The Beginner’s Guide to Ice Climbing

ice climbing guide
A.F.Smith / Shutterstock

Ice climbing is exactly what you think it is—similar to rock climbing, only rather than working up a wall of rock, you’re scaling a slab of ice. Sound like something best left to Game of Thrones characters? You don’t need to be a rock climbing aficionado (or a White Walker) to take up the sport. You don’t even need any rock climbing experience before you give it a go. You can easily hop on the trend with the right gear, trail, and guide.

“Having some familiarity with the knots and rope systems will certainly help, but it’s not a prerequisite,” says Caroline Gleich, mountaineer, CLIF athlete, and Patagonia ambassador.

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Of course, ice climbing does involve driving axes into the ice to help keep you stable as you make your ascent. Plus, the cold weather challenges can add another layer of difficulty, notes Gleich. So it’s not something you want to try your hand at without gathering a little intel—and gear—first. Keep reading for your official ice climbing beginner’s guide. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

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Figure Out Where to Go

Even if your local park has a frozen waterfall that seems extra-solid, you want to take a trip somewhere known for ice climbing to try it for the first time. Ice can fracture and break off as you climb more easily than rock, says Gleich, so you’ll want to go out somewhere known to be stable.

Your best bet when you’re getting started is to travel to a wall with well-established ice climbing routes. Some of the best areas to find icy walls are Wyoming, Montana, and the Adirondacks. Gleich loves climbing in Ouray, CO; the upper peninsula of Michigan; New Hampshire; Vermont; and Utah—and they all have areas with beginner terrain.

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Get a Guide

We might make ice climbing sound a little less intimidating, but you still shouldn’t try it alone. Go out with a certified mountain guide to learn proper technique and get feedback as you go. Find a list from the American Mountain Guides Association. Another great place to get started is at an ice festival. These take place in various locales around the country—including Michigan, Vermont, and Colorado. They tend to take place over a long weekend and feature everything from clinics for novice tips to talks with pros.

“The benefit of going to an ice festival is that you can demo equipment and try out different ice tools throughout the event,” notes Gleich.

Ice climbing at Ouray Ice Park in Colorado
Ice climbing at Ouray Ice Park in Colorado Danita Delmont / Shutterstock

Gear Up

The motions of ice climbing are very similar to those of rock climbing. The key to doing them on the slick terrain of an ice wall: having a harness, of course, plus crampons (sharp metal frames that strap onto your shoes) and ice axes. A couple of good ways to get the gear you need without dropping a ton of cash on your first outing: Take a class, and they’ll likely provide you with all the equipment you need (though you should check first), or test-drive various brands at a festival.

Some of Gleich’s go-to gear: Petzl Quark ice tools and Lynx crampons. Pro tip: “I attach a visor to my helmet to help shield my face from falling ice,” says Gleich. “It’s a real concern when you are ice climbing, especially for multi-pitch ice climbs, and I feel much more confident when my face is protected from lacerations.”

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Get the Movement Down

Like with rock climbing, you’ll want to focus on powering up from your legs and glutes as they can generate way more power than your upper body. If you pull yourself up with your arms instead, you’ll fatigue much faster. And common injuries among ice climbers include upper-body muscle strains and swelling in the shoulders and elbows.

“Always start by paying attention to your footwork,” says Gleich. When you kick your crampons into the ice, think about sticking your butt out and bending your knees to engage the secondary points of your crampons. Then, stand up on your crampons and bring your hips closer to the wall to swing your ice axes into the ice. Really think about pushing your hips out as you step with your legs and pulling your hips close to the wall as you move your axes. This in-and-out motion between the two positions will help keep you stable. (Good news: Once you’ve got a good hold with both your crampons and axes, you can pause and take a breather whenever you need.)

Despite the spikes of your crampons and the axes keeping you rooted to the ice as you ascend, ice climbing definitely challenges your muscles. “It’s a full-body workout, but it’ll especially burn your calves and forearms,” notes Gleich. And remember that a big part of the sport is all in your head. “Ice climbing’s a combination of strength, balance, and finesse, as well as having a strong mental game.”

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