Ice Climbing 101: Gear You Need & How to Get Started
It’s a seemingly miraculous defiance of physics, and yet it’s possible exactly because of physics: when you strike your ice axe and kick your crampons into a vertical wall of ice, you wonder how on earth these little tiny metal connection points could ever support your weight. Yet you move up the wall, step by step, swing by swing. You feel the magic sensation of the perfect connection with the ice—rock solid, yet it’s water.
Many of the principles of rock climbing—balancing, flagging, resting your weight on a straight arm, and managing your rope—apply to ice climbing. Yet the sport comes out in full splendor on the cold days of winter, with different kinds of ice showing their shimmering nature.
We’ll give a brief rundown here, with a few tips on how to get started. As leading ice is quite a committed move, ice climbing isn’t something you can just jump into and figure out as you go. But don’t worry; that’s what professional guides, courses, and mentors are for!
Layers: the science of staying warm.
Good ice forms in very cold places—and ice stays good in shaded places, which only adds to the cold. Staying warm all day is a bit of a science, and you’ll want to stack up or peel off layers depending on whether you’re hiking the approach, climbing, or belaying. Make it a top priority to stay dry, because as soon as you sit still for a while, any sweat or snow will start to freeze up and chill you to the bones.
While you’re active hiking to the climb or climbing
Keep your outfit breathable. Softshell pants with vents are a great idea, as is a good quick-drying base layer, mid-layer or vest, and light softshell outer layer. You may just want a light beanie or ballcap on the hike in, as well as glove liners.
Once it’s time for climbing
Pop a helmet over that beanie and put on waterproof gloves to grip your ice tools (axes) nicely. Climbing will get your heart pumping so you can skip puffy layers for this part unless it’s very cold indeed.
As soon as you finish climbing and get to your belay station
Layer up. Here, it’s helpful to have a super thick, plush puffy jacket (down or synthetic depending on your preference and whether you might get it wet). Size it a little roomy so you can throw it on over your other jackets if you like. The warmest puffies are often called “belay jackets” exactly for this purpose. Your body is cooling down after climbing, and you need to trap the heat before you lose it. Put on the belay puffy and pull on a spare pair of thick gloves or mittens while you’re at it. Seasoned climbers might keep their climbing gloves warm and dry by stuffing them into the belay puffy while they belay.
Equipment for ice climbing: pointy things.
Ice climbing axes are quite different from general mountaineering axes, which are less aggressively shaped and feature a longer shaft. Those will do for glacier and snow travel, but if you’re tackling an ice climb, you’ll need specialized axes called ice tools. The shafts are significantly shorter, and the picks (yep, the pointy part) are aggressively angled and sharp.
Brands like Petzl and Grivel make ice tools designed for a variety of steepnesses, ice types, and difficulty levels. You can also choose to get ice tools with an adze or hammer on the back of the point; they come in handy if you need to pound in a piton or chop a belay stance into the ice. If you’re just a beginner and you’ll start as most people do by lapping top-roped climbs, you can probably skip the adze and hammer.
There are a few types of crampons, and it’s the “automatic” or “step-in” kind that ice climbers typically use. These have a little metal bar across the toe that snugs neatly over the toe welt on your boot. A lever in the back snaps up over your heel welt, and now you’ve got a great, close fit that won’t wiggle.
You may also choose between “mono-point” and “dual-point” crampons. This term is alluding to the claw-like points sticking out from your toes, which kick into the ice with remarkable ferocity. Many ice climbers do great with two, while some like an additional super-talon in the middle of the front two. (It’s helpful if you’re on steep, hard, or technical ice—none of which you’re likely to jump onto for your first climbs.)
Ice climbing boots are usually called “mountaineering boots” and come in three-season and four-season models (just like tents!). If you’re set on climbing winter ice, keep your tootsies warm with a four-season boot, which will be extra insulated. You’ll notice these boots are tall and stiff for ankle support and precision, and they have noticeable welts (little duck bills) on the heel and toe. That’s where your crampons hang on.
Your usual climbing harness will work just fine, but make sure the leg loops and waist band are big enough to go over all your winter layers. It’s ideal if your harness is light and lightly padded (heavy padding will just absorb water and ice up). You can pick up ice tool clips from Black Diamond to add to your harness in winter, and they serve as a handy place to hang your tool while you rest or belay.
Get a climbing-specific helmet, and go a little roomy (or adjustable) so you can wear a light beanie underneath. (Pom poms won’t fit; you’ll have to save the fashion for apres.)
As you get more advanced
Down the line, if and when you’re ready to start leading, you’ll learn about ice screws (which you place for protection), anchor building supplies, and ropes. But we can leave that for another day.
Creature comforts: little tips and what to bring
We can’t overstate it: ice climbing is a cold way to spend a day. If you’re a person who tends to get chilled, do some smart prep work to make the day more enjoyable. You might try heated socks or heated footbeds, which are an investment but highly effective and more popular than you’d realize. Hand warmers feel delightful tucked into your mittens, and your belay puffy should be a thing of over-the-top magnitude.
A thermos of hot tea is essential, and we love taking a hot lunch along in a second thermos. A hot microwaved burrito will stay toasty tucked into a travel coffee mug, or you can invest in a screw-cap thermos to carry some hot chili, macaroni and cheese, or curry. By warming yourself from the inside, you make a big difference in your lasting power for the day.
Merino base layers and sports bras make a major difference in your core temperature. For women, a sweaty synthetic sports bra gets clammy and cold fast, which has a chilling effect on your core. If this is a problem, experiment with wool that will stay warm even when it’s damp. Some climbers even swap out their base layer shirts quickly when they finish their approach hike and are ready to climb—why leave the approach sweat on the skin?
How to get started
As we mentioned earlier, ice climbing isn’t a thing to just go try unsupervised. Fortunately, almost everywhere there’s good ice climbing, there are mountain guides you can hire to teach you or take you, and there are ice climbing meccas like Ouray, Colorado, where their full-on ice park hosts many instructional outings and courses every winter.
As you prep for your first days out, you can start getting the gist of the technique by watching the many YouTube videos out there on ice climbing technique, and you can pore over gear reviews to determine the best gear and layers for you. As always, you can get much of it UnNew here on Geartrade, which we recommend for both sustainability and budget-friendliness.
Stay safe, and please post in the comments on social or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any tips of your own, gear recommendations, or items we should include in this article!
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.