Ice climbing is a lot like rock climbing, but hanging 30 meters up, on ice that can change hourly with an axe and crampon is not for the faint-hearted and adds an additional sense of adventure to rock climbing. Glaciers and frozen waterfalls are the most popular ice climbing venues, though many versatile climbers also climb rock and snow, since the ice-climbing season generally runs from early December in the Alps, through to the end of March for the north face of mountains. Alpine ice is found in the mountains and is often climbed in an attempt to summit a mountain. Water ice is usually found on a cliff or other as a frozen liquid flow of water which makes it much more of a technical challenge, depending on the type of ice (tough, brittle, hard or soft), which vary depending on weather conditions.
Unlike rock climbing, ice climbing is considered an extreme sport because of the added risks of inclement weather, avalanches and crevasses. With all the risks, the achievement of reaching the top, of being in an otherwise inaccessible place, creates the adrenaline rush and the wish to do it again, even if the muscles are burning.
As you would expect, ice climbing requires some technical gear, over the usual climbing equipment. This includes insulated ice climbing boots, crampons, ice axes and eye protection. A seasoned guide is always recommended, most of whom are certified members of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) having completed a rigorous, internationally recognised training programme. Ice climbing is a technical, physical and psychological challenge for all, so having a guide keeps the risks manageable.
Who can ice-climb?
You need to be reasonably fit to ice climb as it is a physical sport, and there is no age limit, though ice crampons for small feet are hard to find. On top of learning the rope work necessary for climbing, other technical details need to be understood, including how to place crampons and axes properly as well as a good understanding of the different types of ice, and their stable so that you can stay safe.
Learning to ice climb through an organisation means that you may be able to hire equipment through them before making an investment into your own kit. There are a variety of ice-axes and crampons to suit all levels of skill that you can hire along with safety equipment including harness and helmet, rope and ice-screws. A good pair of rigid mountaineering boots which will take a step-in crampon can also be hired.
To be successful in ice climbing, you must have confidence in your skill sets, which means lots of practice, and the ability to train your mind to just be in the moment.
Big names in ice climbing
Gordon ‘Gord’ McArthur is so committed to the ice climbing he built a climbing structure in his backyard in British Columbia, in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Attracted to the sport because it was ‘different, challenging, scary but at the same time beautiful’ Plus the fact that as an athlete and competitor, you can always improve.
Nihal Sarkar is a pioneer ice climber in his country, India. Nihal lives in Siliguri, at the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal. His love for mountaineering began after he completed his first significant expedition to Mount Stok Kangri (6,121m) which inspired an interest in glaciers and icefalls. Ascending them became a natural progression.
Considered the best French ice climber, Gerome was attracted to the sport by the high level of competition and the spirit of a big family of competitors. His favourite place to climb is Cogne in the Valle d’Aosta. Away from ice climbing, Yann works with mountain rescuer for the gendarmerie in France.
Slovenian Janez Svoljšak is based in Škofja Loka and began ice climbing in 2010. He believes good technique in using the ice axe on small edges, strong arms and core muscles are vital components of being a successful ice climber. The Canadian Rockies are his favourite climbing spot, and he keeps in shape at other times with alpine and sport climbing as well as ski touring.