It will still get cold and scary, but the following tools and techniques in this article will help you enjoy it anyway. Nikki Smith is an ice climber of 20-plus years who travels around the country to teach Ice Climbing 101 classes at major ice festivals. Smith loves teaching the intro classes because she can “see that spark in someone’s eyes when everything finally clicks.” Taking clinics at an ice fest is a great way to start out. You get to toprope a lot of ice, try out boots, axes, and crampons from all the major brands, and learn from some of the best ice climbers in the world while also meeting many potential partners.
For those coming to ice climbing with a rock climbing background, there are many similarities. Your physical strength from climbing will make a big difference, but know that there are a few differences that might trip you up at first. Unlike rock climbing where you twist and turn, or place your feet sideways on edges, lower-angle ice climbing uses a straight-on approach. You are squared to the wall and your feet kick straight in. You must have a balanced, stable platform in order to properly swing your tools. In an unbalanced stance, you might get a swing or two, but to continually swing, balance is key. The endurance and strength you have built from rock climbing carries over, but ice climbing requires different muscle groups and it can take a while to gain the same levels of strength and endurance levels. But don’t fret! Give it time, keep trying, and soon you’ll be swinging and kicking like a pro.
When you are starting, you will most likely be climbing routes that see a lot of traffic. On popular climbs, you will find that they are "stepped out" or "hooked out," which means that all the climbers before you have swung or kicked into the same places, creating deep depressions from their feet and axes. Look for these premade spots, as they will help provide a more stable platform for your feet and allow you to expend less energy swinging into the same holes. Think of it as if you were following the chalked holds in rock climbing, or taped holds on a gym route. The energy you save doing this will allow you to climb more and focus on better technique.
Your arms and legs have very different purposes when you’re ice climbing. Your hands and arms are there to keep you from falling away from the ice. Your legs should do all the work, pushing you upward. This means you don’t have to create nearly as much force by pulling with your hands and arms. Try to relax your grip. With a good toprope, practice opening your grip and playing around with the least amount of pressure possible to hang onto your tools. Use the pommel, or curved lip, at the bottom of the axe handle to cradle the base of your palm. Let weight and friction, combined with slight pressure from your fingers, keep you in place.
Swinging your axes is one of the most tiring parts of ice climbing. In order to reduce the amount of swinging, make sure you are reaching far enough. Your arms should be just short of fully extended, with a slight bend in your elbows. Over the length of an entire climb, maximizing your reach can save you a lot of swinging.