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Ice Climbing for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Ice climbing is an essential skill on advanced mountain routes and a fun way to stay outside throughout the winter months. While it can seem like a tough sport to break into, ice climbing has become far more popular—and more accessible—in recent years.

In this guide, I’ll explain how you can try out ice climbing and cover all the basics you need to know to try climbing on ice.

The Best Ways to Try Ice Climbing This Winter

If you’re excited to try ice climbing, there are a few different ways to jump in this winter.

Hire a Guide

As with many mountain sports, the best way to get into ice climbing is by taking a lesson. In ice climbing towns like Bozeman, Montana, Ouray, Colorado, or Lake Placid, New York, you can easily find a climbing guide to take you out for the day.

Hiring a guide is a great option because guides know all the best ice walls to take beginners to. They can also set routes and offer tips to help you improve your ice climbing technique. In my experience, having a guide critique your form as you climb is one of the best ways to get better at ice climbing.

Go To an Ice Climbing Festival

Many of the best ice climbing areas hold mid-winter festivals that are open to experienced ice climbers and first-timers alike. Going to an ice climbing festival is great because you can easily connect with guides and rent ice climbing gear. In addition, you’ll get to watch some of the best ice climbers in the world and see how they approach routes.

Some of the biggest ice festivals in the US include the Adirondack International Mountain Fest, the Ouray Ice Festival and Competition, the Mt. Washington Valley Ice Festival, and the Wyoming Ice Festival.

Practice with a Friend

You can also head out ice climbing with a partner and learn on your own. However, you’ll need to bring all of your own gear and both you and your partner will need to be comfortable with basic ice climbing skills like belaying and setting up an anchor.

Ideally, you should go with a climbing partner who has experience on ice. That way, they can show you how to set up a toprope anchor safely and give you some basic pointers on how to climb ice.

What Ice Climbing Gear Do You Need?

Ice climbing requires a lot of technical gear, but the good news is that you likely already have most of what you need if you’re into mountaineering and climbing. Here are the items that you can pull from your rock climbing box:

  • Rope
  • Harness
  • Helmet
  • Belay device
  • Carabiners, webbing, and a cordelette

Any climbing rope will do, but a dry-treated rope that resists water is best. Ice climbing can get wet, especially if you’re out in springtime ice conditions.

You’ll also need a few specialized pieces of gear for ice climbing:

  • Mountaineering boots - You can use the same mountaineering boots for ice climbing that you do for general mountaineering, or you can get purpose-built ice climbing boots.
  • Crampons - You’ll need crampons that are specifically designed for ice climbing rather than ones for mountaineering. Hard water ice can break the front points of standard mountaineering crampons.
  • Ice tools - Ice tools have curved, weighted picks to help you swing into hard ice. You’ll need a pair of tools to start climbing.
  • Ice screws - You need 2-4 ice screws to build an anchor for climbing ice. If you’re planning to lead ice—something I recommend for experienced ice climbers only—you’ll need many more ice screws.

Renting Ice Climbing Gear

If you’re not sure whether ice climbing will click for you, you can dip your toes in by renting gear. Gear shops will typically rent out boots, crampons, and ice tools, but not ropes or ice screws. If you go with a guide, they may be able to bring all the gear you need to start ice climbing.

Clothing for Ice Climbing

Figuring out what to wear for ice climbing can be a challenge. While you’re climbing, you can warm up quickly and likely only need a light climbing jacket. While you’re belaying, though, it can get frigid.

Here’s what I typically wear for a day of ice climbing:

If you only have a light down jacket rather than a belay parka, consider bringing another insulation layer. It never hurts to have extra layers available when ice climbing.

You’ll also need gloves. The best advice I can offer is to bring a lot of different pairs of gloves with you. Thin, breathable gloves with good grip are best for climbing—you need good dexterity to swing your tools properly and avoid overgripping. A big pair of mittens or mountaineering gloves is good for belaying or sitting at the base of the ice. You’re likely to sweat while you’re climbing, so have a dry backup pair of gloves ready to go in your backpack.

For more on gear, see our Ice Climbing Gear Essential Checklist.

Ice Climbing Technique

Now that you’ve got all the gear you need, we can talk about the basics of ice climbing. This sport is all about technique, so it’s important to think carefully about your stance, swing, and movements.

Stance

The most important thing to learn when you first start ice climbing is how to get in a good stance. Think about forming a triangle with your body at the start and end of every climbing sequence.

Your legs should be spread apart, forming the base of your triangle, while your ice tools should be stacked one above the other in line with the center of your body. Clench your core and butt to keep your center of mass close to the wall.

Kicking

Your feet are the key to stability when ice climbing. If you’re relying on your arms to pull you up the wall, you’ll get tired extremely quickly no matter your level of fitness.

There are a few things you can do to get good foot placements in the ice. First, actually look at where you’re kicking. Ice is full of bulges, concavities, and other features. Some of these features make ideal footholds, while others will leave you off balance.

