Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers

Post originally Published January 28, 2024 || Last Updated January 28, 2024

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Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - The Thrilling Sport of Ascending Icicles

Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers

For adrenaline junkies seeking their next rush, look no further than the exhilarating sport of ice climbing. This activity involves ascending vertical walls of ice using specialized tools like crampons and ice axes. The icy terrain adds an extra challenge, requiring climbers to kick their feet into the ice while plunging in their axes for support. It’s an incredible test of endurance, balance, and mental stamina.

Ice climbing first took hold as a sport in the 1970s, pioneered by daring climbers looking to take their skills to more extreme environments. Early ice axes were adapted from mountaineering gear, and crampons were added for traction on sheer frozen surfaces. The sport has evolved rapidly, with ice climbers tackling ever more difficult routes on cliffs and waterfalls around the world.
The allure is clear - ice climbing offers a tremendous adrenaline surge unmatched by most other sports. Climbers describe an intoxicating mix of fear, focus, and flow. There’s no room for distraction when dangling from an icicle hundreds of feet in the air! At the same time, the concentration required to find each axe placement and crampon kick is meditative. Ice climbers enter an immersive state, hyperaware of every sensation, sound, and motion of their bodies.

Popular destinations for ice climbing include the Canadian Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas, and the American mountain west. Ouray, Colorado is nicknamed the “Ice Climbing Capital of America” for its sheer abundance of frozen waterfalls. This tiny town hosts the renowned Ouray Ice Festival each January, where climbers test their mettle on routes like the intimidating Polar Circus. Other renowned ice climbing venues include Cody, Wyoming, Bozeman, Montana, and Munising, Michigan.
For beginners, ice climbing is best learned through guide services that provide equipment and instruction. Top tips for new climbers include getting in prime physical condition, as ice climbing requires immense strength and endurance. Mastering proper axe and crampon technique is essential, as is learning safety protocols like belaying and rappelling. Start on beginner-rated routes, and work up slowly in difficulty. With the right training and preparation, the sport’s risks can be managed.

What else is in this post?

  1. Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - The Thrilling Sport of Ascending Icicles
  2. Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Gear Up for Crampons, Ice Axes, and More
  3. Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Popular Ice Climbing Destinations Worldwide
  4. Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Ice Climbing Hotspots in the American West
  5. Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Beginner Routes for Those New to the Sport

Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Gear Up for Crampons, Ice Axes, and More

Before stepping foot on an icy wall, proper gear is an absolute must for both safety and performance. Ice climbing requires specialized equipment that you won’t find on a typical mountain hike. Planning out your gear array in advance will ensure you’re outfitted for the unique demands of this sport.

Crampons are essential traction devices that attach to boots, providing stability for climbing vertical ice. Look for general mountaineering crampons with 10-12 points for optimal grip. Make sure crampons fit your boots perfectly, locking securely into place. Walking in crampons takes practice, as the long spikes alter your normal gait. Leash your crampons to your boots as an added precaution so they don’t slip off mid-climb.
Ice axes provide a critical third point of contact along with your hands and feet. A classic ice tool has a gently curved shaft leading to a hammerhead and pick. The sharp pick allows you to swing the axe into the ice above your head, firmly anchoring the tool. The hammerhead enables you to pound ice pitons for protection. Holding the axe properly is a skill that takes time to develop. You’ll learn basic moves like swinging, plunging, hooking and hanging.
Harnesses distribute weight across your hips and legs rather than your arms and back. Putting on a harness properly ensures comfort and adjustability while climbing. Make sure your harness fits snugly but allows full range of motion. Leg loops should be tightened so they don’t slide up your thighs. Waist belts should rest just above the hip bones.

Carabiners and slings are essential for building protection anchors as you ascend. Carabiners of various shapes connect to your harness and rope, while slings wrap around ice formations. A belay device like an ATC allows you to put tension on the rope for safety as your partner climbs. A locking carabiner on your harness attaches you to the rope and belay system.
Layer up with base layers, softshell pants, jackets, and waterproof outershells to stay warm and dry. Look for breathable fabrics that wick moisture. Mittens are warmer than gloves, but dexterous gloves may allow better tool control. Some climbers use expedition-weight base layers for seriously cold conditions.
Ropes specifically designed for ice have some “dry treatment” to repel water, along with sheaths that resist freezing up. A 60m single rope should suffice for most waterfall routes. Bring extra cord for anchor building and gear tethers. Helmets guard against falling chunks of ice and rock. Make sure yours fits comfortably while accommodating hat and hood layers.
Lastly, proper footwear is critical when trusting your boots with your life. The best ice climbing boots have aggressive welts and heels to accept crampons. They’re stiff enough for edging yet flexible for kicking. Try boots on with the socks you’ll climb in. The snuggest, warmest fit that doesn’t pinch anywhere should be your goal.

For ice climbers, the world is their frozen oyster, with incredible landscapes covered in glorious glazed ice just begging to be ascended. From the Canadian Rockies to the Slovenian Alps, renowned venues offer some of the most thrilling ice climbing on the planet. Let’s explore some of the top spots where intrepid climbers lace up their crampons each winter in pursuit of white-knuckle adventure.
The Ouray Ice Park in Colorado lives up to its nickname as the “Ice Climbing Capital of America.” This tiny town has over 200 named ice and mixed climbs along a 2-mile gorge, with convenient access and routes suitable for all ability levels. Ouray offers lessons, festivals and even a kids' climbing park! Top picks are Bridal Veil Falls and Polar Circus - an otherworldly funnel of icicles dangling 40m over the Uncompahgre River. The ice is carefully maintained and re-formed annually by an army of volunteers with a passion for preserving Ouray’s icy magic.

