Beginners Guide to Ice Climbing: All You Need to Know to Get Started

Last Updated: January 2021

If you're reading this guide, we will assume that you haven't been ice climbing before, or if you have, it's only been once or twice. 

We bring this up because we want to emphasize that this is a beginner's guide.

Our beginner's guide to ice climbing should be a launching pad for you as you investigate and learn more about ice climbing as a sport. 

Our intention is not to give you all of the information that you need to go out and climb ice solo or even lead ice for your very first time. Climbing, in general, is inherently dangerous, and ice climbing is especially dangerous. 

Having a healthy awareness of the risks is important in any form of climbing, but with that awareness, you also need a good grasp on technique and the different ways you can protect and set up anchors on ice climbing routes.

We won't have time to cover every little detail necessary to become an ice climbing expert.

Still, we hope that this guide will help you begin to navigate different climbing terms and techniques to try next time you're on the ice. 

ice climbing

Invest in Your Safety with a Guide or Ice Climbing Lessons

Our number one beginner's ice climbing tip is to get a guide or take ice climbing lessons.

This is not always financially possible for all climbers, but it is the safest way to try ice climbing.

Another option is to have an experienced ice climbing friend take you out for the first time. This can be a gamble because while they may be more experienced than you, they aren't necessarily trained in best safety practices. They may not be the best teacher either. 

For most ice climbing classes, part of the session will be held indoors to go over safety and technique basics. You will then have a chance to try out the things covered indoors on the ice later in the class.

These classes may be multiple sessions over weeks, or they might be for an entire Saturday. 

Whatever the type of guided ice climbing experience you have access to in your area, the major benefit is that you are getting expert advice from trained and certified instructors. That is if you are booking this class with a legitimate guiding company. 

Having your first experience on ice with a guide is often a lower commitment because all gear will be included in the class price. You will have the guide on hand at all times to give you advice and to double-check all safety measures.

This takes the pressure off of you as a climber so you can focus on your form and enjoying the experience of ice climbing. 

This low commitment of not investing in your own equipment and the added safety of having a certified guide is outstanding if you can afford it.

If you are interested in ice climbing, though, we recommend that you save up not only for your gear but also for proper instruction so you can start with the best habits. 

Guided Lessons are also an excellent way to decide if you really like the sport or not before investing in all of the equipment yourself. 

ice climbing gear boots

Ice Climbing Terms

Before we jump right into the nitty-gritty of ice climbing techniques, if you are a true beginner, it may be helpful for you to know a few commonly used ice climbing terms and what some of the gear is called.

That way, in the sections below, when we are referencing equipment or a movement, you'll know what we are talking about. If you're already familiar with ice climbing terms, then feel free to skip to the next section to learn more about technique. 

We won't go in-depth regarding all climbing terms, but these are some words you should familiarize yourself with when it comes to ice climbing: 

Anchor: Where the rope is secured in the snow, ice, or rock using various safety equipment. The anchor's job is to protect from a fall and must be able to support the force of a fall. 

Belay: The name of the technique in which your climbing partner protects from a fall with the use of the rope, anchor, and a belay device. A belay can be performed from the ground or from above when secured to the anchor. 

Crampon: A spiked metal attachment that secures onto the climber's boots to provide a more secure and reliable footing on ice or snow. 

Dry-Treated: A term used to describe a rope that is coated with a water-repellent chemical treatment. Dry-treated ropes prevent abrasion, make the rope more manageable when wet, and help to keep the rope clean. Dry-treated ropes are recommended for ice climbing. 

Dry-Tool: The technique used to ascend sections of rock between snow and ice using ice tools. 

Flat-Footing: The French Technique is done by walking backward or sideways on ice with all crampon points in the ice. 

Front Pointing: The German ice climbing technique necessary for ascending a steep/overhanging section of ice by using the crampons' front points to bite or grip into the ice. 

Ice Axe: Tool used for snow and ice climbing with a shaft with a point at the base and ahead on the opposing end with a pick and adze. Most often used in mountaineering. 

Ice Tool: Similar to an ice axe, but with a shorter, curved shaft and a pick with a reverse curve shape. Most often used in ice climbing. 

Ice Screw: Used for lead climbing on ice, this threaded piston is secured into the ice to serve as an anchor and intended to protect against a fall. 

Lead: To be the first climber up the route, securing protection along the way and setting up an anchor. 

Mixed Climbing: A climbing route that involves a combination of rock, snow, and ice. 

Top-Rope: When the rope is secured in the anchor and is above the climber. The rope is looped through the anchor point, and the climber does not need to add protection as they climb because they're secured by the anchor above. 

ice climbing

Ice Climbing Grades

Ice climbing grades are objective, and technical ratings are used to determine an ice climbing route's difficulty level.

For most of the grading systems that exist, the technical grade will be represented in a number form. So, the higher the number, the more technical the climb. 

When looking at ice climbing grades, you may notice a few different representations. The most common will be: 

  • Mixed Grades - M1-M16
  • Ice Grades - WI 1-7
  • Aid Ratings - A 1-5
  • Protection Ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, X)
  • Commitment Ratings UIAA I-VII

How hard an ice route feels while you're climbing can largely depend on the weather, the ice conditions, your fitness level, and your overall experience as an ice climber. 

