If you live in New England and fancy yourself an outdoorsy person — or even if you don’t — you’ve probably heard of the wild and seemingly ridiculous sport of ice climbing. You’ve likely driven by large walls of frozen ice covering the highway roadside cuts and may have wondered to yourself, “How could anyone get into such a crazy activity?” Since most folks think of ice as a negative (i.e. icy skiing conditions when you’re longing for a powder day, ice on the roads during your daily commute, etc.), the idea of climbing ice seems like an absolute “no” for the masses.
However, the reality is that climbing frozen water is another great option for being active and outside during the winter months. It can be challenging, rewarding and fun, and it can bring you to some beautiful and totally unique places. And — as I’m sure you’ve been wondering by now — it can be safe!
If you’re thinking about what it would be like to swing some axes into those frozen walls you drive by every morning on your way to work, here’s a list of tips that may help you enjoy your first ice season more comfortably and confidently.
Go with an experienced ice climber for your first time
Climbing is an inherently risky activity, yet we’re able to mitigate this risk by using state-of-art, time-tested equipment that can withstand our body weight and enable us to safely climb rock and ice. However, all of this equipment requires that you use it properly and in the way it’s intended to keep you safe. Learning rope skills in particular will take time and lots of practice and repetition.
So before you dive head-first into ice climbing outside, consider hiring a guide, attending a clinic, or plan on going with a trusted and experienced friend. This is the safest way to get into ice climbing, since you can rely on professionals or experienced mentors to set up the ropes so you can focus solely on the activity of climbing ice.
Wear Double Boots
Ice climbing — especially in the Northeast — can be a brutally cold activity without the right gear. Folks who are as comfortable as possible during their first couple of outings will be able to focus on the fun, engaging motions of ice climbing, worry less about how cold they are, and be far more likely to try it again and get into the sport. A miserably cold first experience can be a turn-off for any winter activity.
There are two types of ice climbing/mountaineering boots: single and double. Though you may see your experienced ice climbing friend rocking the hot, new, ultralight single boots from La Sportiva, your friend is also likely freezing their toes off on days colder than 15 degrees. Single boots do provide more dexterity and are lighter, but modern double boots have come a long way in those regards, and they’ll keep your feet nice and toasty throughout the day. Remember: Warm and dry feet are paramount to a successful ice climbing system, and it’s the first place you should start when you’re dialing in your gear.
Get a big puffy
One thing about ice climbing that makes it unique to other winter sports is its long periods of active movement juxtaposed with even longer periods spent standing around. In a sport like backcountry skiing, you’ll exert a ton of energy (and produce a lot of heat) while skinning uphill, then, on the descent, you can throw on your warmer layers to keep that heat in. With ice climbing, you have to approach the climbs, which can take anywhere from a quick 15 minutes to several hours. Then, instead of immediately heading downhill, you have to be prepared to stand around while belaying and waiting for your turn to climb.
Your best friend in these situations is going to be a ridiculously large and lofty puffy jacket. Whether you choose down or synthetic insulation is up for debate and is largely a matter of personal preference. Whichever type you choose, being able to reach into your pack and throw on a Michelin Man-style jacket over all of your layers is one of the deciding factors in having a great day out, especially if you’ve worked up a sweat approaching the base of the climb.
When you choose a puffy, make sure it has a two way zipper, as this will make wearing a harness and belaying your partner far more comfortable. Also, opt for a puffy with a large hood that can fit over a climbing helmet and keep the wind off the back of your neck. If you’re climbing in a particularly wet area (or you’re headed out on a milder day), you may want to consider a synthetic puffy or a down puffy with a water-resistant coating, as these will keep you warm even when wet. Down jackets are perfectly fine for frigid, dry days and are usually lighter and more compressible for stuffing into your pack.
You don’t need state-of-the-art gear to have fun
Ice climbing has a solid case for being the outdoor sport with the most flashy, wild-looking, and — unfortunately — expensive gear. The high price of entry for getting into the sport dissuades many from trying it, and coupling that with the already daunting nature of climbing frozen water has made ice climbing less popular than it could be. But though the newest, flashiest ice climbing gear might help you climb more efficiently, you certainly don’t need it to try the sport comfortably and have a memorable experience.
