Your 101 Guide to Ice Climbing
Don’t be afraid of ice climbing. It’s a fun winter skill to pick up, and we’ve got all the intel on how to get started.
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Here’s the first thing you need to know about ice climbing: it’s not as hard as it looks. Yes, you’re scaling a vertical frozen waterfall with sharp metal objects on your feet and in your hands, but some say it’s actually easier than rock climbing.
“Ice climbing can be more straightforward than rock climbing since you’re not desperately looking for holds,” says Ryan Scott, owner of Maine’s Atlantic Climbing School, which leads ice climbing trips in Acadia National Park. “The holds are everywhere you put a sharp thing.” You don’t even need to have any rock climbing experience to get started on ice. “If you have some basic climbing skills—tying into a rope, putting on a harness—that’ll help, but it’s not necessary,” Scott adds.
Whether you’re a rock climber looking for a new winter hobby or you’ve never climbed before, you can learn everything you need to know on the ice. We’ve put together a primer to get you started.
Find a Place to Climb
The best months for ice climbing are, naturally, when there’s ice, which means prime season is usually late December through early March. To find ice climbing areas near you, websites like Mountain Project let you filter routes by type—rock, ice, mixed—and location.
Ice climbing parks, like Ouray Ice Park in Colorado or Sandstone Ice Park in Minnesota, are great places to start, because they’re more controlled environments—the ice is groomed and maintained—and you can often find clinics or guided outings at them.
Annual ice climbing festivals can also be helpful launching pads, since many have beginner clinics, exhibitions, and gear demos. Colorado’s Ouray Ice Festival, held in January, is the best-known event, but there are others, like Montana’s Bozeman Ice Festival, held in December, and Alaska’s Valdez Ice Climbing Festival, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival, and the Michigan Ice Fest, all in February.
Take a Lesson or Hire a Guide
It’s always a good idea in the outdoors to find someone more experienced than you to help show you the way. That’s especially true in ice climbing. You can’t learn these skills by yourself or by watching YouTube videos about how to walk in crampons. Join your local climbers’ Facebook group or hang around your nearest climbing gym to find experienced climbing partners or to ask for mentors who are willing to share their expertise.
“Don’t be intimidated. It’s a very welcoming community, and everyone has to start somewhere,” says Pete Davis, operations manager at the Ouray Ice Park. “If you’re looking to ice-climb, talk to people who are out there. Pick their brains. Quiz them on what they’re doing, how they’re doing it. You can learn a lot from fellow climbers.”
Many guide services offer group or private introductory ice climbing courses, or you can hire a guide for the day to show you the ropes, literally. In Colorado, the Colorado Mountain School has a one-day intro to ice climbing course (from $269) in Estes Park, where you’ll learn about risk management, proper technique, and how to use your ice ax. San Juan Mountain Guides leads intro courses (from $494) at the Ouray Ice Park. Synnott Mountain Guides, out of North Conway, New Hampshire, has a one-day course (from $150) that can be extended to multiple days.
In Alaska, St. Elias Alpine Guides leads one-day ice climbing trips (from $165) on the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Sierra Mountain Guides does a two-day course (from $360) in California, and Wyoming Mountain Guides has a similar two-day course (from $285) in northern Wyoming. Maine’s Atlantic Climbing School has intro courses for ice climbers (from $125), as well as intermediate and advanced clinics. Inclusive Outdoors Project leads two-day ice climbing clinics (prices vary) in Montana’s Hyalite Canyon that are geared toward climbers who identify as BIPOC or LGBTQ, as well as adaptive athletes.
Get the Right Gear
Ice climbing can involve a lot of hard work and then standing around. “By nature, it’s very stop-and-go. You go from periods of extreme exertion to periods of inactivity, like when you’re belaying,” says Charlie Townsend, operations manager for Synnott Mountain Guides in New Hampshire. “Dressing in layers makes sense, since we need to add and subtract as we’re going along.”
One of the first things a guide will teach you before you even get on the ice is how to stay warm and safe in cold winter environments, like wearing the right layers, hydrating and staying fueled, and being aware of risks like hypothermia or frostbite.
You’ll go through a gear checklist with your guide. You’ll need all the mandatory gear for climbing, like mountaineering boots, ice tools, and crampons, as well as ice screws, a rope, helmet, and harness. That gear will most likely be provided for you, or you may be able to find rental gear at some mountaineering shops.
Other essential items can help keep you safe and warm, like a first-aid kit, a variety of waterproof, insulating layers, and sunglasses for eye protection. Bring several pairs of gloves in case they get wet, including a thinner glove for climbing and a thicker pair for belaying. Things like wool socks, a big puffy down jacket, hand warmers for your gloves, or a thermos of hot tea can go a long way in keeping you comfortable out there.
Learn Proper Technique
Not all ice is the same, and it’s constantly changing. “In rock climbing, the holds stay where they are. In ice climbing, everything is changing,” says Scott from the Atlantic Climbing School. “You’re scaling this sheet of vertical ice that changes throughout the day, depending on the temperature, the sun, and how much it’s been climbed.”
The more time you spend doing it, the better you’ll get at reading the ice and navigating harder and steeper routes. You’ll start by top-roping, but as you progress, you may eventually advance to lead climbing. With a guide or instructor, you’ll practice skills like walking in crampons so you don’t snag a pant leg or kick yourself in the calf and where to play your belayer so they’re out of harm’s way, away from falling ice. You’ll work on techniques like body positioning and how to use your tools most efficiently.
“There’s this idea that swinging harder and kicking harder is going to make you more secure. That’s not the case at all,” says Townsend from Synnott Mountain Guides about how to get holds. “Use the ice, use the features that already exist, and you can scamper up it with a minimal effort. We’ll teach you how to read the ice, how to move efficiently, and how to do the least amount of damage to the wall.”