Ice Climbing Techniques to Know

If you are already signed up for an ice climbing course or are going out with a friend for the first time, it can still be advantageous to have some base knowledge of ice climbing techniques. 

Body Positioning

If you have gone rock climbing before and perhaps are even proficient at it, you will be adopting some different body positioning techniques for ice climbing.

The ideal body position when ice climbing should put your body into an "A" shape. Your hands will be close together above you and your legs wide apart below you to achieve this. 

To move up from this position, with your arms close together and your ice tools nearly touching but secured in the ice, you should be able to drop your body weight onto straight arms.

This gives you a chance to lift your knees higher and kick your crampons into the ice. Once both feet have moved up, this will put you into a "crouched" position.

Now, you are in the perfect position to straighten your legs, standing back into a wide leg position to reposition your ice tools. 

If you are already a climber that relies heavily on footwork, then the transition to ice climbing may be easier.

Ice climbing relies a lot on your footwork, and some ice climbers will emphasize the rule that you should move your feet three times for every one move of your ice tool.

When you start ice climbing, reminding yourself of this ratio can help you focus more on your footwork and less on the ice tools. 

Crampon Technique

Since efficient ice climbing relies heavily on footwork, having good crampon technique can help. There are three main crampon techniques to be aware of before you start:

German Technique or Front Pointing: Only the front-facing point of your crampon will interact with the ice in this position. This technique is specifically advantageous on steep or overhanging ice that is 45 degrees or more. To perform this technique, kick toes into ice to secure the 2-4 front points on your crampon. 

French Technique or Flat Footing: When flat-footing on ice, it is far less intuitive than front pointing. It is most often used on low-angle ice or slopes up to 40 degrees. As the name suggests, all of your crampon points should be in contact with the ice. This technique provides the best traction for the climber and enables you to travel over varying terrain efficiently. This technique can be performed going uphill, slight downhills, backward, and sidestepping. 

American Technique or a Hybrid/Combination: Also sometimes called the "3 o'clock position" or the "pied troisieme," this hybrid technique takes parts of the German and French techniques to make it easier to climb moderately steep ice. To do this, you plant the front point of one foot into the ice while you keep the other foot flat against the slope. This is often less tiring than the flat-footing on moderately steep slopes, especially if you have limited ankle mobility. 

Understanding these techniques and when to use them will happen over time and with more practice. It is hard to practice these crampon techniques without being on actual ice. Still, it can help to familiarize yourself with them, so you have an idea of different foot placements that are known to be effective and widely used. 

When you start to get a better feel for the crampon techniques and the overall body positioning, the next consideration is to focus on your heel.

If your heels are too high, your crampons will struggle to grip into the ice, and you're more likely to slip out of your position. Adjust your heel to be lower because this positioning leverages the crampons further into the ice, giving a better grip. 

No matter the technique you are using, it is essential to note that kicking too hard or repeatedly in the same spot is ill-advised. Both of these things weaken the ice you want to stand on and can cause the ice to break off in large chunks. 

Ice Axe Technique and Ice Tool Placements

When starting ice climbing, it helps to look for depressions in the ice to place your tools. These depressions will be much stronger than any bulges or protrusions of ice that are easy to break apart.

Finding good ice tool placements is even easier if you have a partner to follow. When doing this, you can look for the holes they left in the ice to know where good placements are, making it easier for you to only have to do one swing with your ice tools. 

Just as with your crampons, minimizing the number of times you swing your ice tool or ice axe into the ice is important.

Several swings or chops in the same spot on the ice will weaken that area, making it more likely that the ice will break apart. If you can secure your ice tool in one swing, it will also save you a lot of energy. 

Knowing how much force to put behind each swing will come with time. Just bear in mind that if you swing too hard each time, you will get tired quickly.

It is ideal to try to align your ice tool with your shoulder and wrist while you swing. This provides more secure placement and uses less energy. 

Once you've found a secure ice tool placement and can move up the ice, you'll need to remove the ice tool. The best way to do this is to pull them out the way they entered the ice.

Push up on or hammer the tool's adze to lift it up and out of the ice. Do not attempt to wiggle the tool side to side. That movement easily weakens the ice, it can push the tool in further, and it can even break the tool if you're too aggressive. 

ice climbing

Get the Right Gear

Once it comes time for you to invest in your ice climbing gear, you'll want to make sure you have the right equipment.

To keep this article short, we have all of the need-to-know ice climbing gear essentials here.

Whenever you have a chance to get out and climb some ice, remember that safety is always the priority. So, while having articles like this to provide a good base knowledge, nothing quite beats the in-person practice that ice climbing classes or a guided session can bring.

Prioritize technique and experience before deciding to venture out on your own right away. 

One thing that you will notice is that we didn't cover leading on ice in this article. That's because if you are a beginner, we do not recommend lead climbing on ice until you have far more experience.

Unlike leading on rock, when you lead on ice, it is best to avoid falling at all costs as the consequences tend to be higher. To be confident leading on ice, you need a good fitness base and an excellent handle on ice climbing techniques. 

Final Takeaways

We hope this beginner's guide to ice climbing has provided a launching pad for you as you investigate and learn more about ice climbing as a sport. 

Remember to maintain awareness and make sure you have a good grasp on technique and the different ways you can protect and set up anchors on ice climbing routes.

Happy & Safe Ice Climbing!

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