Many local climbing shops or gyms have a fleet of old, plastic double boots, which may seem like a product of the past when looking at new climbing magazines. But, the fact is, this style of boot kept the top alpinists in the world warm and climbing hard for decades before single, leather, and synthetic boots became the new norm. They may be clunky and a bit awkward to walk around in, but these boots will keep your feet warm and dry. Whether you rent them or find a consigned/used pair for cheap, they will certainly be more than enough to get you out for your first season.
Similarly, a winter jacket and snowpants that you would wear skiing will be more than adequate for getting out on some ice. Fancy Gore-Tex gear is what you’ll see the pros wearing, but again, it’s not necessary by any means when you’re first starting out.
Bring lots of gloves (quantity over quality)
Gloves are very important when ice climbing. There are many fancy ice climbing-specific gloves on the market, and though many work great, the unfortunate truth is that any glove, no matter the make, will get soaked and become useless at some point during your day. Whether you’re climbing a particularly wet ice route or you tend to sweat a lot (or both) your gloves will get wet and freeze up throughout the day.
So, for a full day of climbing, going with at least four pairs of gloves should ensure that you’ll have reserves for the duration: One pair for the approach hike, at least two pairs that you intend to climb in, and one warmer pair of gloves or mitts to belay with and to hang out at the base in.
The approach hike to where you will be climbing is typically the most aerobic portion of the day and is likely when you’ll sweat the most. A lighter fleece glove or leather work glove will do the trick here. Once you arrive at the base of your climbing area, these gloves should get swapped out, and are likely done for the day. Next up, your climbing gloves should be medium-light thickness, warm enough to keep your hands warm when climbing, but not too bulky that they’ll cause your arms to pump out when holding onto your ice tool (more on this later).
Throughout the day, as these pairs of gloves get cold and wet, you’ll bust out the reserve pair. On particularly warm, wet days, you may even want to consider bringing a third pair. Lastly, your belay or chilling gloves should be super-warm and cozy, and if you tend to get particularly cold hands, consider wearing mittens. Make sure this pair has a leather or grippy palm so you can belay and hold the rope safely and comfortably.
Bonus tip: When you get down from your climb and are swapping with your partner and getting ready to belay, tuck your climbing gloves inside your jackets near your chest area and zip up your puffy. The next time you’re ready to climb, you’ll be surprised how warm your body heat has kept them.
Mind the pump
You may hear ice climbers talking about getting “pumped” or feeling the burn in their calf muscles. Though climbing is a full-body activity, the forearm muscles and calves take the brunt of the suffering. The pump is caused by a buildup of lactic acid in our muscles and eventually results in muscle failure, or the inability to hold onto your ice tool or stand on your calves any longer. Though the pump is unavoidable and a part of the sport, there are a few tips that can help minimize its effects so you can enjoy a full day of climbing:
Getting to a climbing area and jumping on the hardest, steepest looking ice line right off the bat is a great way to pump yourself silly and will affect how you can climb for the rest of the day. Consider climbing a few lower angle routes at the crag before trying the steep stuff.
2. Avoid over-gripping your ice tool
It’s no surprise and completely understandable that the first time you jump on an ice flow and swing your tools into the ice, you may be holding onto them for dear life. However, clenching the tools hard is not only unnecessary, but is a quick way to pump yourself silly. It may surprise you how little you need to grip your ice tool to ensure a solid connection.
Here’s a fun test you can do with your climbing buddy to help demonstrate this: Hold on to your ice tool and have your friend try to pull the tool away from you. Experiment with how little you have to grip the tool before they’re able to yank it away from you — it’ll be eye-opening! Avoiding over-gripping will help prevent your forearms from getting pumped too quickly and will help you make it higher on the ice route before you succumb to the inevitable.
3. Wear thinner gloves than you think
Most newcomers (understandably) think that they’ll need to wear super thick, warm gloves when climbing ice. That’s valid — climbing wet, frozen water should warrant such gear, right? However, the thicker your glove is, the harder it is to grip your ice tool, and the faster you’ll get pumped. Choose a medium-light glove, like the kind you might find at your local hardware store advertised for mechanics working in cold weather. They’ll grip quite nicely, and give you greater dexterity when swinging and hanging onto your tool.
As long as you have a warm set of belay gloves to change into immediately when you get down from a climb, it’ll amaze you how light you can go for climbing gloves and still be impressed with their performance.
4. Shake your arms out mid-climb
You may have seen climbers, both on rock and ice, take a moment during a pitch to periodically shake each of their arms out. This is a valuable practice to learn, as it’ll help reduce your pump factor by giving your arms a brief respite from gripping your ice tool. You should do this when you find yourself at a good, secure stance on the ice, and more often than you think you need to.
