffy down jacket and use the typical winter layering system (base, mid, outer). In addition, make sure to keep the limbs moving. Shake the hands out and wiggle the toes. Have warm drinks in a thermos at the ready as well as chocolate and lollies for quick warmth.
► Stay hydrated!
It's important to keep up fluids. With a cold environment you will lose fluid quicker than at room temperature. If you don't have a thermos, boil the water first before pouring into your drinking bottle and use another bottle with room temperature water which you can drink first.
► Bring lots of gloves!
Be sure to bring multiple sets of gloves. Having 2-3 outer with 2 liners is ideal. What you don’t wear, stuff in your jacket to keep them warm and dry them out. And remember to keep the thinner pair for climbing as its easier to hold onto the ice tool as the thicker pair tends to make your hand slip off.
► Focus on that technique!
If you are going on a guided trip they will cover the full technique and help you along.
For a great video demonstration (the best one out there by far), watch this:
► Wear your helmet and watch for ice!
You can tell a seasoned ice climber from a novice when chunks of ice falls. A experienced person will look straight ahead letting the helmet divert the falling ice. A beginner looks down.
Even experienced rock climbers trying ice climbing for the first time can feel intimidated. Once you get over the initial fear, it's extremely fun and enjoyable. Remember to relax your hands and body as much as possible. Open the thumb from the ice tool and regularly shake out to keep the blood flowing. And don’t forget to breathe!
Ice climbing is another great way to get outside and enjoy nature. It’s fun, is a great workout, and gets you out of your comfort zone. So what are you waiting for? Try something different today and go ice climbing!