Ice Climbing

Insider Info

Imagine conquering a mountain, climbing to the top of a slope, and the pure exhilaration of doing something no one else has done. You're exhausted and your muscles ache, but it's the best feeling you've ever had. It's the adventure known as ice climbing.

Ice climbing takes the basics of mountain climbing and adds in freezing weather, slippery slopes and crevices that can swallow a person in seconds. Ice climbers love the challenge. They'll tell you there is nothing like it in the world.

According to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, there are an estimated 650,000 Americans that are technical climbers. Millions more have tried climbing at some time in their life.

There are a number of areas where ice climbing is popular. In the U.S., Wisconsin is a big area for ice climbers, as are Utah, Northern California and Colorado.

Roping up is the process of connecting all the climbers with a length of rope. This way, if one climber falls in a crevasse, the others can pull him to safety.

There are two styles of ice climbing:

French Technique: A climber turns his foot at the ankle so all of his shoe spikes make contact with the side of the slope. On a steep hill, this means bending your knees away from your body, using an ax to keep your balance. To move upward, the climber crosses one foot over the other, stopping every two steps to reposition his ax. This style can seem awkward for beginners.

Front Pointing: This style comes from the Germans. The climber faces the slope and kicks just the front points of his crampons (shoe spikes) into the ice. The foot stays horizontal (which is weird because your heel is hanging in mid-air) and you climb the mountain as if you were climbing a set of stairs. This works best on very steep slopes.

Climbers must be in excellent physical condition. Strength training and cardiovascular (aerobic) training are a must. Climbers must be confident in their moves and be well prepared before they begin.

Kathy Cosley is an experienced climbing guide. She says that emotional and mental factors are more important than physical strength. "The best climbers have good stress management skills and good self-confidence. They are willing and able to psych themselves up and they make an effort to think positively."

If you really love the feel of the ice beneath your feet, consider becoming a guide for a living. Many recreational areas and adventure companies employ guides to lead expeditions. If you're really good, you can hire yourself out and you'll have plenty of takers.

Many colleges and outdoor education programs employ climbing teachers. Or you could work in a store that sells climbing goods.

If you love climbing but like the stability of a regular job, think about opening or managing a climbing gym. These indoor climbing walls are popping up all over the country, giving city folks a chance to scale great heights and still be back in the office for their afternoon appointments.

Getting Started

Ice climbers need a number of special tools to do their job, not the least of which is good warm clothing. Climbing is cold and wet work, and a climber who isn't dressed properly is risking his life.

Layering is the way to go. Start with thermal underwear, then a shirt made of thin fleece or wool. Over that, wear a jacket made of windproof material. Warm, thick socks protect the feet, which go inside sturdy, specially designed climbing boots.

Gaiters are waterproof sleeves that go over the tops of the boots to keep snow from getting inside. Top it all off with gloves and a hat and you're ready to go.

Here are a few pieces of specialized gear you'll need to make it up the side of that glacier:

Harness-- a set of straps that keeps a climber from flipping over if he falls

Ice ax-- a handle with a curved pointy head that is driven into the ice for walking and climbing

Crampons-- spikes that fit on to the bottom of your boot like old-fashioned roller skates. These give the climber a firm footing when he walks

Ice screws-- long threaded spikes that are hammered into the ice to form a hand or foothold

Ice climbing is not an inexpensive sport, but climbers should never consider skimping on the price of their tools. Good, solid equipment is a safety must.

Harnesses run about $80. An ax will cost over $100. The complete outfit costs several hundred dollars. Plus, most new climbers will want to pay a travel company for an experienced guide.

If you're new at the sport, experts recommend glacier walking to start. Glaciers are not very steep, so they are perfect for beginners. The biggest danger is falling into the natural crevasses that can be hidden beneath a layer of soft snow.


Outdoor Industry Association

American Alpine Club

Incredible stories of people who have climbed to the peak

Climbing Central
A good starting spot when you need to find gear and places to climb

Ice Climb
Small site that will lead you to ice climbing events in your area

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