5. Avoid standing on your tippy-toes
Though your forearms see quite a bit of action when climbing steep, vertical ice, your calves will surely suffer the most on lower-angle flows. Since you need to stand on both of your feet at all times, your calves will be more difficult to relax — and you can’t get away with shaking your legs out like you can with your arms. One thing that you can do, though, is kick your crampons into the ice with a slight upward angle. This will help your crampon points bite into the ice more securely, and it’ll make it easier for you to stand up on your feet with confidence. However, make sure that your heels are in a neutral position when you do this — you don’t want to tire out your calves anyway by performing calf raises on the wall.
This will take time to master, but similar to the feeling of how little you need to grip your tool to securely hold it, you should trust your crampons to do most of the work when you stand up on your feet.
Eat and drink!
It can be difficult to remember to eat and drink water throughout the day when you’re spending time outside during winter’s coldest months. Your food and water can get very cold and even freeze, which makes them less desirable to consume. However, spending time outside in the cold also burns a tremendous amount of calories, as does the approach hike and ice climbing itself.
For these reasons, an insulated thermos for your water will be a game-changer. Whether you heat your water up or just fill it with room temperature water, a thermos will help make it more appealing — and easier — for you to drink throughout the day. Remind yourself to hydrate and make it a habit to chug some water when you get down from each climb.
When you pack food, consider items that won’t freeze as easily and/or can still be enjoyable when they’re cold. Tortilla/burrito-style sandwiches tend to hold up better than sliced bread sandwiches, and high-calorie foods like nut butters, cheese, and cured meats all make great fillings that’ll keep you energized and warm all day. Beware of Energy bars or chocolate/candy bars: they freeze easily and can be rock solid when you try to take a bite! If you like to bring these along, keep them in your pants or jacket pocket during the day and they’ll be ready to go when you’re hungry.
Don’t forget to stop and take it all in
One of the best things about ice climbing is the places it takes you and the sights you can see. As it’s such an intense activity, it can be easy to forget to take a glance at the nature around you and appreciate the beauty of it all. When you get to the top of a climb and you’re ready to be lowered down, try to take a moment and look around you. The vantage points at the top of the cliffs are often dramatic and can provide a well-earned reward for the effort you put into reaching the top of the ice.
Ice itself can be wondrous to look at, too. The shapes of frozen water can form all sorts of wild, Dr. Seuss-like features, and although some may not be climb-able, you can still appreciate the artistry of Mother Nature all around you.
Embrace the moments of suffering/ Cherish the “splitter” days
If you’re considering trying ice climbing for the first time, you’ve likely heard others talk about the miserable parts of the sport: The “screaming barfies” (when the blood rushes back to your cold hands after climbing a pitch – very uncomfortable), cold feet, pumped forearms, sore shoulders, tearing a hole in your brand new pants with your crampons — the list goes on.
It’s true that ice climbing has unique challenges and aspects that tend to turn people away from trying it, and it’s hard to sugarcoat or deny those aspects. If you try ice climbing, you will get cold, you will get the screaming barfies, your forearms and calves will get pumped, and you will find yourself halfway up a climb and wonder what the heck you’re doing with your life. However, it is also true that we grow the most through exposure to uncomfortable experiences, and you will more than likely find yourself looking back at these challenging days with fondness, personal admiration, and pride.
Additionally, as ice climbing is more often than not a cold, wet sport, when you get the chance to climb what is called “hero ice” (ice conditions that are easier to swing and kick into) on a crisp, bluebird day, you will cherish those rare experiences all the more and find that ice climbing can indeed be “type 1 fun” (fun in the moment without much suffering) after all.
Have a blast and try not to be too intimidated
The most important thing about trying ice climbing is to have fun with it. When you stop to think about it, swinging axes and spiky-shoes into frozen water is an absolutely ridiculous activity. It tends to be an especially scary sport for folks to try, considering it’s unlike any other and is far outside the mainstream. However, if you ensure that you follow safe protocols and climb with either a guide or an experienced mentor for your first few seasons, you’ll find that top-rope ice climbing is actually a fairly safe activity compared to other outdoor sports such as downhill skiing and mountain biking.
Keep in mind too that it’s all about challenging yourself, realizing what you’re capable of, bonding with friends in the outdoors, and appreciating the wild beauty of nature in the winter landscape.