So, you are stoked for winter. You love to ski. But what to do on those days that the resort is all crusty and tracked out and the avy danger is through the roof in the backcountry? Winter offers its own array of magical offerings outdoors. One of the most difficult I have found to tap into is ice climbing.

Learning to ice climb poses several issues. First, finding an experienced and trustworthy mentor can be challenging. Unlike rock climbing where many people’s first experience is at a gym, ice climbing must be done outside. There is no user friendly intro class with gear rental offered in the comfort of the indoors. Second, the initial investment in the bare minimum of gear is daunting. You can’t just roll up like you can at a ski resort and rent a pair of skis for a day to just try it out. If you find a good mentor who is also a gear junkie (most are) you can probably borrow a lot of the gear. However, unless you are really lucky, you will still have to buy shoes in your size at the bare minimum. Unless you also mountaineer, you probably don’t have crampon compatible climbing shoes. Now what?

Don’t worry, there is hope. I am here to tell you how to get an introduction to ice climbing without a huge investment in gear and without having to go hunt down one of those illusive ice climbers.

Step 1: Getting Instruction

If you happen to know someone who ice climbs and is willing to take your noob ass out, then congratulations, your life is easy and step 1 is complete. If not, there is still hope.

Many snowy states put on an annual ice fest. This is how I was finally introduced to ice climbing. After years of begging anyone I met that had a clue about ice climbing to teach me with no success, I was finally directed to our local ice festival. From my experience at the local ice fests, they are a fantastic way to learn how to climb. Locally, gear rental is discounted for the weekend, demo ice tools are available for free, and there is an overwhelming number of experienced climbers to learn from.

If you live in Alaska, there are two annual ice festivals. The Mountaineering Club of Alaska puts one on at the Matanuska Glacier every September. There is also an Ice climbing festival in Valdez, typically held in February. Since the Valdez festival is focused on waterfall ice, it is more susceptible to changing conditions and has been cancelled some years due to poor weather or ice conditions. Other states host ice festivals as well, just google what is around your local area.

There is always the option of going on a guided ice climbing tour. I prefer the ice fest option for two reasons. First, there is cost. The MCA ice fest is historically $100 for the weekend. Most of this fee goes to pay the fee for glacial access and camping. The rest of the fee is for insurance purposes. I believe the Valdez Ice fest is similarly priced, if not cheaper. Guided ice tours can cost hundreds of dollars for just a few hours of instruction. Second, ice festivals are a great way to meet new climbing partners. You spend 8 hours out on the ice each day getting to know your group. In the evenings, everyone camps together and gets to know each other. Chances are, your chance of making new connections on a guided tour are zero to none. Last, the wealth of knowledge amassed in one place at an ice festival is a resource worth tapping into. With a guided tour, you will be placed with one or two knowledgeable guides. At an ice festival, there are typically tens of instructors and many of the students have their own skills to share. 

As a side note, if you have easy access (I don't-Alaska) to Ouray, Colorado, their ice park is fantastic and a great place to learn. As a bonus, they also host ice climbing festivals!

Great, you have found a local ice festival and have marked your calendar and signed up. What now?

Step 2: Getting Gear

Ice climbing takes a lot of expensive specialized gear. To lead ice, you need a set of ice screws ($50 each), quick draws ($15 each), a rope ($200 each), cordlette (This is cheap at least!), a helmet ($50), a set of ice tools ($400 for the pair), a harness ($70), crampons ($100), and boots ($200+). Sometimes more is required. To start, you will need the following at a bare minimum:

  • Harness

  • Belay device and locking carabiner

  • Helmet

  • Crampon compatible boots

  • Crampons

The bad news is that it is difficult to find a harness and belay device/locking 'biner for rent. Some places rent helmets but they can be harder to find. The good news is that if you already rock climb or travel glaciers, you have this gear. It is all usable for ice climbing as well. Yes, there are harnesses made to cater to ice climbing, but they all work for any outdoor recreational activity requiring a harness. If you don’t already have this gear, it can be bought for under $100 if you shop around. See my tips on buying discounted gear. It is also possible that your gear junkie friends might have some gear you can borrow if you ask.

