Photo: Suzie Dundas

12 Things You Absolutely Must Know Before You Try Ice Climbing

Banff Ski and Snow Outdoor
by Suzie Dundas Feb 28, 2022

For some winter adventurers, there’s nothing more exciting than snowshoeing or hiking through a snow-covered canyon to arrive at a gorgeous frozen waterfall.

But for some adventurers, there is one thing more exciting: climbing those frozen waterfalls with just a pair of spiked shoes and two ice axes.

You don’t have to be a rock climber to go ice climbing, but you do have to know a few basic things about the sport before you strap on your crampons. If you’re a first-timer, you’ll want to go with a guide and instructor. While the sport isn’t hard to do, the fact that you’re climbing on ice in remote areas and cold weather carries risk, and it’s not something you can do without some basic knowledge.

But don’t let that intimidate you. As James Walter, alpine guide at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures says, you don’t need much experience at all to try ice climbing. “Don’t be nervous,” he says. “Just come expecting to have fun. If you can climb a ladder, that’s the entrance level for ice climbing. You can make it harder from there, but that’s the start.” Walter has been guiding for four years in and around Banff National Park, where he’s taught the basics of ice climbing to everyone from British Special Forces to parents with young children on vacation.

1. What is ice climbing?

Female ice climber on an easier wall

Photo: Suzie Dundas

Not to be glib, but ice climbing is exactly what it sounds like: climbing up ice faces, similar to rock climbing. Most ice climbing is done on frozen waterfalls to ensure the ice is thick and safe enough to climb — you don’t want to try to climb a column formed by a gradual drip.  Like rock climbing, there’s usually one person climbing while another person belays from below. Experienced ice climbers can also lead climb, drilling holes to place temporary bolts in the ice as they ascend. But if you’re new to the sport, you’ll want to let someone else (like a guide) set the top rope for you.

2. Is it harder than rock climbing?

Ice climbing up a ravine

The weight of the ice climbing axes can be taxing on your arms // Photo: Suzie Dundas

Yes and no, depending on your rock climbing strengths and weaknesses. Skilled rock climbers know to use their leg muscles to stand as much as possible while moving up a route, rather than using their arms to pull themselves up. If you’re already doing that, in some ways, ice climbing may be even easier, as the ice climbing crampons on your boots can grip onto the ice almost anywhere — you don’t need to search as hard for a foothold as you do with rock climbing.

On the flip side, if you’re used to using your legs, you may find ice climbing to be more taxing on your arms. Your ice climbing ax will probably weigh around 1.5 pounds, and you’ll need to draw it back, swing it forward to dig it into the ice, and pull it back out each time you want to move up. Beginner climbers may find that holding their weight with one ax while searching for a secure spot to drive in the other ax is more fatiguing than rock climbing, a sport where you can have two hands on the rock most of the time.

3. Do you need any climbing experience?

Men walking toward the ice climbing wall

The hike to your ice climbing site may be the most challenging part of the trip for beginners // Photo: Suzie Dundas

Believe it or not, no. According to Walter of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, just about anyone can get on an ice wall their first time out, even if they’ve never worn a harness in their life. He says that the biggest challenge he sees with new climbers isn’t their physical ability, but rather, the mental aspect of falling or rappelling down ice. As a guide, he’s trained not just to teach how to ice climb safely, but how to help climbers get over their fears and hesitations when it comes to trusting the rope and the ice.

Guides can do more than just teach you to swing an ax — they can help you feel comfortable on the ice and learn to trust the equipment (and yourself) enough to really embrace the challenge.

4. How do you gauge the climbs and ice?

An ice climber on a w3 route

A W3 ice climbing wall has a slight incline and natural rest points // Photo: Suzie Dundas

Being able to gauge what ice is or isn’t safe to climb is an important skill and one of many reasons first-time ice climbers should go with a guide. In general, the bluer the ice, the better. As our ice climbing guide told us, blue indicates that the ice has some plasticity, or give, to it. That’s important, as you don’t want the ice to be brittle and break off every time you drive in your ax or crampon. Other factors to take into consideration include the thickness of the ice and the thickness of the place where it connects to the wall, especially if you’re climbing on pillars.

Ice climbing is graded on a one-to-seven scale. A W1 or W2 means you can mostly do it without tools, and most people define “ice climbing” as starting around W3 — a climb requiring tools and ropes, but with solid spots to stand and take breaks. W4s and W5s are more likely to have long, vertical sections with no natural spots to rest. W6s are very long, difficult, and technical, and W7s — well, forget about those, unless you’re an elite climber.

5. Is it safe?

Ice climbing, especially under the direction of a certified guide, is an extremely safe activity in terms of accidents. However, while the potential for accidents is low, the consequences can be high. For most beginners, the biggest risk will probably be from tiny pieces of ice that could scratch your nose — but as Walter told us, “practice putting your head down right before you hit the ice with your ax,” to let your helmet take the hits.

Otherwise, very rare but potentially deadline risks include avalanches and ice falls, both of which can be mitigated by choosing the right section of ice in the right conditions at the right time and temperature. This is where a guide’s knowledge is invaluable. Many areas also have ice climbing forums where climbers can post updates (akin to trail reports). In Canada, climbers are encouraged to use to monitor and report conditions.