When kicking, drop your heels. This allows the secondary points on your crampons to engage the ice and gives you a lot more traction. As you’re standing on the wall considering your next move, make sure you don’t lift your heels.

Finally, don’t be afraid to kick multiple times. One of the nice things about climbing ice is that you create your own holds in the ice. If a foothold doesn’t feel solid when you kick into it, kick at it until your crampon points are fully engaged.

Swinging

Swinging your ice tools is a surprisingly hard skill at first, but it gets easier with practice. You need to identify a spot above your head that looks like it will offer a good stick. Look directly above you rather than out to the side as much as possible, and don’t reach too high—you should be able to reach the point you want to swing at when holding up your tool with your elbow bent.

Once you identify your target, place your tool on it. Then reach back with your tool and swing from your shoulder. Your shoulder, elbow, and wrist should remain aligned while you swing, and you need to flick your wrist just before the pick makes contact in order to drive it into the ice. If your tool is bouncing off the ice, it’s likely because you’re not keeping your shoulder, elbow, and wrist aligned directly perpendicular to the ice.

After your pick hits the ice, assess your placement. It’s easy to feel when a placement is solid, but you should still weight the tool slightly to test it. If the placement isn’t good, try again. Often, chipping away surface ice and then swinging at the same spot leads to a great placement.

Climbing

Now it’s time to bring everything together. Starting from your triangle stance, weight your upper tool and move your feet up the ice about one foot each. Make sure these new foot placements are solid, then stand up on your legs. Don’t pull yourself up by your arms, as this will tire you out very quickly.

Next, pull your lower tool out of the ice. Identify a target spot above you and swing into the ice. Once you have a good placement, you should be back into a triangle stance. Shake out your other arm and rely on your feet while you figure out your next move.

Tips for Setting Up an Ice Climbing Toprope Anchor

The safest way to start ice climbing is by toproping. When toproping, you have a climbing anchor set up at the top of the ice pitch you want to climb. Your partner can have you on a tight belay at all times and there’s no need to worry about ice screw placement as you climb.

If you’re not familiar with setting up a toprope anchor, find an experienced climber who is or hire a mountain guide. Your anchor needs to be extremely trustworthy and you need to be safely tethered while setting it up.

There are some important differences between setting up a toprope anchor for ice climbing versus setting up an anchor for rock climbing. If there are no trees or rocks at the top of your climb, you can build an anchor in the ice itself using ice screws. Make sure to use at least two long ice screws to build your anchor—using three to four screws is better, and they should be at least a foot apart from one another. Keep in mind that screws placed in aerated or melting ice can fail.

In addition, it’s important to note that the ice around your screws can melt out surprisingly fast when the sun is shining. Pile up snow on top of your screws if it’s available. If there’s no snow, you can also use your screws to create a V-thread in the ice—a V-shaped tunnel in the ice around which you can girth hitch a piece of webbing.

Once again, if you’re not comfortable creating a toprope anchor on ice, I strongly recommend hiring a guide or taking an ice climbing course. You should feel absolutely confident in your anchor every time you go out climbing.

Leading Ice Climbing: For Experts Only

After a few days climbing ice, it can be tempting to try leading. The temptation is likely to be especially strong if you’re already an experienced lead rock climber.

However, it’s important to realize that leading ice is much more complicated and risky compared to leading rock. Only experienced ice climbers should try leading routes.

On rock, you can put in an okay piece of protection and get away with it. On ice, all but the best-placed screws are prone to failing during a fall. Depending on the condition the ice is in, it’s possible there won’t be any place to put in a reliable screw and you’ll have to downclimb.

Even if you’re confident in your ability to place screws, it’s still worth holding off on leading. Taking a lead fall while ice climbing is never good. The ice is sharp and there’s a chance you will drop your tools or catch a crampon on something. Until you’re completely confident that you can climb without falling, it’s best to stay on toprope.

Summary

Becoming comfortable climbing ice can open up a wide range of new routes in the mountains. Ice climbing is all about technique, so it’s a good idea to get started by going out with a guide or joining a clinic at an ice climbing festival. You can rent most of the gear you need, so don’t be afraid to give ice climbing a try this winter.

FAQs

How hard is ice climbing?

Ice climbing is a challenging sport, but you do have some control over how easy or hard you want to make it. When you’re just starting out, choose ice walls that are less than vertical. It’s much easier to learn how to climb on low-angle ice than it is to learn on steep ice.

Can I use mountaineering crampons for ice climbing?

You’ll need a pair of crampons designed specifically for ice climbing in order to climb most types of ice. Kicking into a hard frozen waterfall can break the front points of mountaineering crampons, which are typically designed to kick into softer alpine ice.

Do I need rock climbing experience to try ice climbing?

You don’t have to be a rock climber in order to try ice climbing. However, general climbing skills like knowing how to build an anchor and manage a rope are required for ice climbing.

What’s the best way to start ice climbing?

The best way to start ice climbing is to hire a guide. Usually, you can rent all the gear you’ll need from a guide and they can bring you to an ice route that’s good for beginners. A guide can also help you learn proper technique for ice climbing.

I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.