The boots are more difficult to borrow because, you know, sizing and all. REI and many local shops (AMH if you are in Anchorage, Alaska) rent out mountaineering boots and crampons. If you want to save some extra money and have ski boots with a walk mode, crampons can be fit to ski boots as well. This is an excellent option if you happen to have a gear junkie friend who will let you borrow everything but you don’t have the same shoe size. Adjust the crampons to fit your ski boots and off you go!

If you are climbing at an ice festival or with an experienced ice climber, the rest of the gear will typically be available.

Tips for your first time out

Over the years as I have struggled to learn how to ice climb, I have had several near misses, mishaps, and experiences that I try to share with new climbers. Hopefully, they can learn from my mistakes and be a safer new climber than I was.

  1. Wear eye pro- you are inexpertly flailing sharp pointy things around near your face. If you like your eyes, wear sunglasses on a bright day and bring clear glasses for overcast days. Also, ice will be falling from above. Do yourself a favor and save your eyes. I have had an ice tool pop and bust my lip. I was just glad it was my lip and my teeth were intact and not my eye.

  2. Gloves-Bring some sort of glove to belay in. It is cold. The rope is possibly wet. There are all sorts of options people use. A leather work glove works fine. If you can stand to shell out the cash, ice climbing gloves with a grippy palm really help when climbing. They make it easier to hang onto the tool.

  3. Ripped pants-In addition to sharp pointy things flailing around your face, you will also have sharp pointy things flailing around your legs. You have several options here. 1) wear pants you don’t care about ripping. There is a very good chance you will rip your pants. Or 2) wear gaiters. Gaiters tend to be durable enough to resist the majority of puncture wounds from your crampons. If you already have a set of hiking gaiters, you can hopefully make them work with whatever footwear you choose. It is difficult to get standard gaiters to close over ski boots and the larger mountaineering boots out there. When wearing my hiking gaiters because I loaned out my XL climbing gaiters, I just velcro what I can shut and call it good.

  4. Screaming Barfies-Things I wished someone told me about prior to my experiencing it first hand. My partner had lead the route and I just had to clean and follow. I was hanging maybe 10 feet off the ground on my first ever waterfall ice climb when I noticed a sensation. I am not sure how to describe it but it felt like my arms were on fire/being stung by a million bees/actively freezing off/being smashed all at the same time. I had no idea what to do. I almost called to be lowered. I didn’t. I took a break and hung onto my tools for dear life. Ya know, cause hanging onto anything with the afore mentioned sensation in my arm was really possible. It took all my energy. The phenomenon tends to happen in colder temperatures. You will probably miss this experience if you attend the September ice fest. Just, be aware, the “screaming barfies” is a thing. All ice climbers experience it if you do it long enough. There, now you won’t be caught off guard like I was.

  5. Consider your belay station carefully- When ice climbing, it is not uncommon to anchor yourself while belaying. This is great unless you put the anchor in the fall zone of the ice from the climber. I had the unfortunate experience of getting hit with a “dinner plate” (A chunk of ice shaped and sized about like a dinner plate). At the speed it was going when it hit me, I thought it broke my forearm in half. It didn’t. I had a massive bruise for weeks though. Keep in mind that in ice climbing, things will  be falling; the only question is how big will the falling bits be. Hopefully, the experienced climbers around you help you in selecting a good spot to belay from.

Ice climbing is a dangerous and challenging sport. I have been pushed to my limit both physically and mentally in my years learning how to climb. It is also exhilarating, freeing, and extremely rewarding. If you have an inclination to try it, I highly encourage you to check it out and see if it is for you. Standing in an ice cave 300 feet off the ground on a frozen waterfall is an experience like no other.