ice climbing: it’s all about finding the right conditions

THE SNOW IS FLYING, and cars are skidding off the road like bumper cars at the carnival. Winter has arrived, and it’s time to dust off your ice climbing gear and get after it. But how do you know if the conditions are right for your favorite climb, or that mythical ice line rumored to only be in this time of year? Your free time is short and taking your tools for a long walk isn’t what you hoped for, but the following tips on finding the right conditions can help ensure you maximize your chances of climbing ice.

Nikki Smith is an ice aficionado. Starting in September and October, she begins obsessively checking weather conditions and traffic cameras every day, as well as running or hiking remote basins to find ice first ascents. She’s developed a knack for finding ice before most even pull their ice gear out of the closet, and she climbs throughout the season regardless of the temps. Because of this, she’s put up first ascents of many ice and mixed routes throughout Utah, lines as long as 1,600 vertical feet. She typically starts climbing Utah ice in late September or early October, and often climbs through May. Here are a few of her secrets for knowing when and where to search.
Many states have road condition cameras linked to their Department of Transportation pages. Look up the ones closest to your intended destination. Think about the elevation and aspect. If your early season route is at 10,000’ on a north face, then try to find views that are similar. You can get an idea of snow levels and conditions from the photos that can be extremely helpful, especially in early and late season. You can also find cameras at weather monitoring stations, air quality cameras, or other public feeds tied to the government or scientific research. Internet search engines can be amazingly helpful for finding these, but you might need to search a bit. Keep digging, as they might not appear on the first page of a search.
Choose a weather app or website (or multiple) and follow it regularly throughout the year. See what patterns you find for the areas you want to search in. If it gives a temperature range before you head up, check to see how accurate it is while out there. If it calls for a 60% chance of rain, does that mean spotty thunderstorms or all-day rain? Does 6” to 9” of snow in the forecast materialize? Knowing the limitations of the forecast you rely on can give you a good idea of what to expect.
The last thing you want is to have your camp destroyed by an avalanche, especially if you are still in the tent. Avoid setting up in or below terrain traps, like gullies, narrow couloirs, or steep, open slopes. Avalanches will funnel into gullies, and the debris can be significantly deeper than on slopes. Watch out for avalanche paths, which are slopes devoid of trees or vegetation, or slopes or sections of forest where all the trees have been flattened from previous avalanches. If you are camping on a glacier, probe for crevasses before setting up your tent. The dangers of winter camping might not be immediately obvious, especially if setting up camp at night. Make sure to use a topo map to help identify objective dangers if setting up at night, and use caution and sound decision-making to select your campsite. See the avalanche safety article for more info on avalanche info in your area.
If you are camping near a cliff face, look around in the snow near your campsite. Is the snow littered with rocks on the surface? If so, look for another spot. In the winter, the rockfall hazard is drastically increased. Water freezes in cracks, or under boulders and rocks and expands. The expansion can break rocks loose, and once it warms, the bond between the ice and rock will weaken and gravity will send this debris raining down.
You might find Instagram to be more conducive to memes and videos of cats, but it can also be a beneficial tool for checking conditions. Follow the local ice stars, the ones who are continually getting after it and putting up new routes. You can also follow skimo (ski mountaineering) folks, as they are constantly in the backcountry and can have valuable insight on ice, snow, and avalanche conditions. Search out or try to create a #hashtag for local ice conditions: #beehiveice and #hyaliteprovides for Utah and Montana ice, respectively, will pull up posts from anyone who tags their Instagram posts. This allows you to see what’s happening in their area firsthand.

Map out your approach and descent as well as possible beforehand. If using GPS-based maps, flag the crucial junctions on approaches or descents, so you know when to turn even in the dark or whiteout blizzard conditions. Avenza›, Gaia›, inReach›, and others allow you to download the maps you need and mark them up before you go. Be aware of the limitations, though. Batteries are quickly exhausted in the cold, and you could be left mapless. Ensure you have a full battery, keep your phone on the inside of your jacket in a warm place, and consider bringing an external battery and charging cable just in case. As a backup, always bring a printed map, preferably one that is marked with the same notations as your digital one. Just like climbing, redundancy can make the difference between life or death.

You can also use maps to form “educated guesses” as to where to look for new ice in the first place. Google Earth can reveal narrow gullies or couloirs. You can sometimes find images of waterfalls or ice features already on Google Maps and Google Earth. Look for water sources flowing over cliffs. Some topo maps indicate springs, intermittent streams, etc. that can feed ice climbs. Look at the north faces of mountains, as they typically receive the least amount of sun, so will be the coldest and most sheltered places for ice to hide out. Elevation will all be relative to the region you are in. In the Western U.S., early season ice typically starts in October above 10,000’, while the East and Midwest can have early season ice starting around 1,000’ in elevation.
Guidebooks throughout the country are very different in how they present information and how they prepare you for what’s to come. Use it as a resource, but don’t rely on it entirely. Rather than carry the entire book, Smith (who wrote the guidebooks on Utah ice herself) takes photos of the maps, approach beta, and route descriptions with her phone.

Many ice areas or regions have a thread each season for ice reports and conditions. Follow the threads to see what everyone else is getting on and the conditions they found while out there.

See the Top Ice Climbs on MountainProject.com
If you have a specific route in mind, do a Google search for trip reports for that climb. You can gain invaluable information from reading a trip report. What went right or wrong? What should you expect? The time it took to approach or descend? Conditions or protection on the route? Avalanche danger?
If at all possible, Smith, who is also a professional photographer, tries to scope out the line beforehand using a camera and zoom lens or binoculars. This might mean arriving the day before in daylight before an alpine start, pre-scouting earlier in the week, or first thing in the morning. Getting a view beforehand has helped her prepare the right gear, and it’s also saved her from taking her tools on a long walk. She’s been able to observe fallen pillars and sections of ice, dangerous snow cornices looming over the route, and the entire route being out of condition.
Even with all the options listed above, there is no substitute for personal observation, whether you actually go climbing or not. Getting out will help you get fit, as well as give you the best idea of what is going on with conditions. As they say, “You never know unless you go.”
nikki smith’s top tips for finding ice
  • Follow the weather.
  • Find cameras or monitoring stations
  • Pre-plan using maps
  • Follow the right people and #hashtags
  • Zoom in with magnification
  • Do your research