An offshoot of mountaineering, ice climbing has roots in high-altitude glaciers and gigantic frozen falls. But today the sport is almost as accessible as its rock-based cousin.
And it’s no surprise that the sport will appeal to the adventurous spirit of your Scouts and Venturers. In fact, some Scout camps offer ice-climbing courses (see below), where Scouts can earn their Climbing merit badge on a frozen face. Other icy adventures await young climbers at so-called “ice farms,” which are now fairly common across the U.S. These quasi-natural venues feature pipes, hoses and spray heads where climbers “farm” giant pillars of climbable ice on cliffs or quarry walls.
Don’t want to face the elements? Or maybe you live in a state with balmy winter temperatures? You can even swing an ice ax at one of several newly opened indoor venues. Foam and soft plastic holds made to support axes and crampon-equipped boots give beginners a chance to try the sport at room temperature in a gym. (Before visiting any facility, ensure they have the proper safety certification.)
I was a serious ice climber for several seasons. During dozens of trips and many thousands of feet climbed, I learned a lot about the sport and the nature of the creaking, crazy medium where it takes place. Here are a few tips for anyone looking to grip an axe and get vertical this winter on a wall of ice:
1. Buy (Or Rent) Good Gear. You can skimp on equipment for some outdoor activities, looking store to store for budget buys. But for ice climbing, I recommend going with the best gear you can find and afford. Safety and comfort — not to mention performance on the frozen face — all depend on high-quality gear, from your boots on up. (Check out this list of my favorite gear for beginner ice-climbers.) Look to brands like Black Diamond, Petzl, La Sportiva, Grivel and others that specialize in the genre. Lightweight, well-balanced axes, warm boots and precise, sharp crampons make all the difference on a climb.
2. Go With A Guide. Many activities can be DIY to get started. Not ice climbing. (This includes simulated indoor ice climbing.) As part of the Scouting-approved high-adventure outings, you’ll need to employ the advice and instruction of an expertly rated guide. Read more at Climb On Safely, and call or visit your local rock-climbing gym and ask for experts in this realm. With falling ice, difficult anchor placements and frozen ropes — not to mention a dozen additional factors — this is a dangerous game if not played right. A certified instructor or guide will demonstrate the proper techniques and educate newbies young and old on this unique environment where the sport takes place.
3. Focus and Finesse. Ice climbing might seem like a brute-strength pursuit. But like rock climbing, the best ice technicians bank on balance and technique, not just upper-body power. Up close, some climbs are made up of intricate ice chandeliers, pillars and layered icicles that shatter with a wrong swing. Look for tiny crevasses and small ledges in the ice and tap your axe into place there for purchase. With the feet, step carefully and deliberately. Kick lightly and set the front-points of your crampons into place. It’s easy to bash your way onto a climb, axe picks and crampon spikes digging in. But you’ll quickly tire and flail if technique is ignored.
4. Mutating Medium. Unlike rock climbing, the ice-climbing medium changes dramatically with temperatures swings. Ice that is easy to climb and “plasticky” on a 30-degree day can be bullet hard and near-impossible when the mercury drops. Overall, ice climbs are dynamic, mutating environments where sunshine, snowfall, wind and temperature each has an affect on the nature of the route. Don’t expect an icefall to be unchanged throughout the season — the difficulty of the ascent can change in a few hours as the winter elements swing. Approach each day as a possible new experience on the ice.
5. Macho Man. Ice climbing is not for the tame. Really, the sport can be painful and sometimes scary, and you should know what you’re in for before pulling a harness on your hips. Feet can go numb in the cold, and you might lose a toenail from kicking too hard into the ice. The sport is defined by cold temps, wind, ice, snow, sharp, pointy metal things and a constant battle against gravity. Let’s just say ice climbing is no walk on the beach.
6. An Apex Pursuit. Despite the potential difficulty and pain, ice climbing is among the most rewarding activities I’ve ever pursued. Working up a vertical plane — sometimes hundreds of feet in the air — is a rare and thrilling experience. The winter woods or mountains are quiet and serene. Views from the top are outlooks few people ever see. For me, ice climbing can be calming, a near-meditative movement — swing an axe, kick a boot, pull up, breathe and repeat — unlike anything else I’ve experienced outside.
Specialized Scouting Ice-Climbing Programs
Pikes Peak Council: http://www.wpcbsa.org/summitbase/Activities/IceClimbing.asp
Westchester-Putnam Council: http://www.pikespeakbsa.org/Camping/CampAlexander/IceClimbing/
Know of other councils or Scout camps with ice-climbing programs? Share them with us in the comments, below.
—Stephen Regenold is former editor of the climbing magazine Vertical Jones. He is currently editor-in-chief at GearJunkie.com.