How to Build a Sustainable Ice Climbing Kit
Experience is the best of teachers
The first time I climbed up a frozen waterfall was years ago, thanks to a trip organized by my college’s outdoor club. We stood in a parking lot in rural New Hampshire, our exhales as foggy as our steaming thermoses of coffee, and the guide our club hired passed around harnesses and helmets, then boots and ice tools. We donned the mismatching gear and trudged up the trail, rounding a corner to see rolling knobs of ice coating a cliff face. After that first day, I was hooked—I signed up every time the outing club announced another trip. But once I graduated, lost access to the club (and its subsidized outings), and moved out west, ice climbing adventures were suddenly out of reach for a broke millennial like me.
Between the insulated and waterproof apparel, the spiky metal tools and the safety gear—it all quickly adds up, and that’s before you even factor in gas money and the travel time it often takes to get to cold, quality ice.
Two years passed, and then a friend came home from guiding glaciers in Alaska one summer, and she passed onto me her mountaineering boots and crampons. With help from my partner, I sharpened the metal points, re-laced the boots, and we finally set out in search of ice. I used the harness, helmet, rope, and draws that I already owned for rock climbing, and I’ve continued borrowing ice tools from friends. Since then, I’ve climbed ice flows and frozen couloirs up and down the Rocky Mountain corridor, and none of it would’ve been possible without second-hand gear.
Coincidentally, buying pre-loved gear is the most sustainable way to kit yourself out, and the best way to support Mama Earth as you wander her rapidly warming canyons and tundras in search of magical ice.
Safety, though, is paramount when ice climbing, and it’s helpful to know what pieces of gear are ok to buy second-hand, and what should be prioritized to buy brand-new. In talking with veterans in the field, we’ve put together a breakdown, with some helpful tips on what to look for when soliciting used pieces.
Buy these used!
Well-made mountain boots will last a lifetime if properly cared for. How a boot fits a foot can vary widely from brand to brand, so if you’re searching Geartrade for new-to-you mountaineering boots, we recommend first trying a brand you’re already familiar with (e.g. if you have a pair of hiking boots you love, see if they make mountain boots!) If you’re looking at new-to-you brands, heading into a shop where you can try some on and get a feel for what fits best before purchasing online might be your best bet.
Buying second-hand boots often means the materials are already somewhat broken in, so, bonus: no stiff or uncomfortable leathers. That said, a used boot might be somewhat molded to the previous owner’s foot, so we still recommend testing newly acquired boots by wearing them on a short hike before embarking on a long ice climb approach. (Tucking moleskin into your first aid kit for your first few adventures is a good idea, just in case hot spots appear.)
In some ways, ice tools are an ice climber’s bread and butter. Buying second-hand is great because you can sharpen and de-rust older picks, or replace the metal completely. You can also add tape to the shaft for a better grip if climbing in extra-cold weather (tape helps insulate the cold metal), or if mixed climbing.
If ice tools are an ice climber’s bread and butter, crampons are knives that make the bread-and-buttering possible. They’re just as important! And also easy to maintain and repair over time. When buying used crampons, first ensure a few key elements are compatible with your mountain boots. Some climbers like to trim the webbing that straps the crampon to your boot, so make sure it’s long enough to securely wrap around your boots, with enough tail to feed through the quick-release clasp—you don’t want the webbing to accidentally slip back through.
The front points can be sharpened, or replaced entirely with new metal points, making it perfectly plausible to share an entire lifetime of ice climbs with a single pair of crampons. Talk about true love.
Like ice tools and crampons, ice screws can be sharpened with a file. There’s some debate within the ice community about whether any old metal file is ok to use on screws, or if it’s worth investing in a ice-screw-specific file (they exist, and certainly do make the sharpening easier). Whatever route you go, we recommend tuning into YouTube for a hot second to learn about what angles and aspects are important to maintain during the sharpening process.
These special carabiners are enormously helpful when organizing ice screws on a harness, and since they aren’t weight-bearing (your life won’t ever depend on them!) they’re perfect for purchasing second-hand. Just make sure they’re compatible with your harness.
Oh how important, and not to be neglected. You’ll want to bring at least three pairs with you on backcountry ice missions—keeping your hands dry and warm is of utmost importance not only to maintaining good spirits while getting blasted with wind, snow, and ice, but it’s also important for survival, should the day drag on longer than expected. When buying used, look for seams intact and a solid fit. You can always re-waterproof gloves, too.
Hardshells, insulation, base layers, glasses, beanies—acquiring these soft goods as second-hand items will save your bank account and help lower your personal carbon footprint. No better place to look than Geartrade and your local consignment gear shops.
Buy these new!
You get one brain, so let’s not take any risks with it. Buying a new helmet will guarantee the most protection for your noggin. Though a used helmet might look in perfect condition, that doesn’t mean a previous owner didn’t compromise its structural integrity in a way that might not be visible to the naked eye, such as microcracks in foam.
A harness bears all your weight if you fall… hopefully you don’t while climbing on ice, but if you do, you want every part of the harness in tip-top shape. Though a harness will last a climber for years, it’s best to buy yours new because you want to be aware of exactly how many whippers and big falls might’ve shocked the webbing.
No matter what type of rope you’re looking for—skinny twins, dry-treated, or top-rope fatties—you’ll want to know where it’s been and what it’s been through. There’s no room for failure in a harness, and so with a rope: you need to know it’ll save you if you fall. With a new rope, you’re confidently starting from perfect, and can track how much it’s used and how many falls might’ve shocked its core.
Alpine draws and quickdraws—carabiners and slings
Sometimes it’s easy to see wear on slings and carabiners, but sometimes it’s not. Like with harnesses and ropes, you want to be intimately familiar with the stresses that have already been put on your weight-bearing gear—that way you know when to replace them, way before they fail!
Pro tip: Sometimes you can find new-but-discounted helmets, harnesses, and ropes via second-hand sites and shops, so it’s still worth looking!
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.