introduction to ice climbing

THERE’S A GOOD CHANCE that your first time ice climbing might be cold, scary and miserable. You might flail on the way up, only to reach the top of the pitch totally pumped, barely able to hold onto your axes, then you get the pleasure of experiencing the dreaded "screaming barfies." For some people, the first few times they go ice climbing, they don’t enjoy it at all. But if you stick with it and learn to not only tolerate but maybe even enjoy the suffering, ice climbing can take you to spectacular places, including parts of the mountain you normally wouldn’t venture to. Ice climbing provides a unique adventure, and it opens up a whole new world of experiences in the outdoors. It’s easy to make all the mistakes in the beginning—over-gripping, pulling too much with your arms, limiting your vertical movement by matching your tools too often—but over time, you will learn techniques that make it better.

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.
One significant mistake climbers make is not taking the time to visualize the route before they start. Similar to rock climbing, take a few minutes at the base. Look for weaknesses in the ice, lower-angle sections, corners where you can stem your legs for more support, shelves where you can rest, sections that have been hooked out (meaning holes where other climbers axes and crampons have dug into the ice). Break the climb down into sections and make each segment a short-term goal. Getting to the top of each segment might lead you to a rest or change in angle. Have a set plan on where to go, where to rest, when to go fast, and when to take your time before you leave the ground. Re-evaluate each section once you reach the top of your segment, but keep in mind that once you start, it's harder to see your options as you are often focused on each individual move and too close to the wall to get an overview.
The better you aim and hit what you are swinging or kicking for, the easier time you will have while ice climbing. Think about hitting a nail. If you hit it straight on, every swing, it will go in quickly and easily. If you are swinging all over the place, you are going to waste a lot of energy. You can practice at the base of the climb before leaving the ground. Pick a spot in the ice and make it your goal to hit that exact spot. Some like to reach up and place the point of their axe in the position they want to hit before swinging into the same spot. Practice your swings and try to hit your target each time regularly. This might be difficult at first, but over time, your aim and precision will improve as you build strength and experience.

In ice climbing, you are forcing sharpened objects, aka axe blades and crampons, into the ice. Depending on the amount of water flow and temperature, ice can be extremely malleable, or it can shatter like glass. To cause the least amount of displacement or breakage, look for concavities (depressions) in the ice. Swinging and kicking into these will provide the most stable connection between your axe blades and crampons. Think of the front point of your axe or crampons as a wedge when it hits the ice. They will fracture the ice and cause it to spread on either side of the point. If you swing or kick into a depression, the force is spread and absorbed deeper into the ice and can be more stable. If you swing into a piece of protruding ice, the wedge will cause more of it to fracture and split.

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.

Over-gripping can waste a lot of unnecessary energy and prevent proper blood flow to your hands, leading to the infamous "screaming barfies." (Imagine a sensation that makes you want to vomit while going #1 and #2 in your expensive pants. All you can do is sit there and rock back and forth, while you cry and scream in pain.) It's a temporary feeling only lasting a few minutes, but it's unpleasant and something you want to avoid if possible. The basic reason it happens is if you over-grip and keep your hands above your head, the blood can't circulate properly. Once you get to the top of the climb, the blood starts to circulate properly again, pumping warm blood into your cold hands and creating this terrible sensation.

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.

Most people fall into two groups when they start to ice climb. Over-swingers or under-swingers. Too little, and you won't get enough purchase in the ice to move up safely. Too much, and you'll spend all your energy trying to extract your tools from the ice. To properly swing, you need to let gravity and the head of the tool drive the axe into the ice. Bring your arm back and into a 90° angle with your ice axe parallel to your bicep. Swing the tool toward the ice, but keep your wrist flexible. The tool should "rock" forward in your hand, and the head will drive itself into the ice. This is accomplished with a flick of the wrist at the end of the swing. If you keep your wrist straight, the top of the axe blade can hit the ice first and bounce, rather than the point at the bottom of the axe. Try to keep your axes directly overhead. If you’ve ever tried wide-arm pullups vs. regular pullups where your arms are shoulder-width apart, you know how much more difficult it can be. In addition to pulling up being more difficult, swinging wide limits your reach.

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.
All too often, climbers will swing their ice tool, then swing the next one at the same height as the first one. Matching tools on the ice is similar to matching your hands on every hold on a rock route. You'll cover a lot more ground efficiently if you stagger your swings, placing one slightly higher than the other each time. Keep them at least a foot apart vertically, up to an axe length. This will save you energy over the length of the climb as well as add an extra layer of safety. If your first axe is in a fractured or rotten section of ice, swinging a second axe right next to it can further weaken the ice. Putting all your weight into the same weakened spot can cause it to fail, which could lead to a fall.
Once on the ice, new climbers tend to keep their bodies too close to the wall. If you are too close, you can't get the proper angle when kicking into the wall. Typically, the top of your boot will strike the ice, rather than the crampon frontpoints hitting the ice. To get the proper angle, get your body away from the wall by pushing your booty out. Keep your arms straight, push your torso away from the ice, then kick into the wall, allowing the frontpoints to strike the ice firmly. Keep in mind that you don't always have to kick repeatedly or even super hard into the ice. If the climb is stepped out, you can often just place your foot into the hole without kicking. Smaller steps can be easier than large ones, and don't be afraid to take multiple steps in between each swing. Keep in mind the mantra, “Kick, kick, swing.” Sometimes you can add a few additional kicks in there, but as a minimum, two kicks to every swing is the guiding rule.
As with all climbing, your power and upward movement should come from your legs and hips. Your hands and arms are there to keep you from falling away from the wall. In order to keep a balanced stance, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and even with one another. If your right foot moves up, bring your left up to match it. Once your feet are level with one another, thrust your hips upward and into the wall, straightening your legs as much as possible before swinging again. With your feet shoulder-width apart and one axe at a maximized reach, your body forms the “alpine triangle,” the most stable and efficient stance for ice climbing.
Once your frontpoints have engaged, it's time to use your secondary points farther back on the crampon. Dropping your heels allows the secondary points to contact the ice. The addition of these two extra points helps provide a more stable platform and can relieve a lot of strain on your calves.
As mentioned earlier, many popular routes of all grades will become hooked out, and you can use this to your advantage. Even on routes that are not well-traveled, just following the route of your leader can provide you the opportunity to "draft," or expend less energy by following the leader's axe and crampon placements. Swinging into fresh ice requires a lot more effort than utilizing existing holes. Sometimes, the axe placements can be so deep and enlarged that you don't even need to swing your axes into them, just slot your axe picks into the hole to "hook" your way up sections of ice.