Beginner Ice Climbing? What to Expect

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An ice climber in orange digs in crampons and ice axes

Winter lasts about eight months in Canada, and if you don’t find something fun to do you’ll lose your mind. That’s why I signed up for a two-day beginner ice climbing course in Banff National Park, Alberta. By the end of the course I had a new way to enjoy winter in the Rocky Mountains and learned how to use the vicious-looking ice axes. Badass.

This post covers what to expect ice climbing and considerations for beginners, from a beginner. With almost zero rock climbing experience my introductory ice climbing course was a challenge. A fun challenge! So much fun that I immediately followed the course with a full-day guided ice climbing tour in Banff. The following winter, I spent a day glacier climbing in Iceland. Want to get started?

Ice Climbing Equipment

Ice climbing is equipment intensive. Included with the lesson:

  • Climbing harness
  • Climbing helmet
  • Two wickedly-curved ice axes
  • Spikey metal boot crampons
  • Sorel winter boots

Note: Even with the rental company’s high-end super-warm boots my toes got cold (it is a winter sport after all).

I was required to bring:

  • Water-resistant pants
  • Water-resistant winter gloves
  • Warm clothing (in layers)
  • Sunglasses

Why all the water-resistant clothing? Because you spend the day pressed against a sheet of ice, which melts with body heat and sunshine. Being cold sucks, and being damp and cold really sucks. The sunglasses do two things: protect your eyes from the sun, and from the spray of ice chips you make with your axes.

My favorite equipment by far was the ice axes. Conquering the ice with my axes was triumphant.

What’s Ice Climbing Like?

Ice is an interesting substance to climb:

  1. Ice changes throughout the day. It’s hard and flaky in the morning then softens in the afternoon sun. Swinging your axe and sinking your crampons into the ice gets easier as the day goes on.
  2. There are no permanent routes. Every time you climb your guide needs to put in ice screws to anchor the climbing ropes. Ice screws are easy to twist in and easy to get out, just don’t forget to take them out when you’re done.
  3. Ice formation is unpredictable. Some formations only appear every few years when the temperature and weather are just right. If the conditions are good you’ve got to get out there before the temperature changes.

Before even getting near the ice, I had to learn to walk in crampons. Designed for walking and climbing on ice, crampons are metal spikes that attach to the bottom and tip of your boots. On slippery ice, walking heel-to-toe is a sure way to slip and fall. That’s why you to walk ‘exaggerated cowboy-style’. Keep your legs wide (or your toe spike will rip your pant leg), pivot at the hip and stomp flat footed. This keeps the crampons in contact with the ice, which keeps you from falling over.

An ice climber scales a frozen waterfall with a belayer below
A view down the ice climbing pitch into a snowy valley

During my intro course I trained on frozen waterfalls, the pitch varying from angled to vertical. Like rock climbing, I learned to position myself so to carry my weight in my legs instead of my arms. Abuse your arms too much while ice climbing and you risk the ‘screaming barfies’ (I swear this is a thing). It’s when you want to scream and barf at the same time when blood finally returns to cold, overworked hands.

Ice climbing and rock climbing use similar skills, but they’re very different sports: when you’re ice climbing on a waterfall the whole surface is climbable. You choose your own route and make your own ‘handholds’ with the ice axes and crampons. The ice may be hard or soft, thick or thin, and has dangers like sliding snow and ice bulges that can shatter with an axe swing. Ice climbing takes you where no rock climber goes; a private view only available in winter.

My personal challenges:

  • Staying warm when not climbing or belaying. I heated up big time when climbing, but once stopped I cooled down quickly. I leaned to do ‘the penguin’ and shrug my shoulders up and down to keep the blood flowing down my arms. This also prevents the screaming barfies.
  • Eating my lunch. The tomato and lettuce in my sandwich froze, as did my protein bars. My instructor recommended that next time I get hungry I do a climb with my lunch in my coat to thaw it.
  • Keeping hydrated. It’s easy to forget to drink water because it’s cold. To avoid muscle cramps drink water regularly. This means having to pee in the cold, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
  • Getting up ridiculously early to drive to the mountains. I like getting up early, but in this case it was smart to stay in a hotel close to the meeting point.

Now you know what to expect ice climbing, and I hope you try it. By the end of the intro course I could summit a frozen waterfall on my own using crampons and ice axes. The instructors taught basic mountaineering ice safety, how to use ice climbing gear, and how to prevent the screaming barfies. They also taught me that ice climbing is badass, but they didn’t have to: I already knew that.

2 COMMENTS

    • Thanks Arlee! Banff in the summer is great for hiking, and ice climbing is a great way to enjoy the Canadian winter. Thanks for stopping by, the A to Z is going to be great. I’ve got your blog on my list to visit, I’m looking forward to it.

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