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.
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.
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