6. What shoes do you wear ice climbing?

Ice climbing boots with crampons

Photo: Suzie Dundas

Don’t worry about having any special type of shoes if you’re a beginner ice climber going with a guide. Your guiding company will almost certainly have a pair of tall, stiff, and waterproof mountaineering boots for you to wear (so be sure to wear tall socks). They’re far more comfortable than climbing shoes and fit like roomy hiking boots. You’ll also need to wear metal crampons, which will snap to the bottom of your boot. While technically you just need the crampons for climbing, you’ll likely want to leave them on your feet all day to give you more stability when belaying or hiking in to the climbing site.

7. How do you secure to the ice?

Ice climbers use metal hand drills to dig deep holes into the snow for securing ropes and bolts // Photo: Suzie Dundas

Ice climbing does seem quite scary at first — after all, what happens if you’re attached to the ice and it breaks off? But depending on the climb, you may not be attached to the ice at all, as your climbing rope could be wrapped around a tree or bolted into fixed rock, as with rock climbing. If you are bolting into the ice, your guide will likely practice safety techniques to ensure redundancy, such as using two or three bolts in the ice (rather than one) or drilling holes to weave the rope through the ice multiple times.

8. Any first-time climbing tips?

A climber rappeling down a pillar

You may want to do a few test falls before beginning the full rappel after your climb // Photo: Suzie Dundas

Aside from keeping your head down to avoid tiny pieces of ice, there are a few tips you can try to keep in your head while climbing:

  • When you stop, try to have your feet wide and even to relax your muscles as possible.
  • Try to climb up with your legs, rather than pulling yourself up with your arms. It may help to picture yourself as an inchworm climbing up the wall.
  • Try to keep your feet level and at a 90-degree angle with the ice. Digging your toe straight-on into the ice will give you the maximum grip for the lowest physical effort.
  • If you’ve never fallen while on belay before, try taking a few practice falls near the bottom. If you’re nervous, you can let the person belaying you know that you’d like them to keep the rope fairly tight (as opposed to having a lot of slack).
  • You can stave off arm cramping by leaving your ax (securely) in the ice and shaking your arms out below you a few times mid-climb.

9. Where can you go ice climbing?

Johnson Canyon

Johnson Canyon, in Banff National Park // Photo: Suzie Dundas

It shouldn’t surprise you that you need to go somewhere with very cold weather to ice climb. But cold weather isn’t enough — it needs to be consistently cold to ensure the ice is stable; you don’t want to climb on ice that’s only going to be around for another week. It helps to go to areas away from the coast in the mountains, as they tend to have colder and dryer weather.

In the US, Ouray, Colorado, is a massively popular ice climbing destination, as are many of the frozen waterfalls throughout Wyoming and Montana. In the northeast, you’ll find good single-day beginner climbs around the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But if you’re able, consider going north to the Canadian Rockies, where Banff National Park and the nearby town of Canmore offer some of the world’s best ice-climbing.

“Climbing in general, we have such variety — really excellent sport and traditional climbing in the summertime,” says Walter of Alberta, Canada, where he lives. “The alpine climbing is phenomenal, with big, jagged peaks, and we have a long, consistent winter that makes for a really good ice climbing season. I like being able to change it up a lot. But the thing that always blows me away about ice climbing is the places it takes you. Really awesome settings in water-sculpted canyons and gullies.”

Keep in mind that most ice climbing is on waterfalls, which means you may have a bit of a hike through a canyon or riverbed to reach the climbing site. You’ll want a large pack to carry all your gear and, more importantly, need to save enough energy after climbing to potentially hike your way back out at the end of the day.

10. Do you need ice climbing tools?

Ice climber with axes

Ice climbing axes are one of your most important tools // Photo: Suzie Dundas

Yes — you cannot ice climb without a few specific pieces of gear. The most important (aside from your rope, of course) are your ice climbing axes, which have both a sharp spike on top and a curved grip to keep your hands from sliding off. You’ll also need the aforementioned ice climbing/mountaineering boots and crampons, as well as a helmet. You should leave your helmet on even when you’re not climbing in case of icefalls or breaks from other climbers. As with any climbing, you’ll also need a well-fitting harness and a belay device.

Your guide will likely have all the technical gear you’ll need and will also carry more advanced equipment such as an ice drill, belaying devices, anchors, bolts, and more. Be sure to ask what’s included if you book a tour. If you’re not with a guiding company, you’ll need to have all your own gear.

11. What should you wear ice climbing?

ice climber belaying against a wall

You’ll want warm clothing, including a beanie, puffy jackets, and thick gloves // Photo: Suzie Dundas

While ice climbing, you’ll likely alternate between being hot and cold, which means you need to have various layers for a variety of temperatures. You’ll want a moisture-wicking base layer, mostly so the sweat on your skin doesn’t make you cold once you stop moving. It’s easy to get cold while you’re belaying or watching other climbers, so be sure to have a large puffy jacket (ideally two). You’ll want a waterproof outer jacket and pant (fitted ski pants work well), as well as a beanie you can fit under your helmet and at least one pair of gloves. It doesn’t matter if your gloves are bulky or have no grip as it’s the axes that hold you to the wall, not your hands.

You’ll also want sunglasses, as the ice can be highly reflective, and potentially other cold-weather accessories like a buff/neck roll or face mask. It’s better to carry too many layers than too few.

12. How the heck do I find people to ice climb with?

Ice climbing is definitely a niche sport, but Walter of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures has some suggestions on how to find guides and climbing buddies. “Facebook groups have bene really good for bringing people together for all kinds of outdoor sports, so that’s a great place to go meet other community members. Alpine clubs can be a good resource, as well as guiding outfits in different areas. We’ll be able to get you out and teach you the basics safely.”

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