Ice Climbing And What You Need To Know

Ice Climbing And What You Need To Know

Adventurous people seem to be naturally drawn to various kinds of climbing, but ice climbing proves to be especially enticing for those who prefer a bit of danger in their lives.

Whether you're looking for an extra challenge, or to enjoy the picturesque environments, or just love the idea of climbing ice, you're going to need to know a couple of things before you get started.

What Is Ice Climbing?

Ice climbing is similar to traditional rock climbing except, you guessed it, the climbing takes place on ice. Ice climbing is considered to be more difficult than conventional rock climbing. This means that even if you are an advanced rock climber, you still need to prepare yourself for ice climbing.

Ice climbing.

Ice climbing involves more tools and effort, but can be very rewarding both physically and mentally.

In 1908, a climber by the name of Oscar Eckenstein created a sort of toothed claw called a crampon that goes in the bottom of a boot. These crampons allowed climbers to get some traction on the sleek, slippery ice. Before crampons were invented, ice climbing was a lot more work and dangerous.

In this day and age, the vast amount of safety gear and tools allow for almost anyone with some form of experience in climbing to be able to ice climb. There are plenty of classes you can take to teach yourself, and learn everything you need to know in a hands-on setting.

Learning To Climb Ice

The Triangle Position

At the center of it all is the triangle position, which is when the climber's leg are spread apart enough (past the shoulders) to make a triangle shape. This is the position you're going to start and end in when moving up the ice.

Keep your knees slightly bent, and continue to move your hips forward until you can sense your weight being evenly distributed. Once you've done this, you take your ice ax and pull it far enough behind your head to get a good swing. Make sure your swing follows a straight line as you bring it down to a higher yet secure piece of ice.

Next, you're going to want to give your freshly planted ax a little tug to make sure it's secured in place. You want to tug before you bring your next foot up. You can also make sure that your crampons can support your evenly distributed weight by bringing your other foot up to hit the triangle position.

Once you've got your body evened out again, the lower ice ax can be slipped out of its place, and the sequence can be repeated with the now removed ax.

This is about as simple as ice climbing techniques go.

 As you learn more about ice climbing, you’ll learn about what kinds of techniques are more suited to what environments, and about why some people prefer certain methods over others for the same environments.

It’s important to have a fine understanding of the basics before attempting to grasp more advanced and refined concepts and techniques.

Triangle position in ice climbing.

Ice Climbing Grades

Ice formations are often subject to change, which makes ice climbing grade routes a little harder than their traditional rock counterparts. In the United States, three primary grading systems are used to classify ice climbing routes.

These three classifications exist because there are different kinds of ice. These classifications are as follows: Water ice, Mixed Ice, and Alpine Ice.

Water Ice- WI

Ice that’s graded as water ice disappears when the season transitions from low to high temperatures. In fact, water ice could also be considered seasonal ice.

In regards to its scale, water ice will range from having a WI1 which isn’t considered to be very steep whatsoever to a WI7 which is known to be extremely vertical and exceptionally dangerous.

Alpine Ice-AI

Alpine ice is ice that is permanent and can be found at higher altitudes than the previous ice mentioned. Basically, places where it’s cold enough for extended time frames so the ice won’t transform to water.

The scale for alpine ice remains close to the scale for water ice with AI7 being vertical and overhanging and AI1 not being very steep at all. When comparing the two grading systems side by side, the primary difference seems to be the prefix determining the particular kind of ice.

Mixed Ice-M

Mixed ice routes are known to contain ice as well as portions of rock. Grading mixed ice routes follow a scale that is very similar to the Yosemite Decimal System, which is also known as the YDS.

The mixed ice scale ranges from M1 to M13 with every grade being evaluated at a relative YDS rating. M1 is about the same as a 5.5 Yosemite Decimal System rating. You can also apply the International French Adjectival System to rate mixed ice since mixed ice routes feature some rock formations.

As a side note, the combination of rock and ice makes purchasing ice climbing shoes a necessity that should be treated as a long-term investment.

Ice Climbing Gear

There are a couple of essential pieces of gear that you're going to need if you're going to want to ice climb.

A Helmet

A helmet is essential for your safety. A helmet will protect you from falling ice, which is very common in ice climbing, and will also give you a little bit of added comfort knowing that your head will be protected if anything does happen. A good old fashioned climbing helmet will do the trick.


Almost any old climbing harness will do, but since you're going to be spending a lot of time in it, make sure that it's one you like and are comfortable with. A harness is probably an essential piece of gear you're going to need when ice climbing.

Boots And Crampons

Good boots are essential, so you're going to want warm, as well as comfortable ice climbing shoes. Make sure that they're waterproof and crampon compatible. In most ice climbing situations, the dual point crampons will be more useful, so keep that in mind.


Ice tools are slightly different than ice axes. Ice axes are meant more for mountaineering while ice tools are geared more specifically to ice climbing. Make sure you get the right kind of tools before heading out on the ice.

Ice climbing tools.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, your questions regarding ice climbing have been answered so you can either embark on your ice climbing endeavor or just stick to rock climbing.

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