Canada’s Banff National Park is a legendary ice mecca, with hundreds of frozen waterfalls tucked amidst stunning alpine vistas. Climbers flock to Professor Falls, Replicant, Bourgeau Left, and the Weeping Wall for incredible ice ranging from WI3 to WI7. Multiple guide services can show visitors the ropes and provide gear for those lacking kit. Banff’s Ice Magic Festival in January draws enthusiasts for competitions, demos, speeches and camaraderie. Just down the road, Canmore and Kananaskis Country offer superb climbing with fewer crowds.
Slovenia’s Triglav National Park contains some of Europe’s finest ice climbing amid the sharp peaks of the Julian Alps. The Soca Valley dishes up creamy cascades, while the Pokljuka Gorge astonishes with its 300m walls. The Boka and Krn areas boast another 300 named routes from WI3 to WI6 - enough to spend a lifetime working your way through! Slovenia sees fewer climbers than the Alps, allowing more opportunity to enjoy tranquil serenity while dangling from your axes. Local guide services enthusiastically share the secrets of their ice paradise.
The Southern Alps of New Zealand may seem an unlikely setting, but when winter hits, the mountains deliver abundant frozen treats. The Craigieburn Range is one of the premier destinations, where Mt. Cockayne and Canterbury Gully are must-do classics. This area features crampon-friendly hiking between long, multi-pitch climbs - perfect for high-alpine adventure. For ocean views while swinging tools, head to Mt. Cook National Park and try the Minarets or Sefton Bluffs. New Zealand guides are top-notch for customized instruction.

Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Ice Climbing Hotspots in the American West

The American West is a hotbed for ice climbing, with renowned venues scattered across states like Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California, and Utah. This region combines wild alpine terrain, ample snowfall, and consistent cold temperatures - a perfect recipe for abundant waterfall ice. From roadside crags to multi-pitch frozen cascades, the western states offer incredible diversity for all ability levels.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park contains unmatched ice climbing with over 200 named routes. Dream venues like Hidden Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park offer a frozen playground right off the road. Meanwhile, remote frozen gems like Bridal Veil Falls and The Black in Telluride harken to true wilderness adventure. Aspen, Vail and Estes Park also contain top-notch venues where climbers can get their ice fix. The state's consistent cold and plentiful moisture breed superb “plastic” ice - not too brittle, not too soft.

In Wyoming, the cascades of the Tetons embody the iconic mountain west. Climbers flock to classics like Thread of Life and Without a Song in Grand Teton National Park. Vantage points like Static Electricity on the Snake River treat climbers to reflections of the breathtaking alpine panorama. Jackson Hole Mountain Guides lead visitors on custom adventures seeking out the state’s best ice.

The aptly named city of Bozeman serves as the hub for Montana ice climbing. Hyalite Canyon contains over 150 named routes just 45 minutes from town - an ice climber’s ideal backyard playground. Meter-wide pillars and alien shapes at venues like Genesis and Spaceshot inspire awe. Montana State University Outdoor Recreation teaches new climbers the ropes and leads trips to coveted spots like Bridger Canyon and the Gallatin Range.

In California, Lee Vining Canyon and the June Lake Loop offer superb Sierra Nevada ice climbing framed by beautiful lake views. Bishop is another premier outpost, where the Owens River Gorge and Buttermilks serve up steep cascades and frosty seclusion. Mammoth Lakes is close to frozen magnets like the Incredible Hulk and Whiskey Creek. Guides know how to time trips to catch these fickle flows at their peak.
Utah’s Zion National Park transforms into an icy haven during winter months. Ephemeral flows in the park’s slot canyons create unique climbing challenges. Guides shepherd their flock to the best ice du jour - surprises may await around any bend! Provo Canyon also houses reliable flows like Bridal Veil Falls, where BYU students train to crush icicles when class isn’t in session.

Chill Out: The Cool Rise of Ice Climbing for Adventure Seekers - Beginner Routes for Those New to the Sport

For newcomers to ice climbing, fear not - while scaling vertical walls of ice may seem daunting, there are many beginner-friendly routes perfect for getting your footing in the sport, quite literally. Starting on easier low-angled ice allows you to get accustomed to unusual sensations like plunging axes overhead and edging crampons on angled terrain. Classifying climbs by a difficulty rating helps choose intro routes. The rating system uses grades from WI1 (the easiest) up to WI7 (the most challenging). Look for single-pitch WI3 and below for your first routes. These provide 60-90 feet of climbing which is manageable for first-timers. Multipitch climbs with long vertical sections are more advanced. Top-roping with experienced guides also opens access to routes beyond your leading ability.

A great strategy is to identify climbing venues with a variety of WI2 – WI4 routes all in the same area. This offers options to match your comfort level and progress each session. For example, the Vail Ice Park in Colorado contains twenty beginner lines right alongside more advanced climbs. The manicured ice there provides an ideal training ground. Alaska's Hatcher Pass features stunning frozen cascades and is another favorite for instructional programs. Look for low-angle frozen flows that allow you to pause as needed. Steep vertical columns overwhelm new leaders. Seek ice bulges, corners, and ramp-like terrain to start. Setting top-rope anchors at 30-40 foot intervals lets you take hangs and build confidence.

Practicing proper multi-point ballet on beginner terrain develops muscle memory. Focus on keeping forearms perpendicular and elbows in tight to conserve energy. Make smooth, even swings when swinging axes into the ice. Weight your foot before kicking in crampon front-points. Pay attention to tool placement and weight distribution between feet, hands and core. Use knee drops to rest and think through next moves. Develop a steady, sustainable breathing rhythm. Moving smoothly and slowly boosts efficiency. Jerky, rushed movements sap energy and put you off-balance.

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