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Prime Ice: How to get started climbing ice


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Story and photos by Mallorie Estenson

C’mon, Mal. You got this. You can do this.

I’ve been an athlete my entire life: a competitive gymnast, a state champion springboard diver, a distance runner and a climber. Never before have I been so close to giving up.

I raised my hand and slammed my pick into the ice with a small, desperate battle cry. I willed my legs to lift and kick into the ice. My boots shifted beneath my transitioning weight, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.

It took all the willpower I could muster, but I made it through. I climbed that pitch and proved to myself that my mind is more powerful than any muscle group in my body.

Ice climbing, from what I’ve gathered thus far, is a very basic sequence of movements. Maybe that’s what allows you to get so deep into your mind. Maybe that’s why I love

it so much.

Mention ice climbing to a non-climber and they practically lose their mind.

“Isn’t that dangerous? Aren’t you afraid the ice is going

to break?”

Yeah, it can be dangerous. And yes, the ice might break; in fact, it might shear off in dinner plate-size chunks that fly at your face. There’s a good chance you’ll leave the ice bruised and scraped. But it’s entirely possible and accessible if you know how to set up a top rope anchor and exercise some common sense.

This is in no way a substitute for a guide or proper ice climbing training. Rather, it’s a few suggestions based on what I’ve learned to help you seek out ice climbing opportunities for yourself. It bears repeating: this is not a substitute for a guide to ice climbing. This is merely inspiration for the would-be ice climber.

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The competent rock climber – someone who understands climbing safety, rope systems, decision making in the backcountry, etc. – already knows much of what goes into ice climbing. However, ice is not rock. While ice appears physically solid, it exists in a dynamic state of constant change. Some days the ice is safe and some days the ice is weak. Therefore, it is always best to go with someone who is well versed in ice climbing and familiar with the area and present conditions.

To determine whether or not the conditions will allow for safe climbing, talk with other climbers who have been out recently. Talk to people whose credentials inspire confidence. If you’re not sure about conditions, don’t risk it.

You do not need to be the Incredible Hulk to climb ice. Ice climbing is much less about upper body strength than it is about executing proper technique. Watching YouTube videos, reading guidebooks and articles or even better, signing up for a class with a local guiding service, can help you learn the basics of technique.


This is the fun part. First, you’re going to need a set of ice tools – they are different from a singular ice axe, which is longer and used for mountaineering. Look for lighter, newer models, preferably with a curved shaft for an efficient swing. The picks are the mechanisms for pulling your body up the icy curtains . There’s something incredibly gratifying about the dull thud a pick makes when it sinks deep into solid ice – just wait, you’ll see.

Next, get yourself a pair of crampons for kicking into the ice. Vertical front-point crampons will make for a more aggressive option, but horizontal front points will get the job done too. The front point is the part of the crampon that extends out from beneath your toes. If you’re renting gear, the guys or gals at the gear shop will be able to explain the difference to you.

If there’s any wisdom I can impart on you, it’s this: steer away from strap-on crampons. Step-in or hybrid versions are far more secure, although they require specific boots. If the description “strap-on” isn’t enough to scare you off, imagine your boots slipping around in your crampons as you dangle from your ice tools and your arms become pumped out. I don’t care how good you are at campusing (climbing without using your feet) – that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

It is absolutely vital to wear a good helmet that will protect you from the ice that will inevitably fall as a result of people climbing above you. Icefall varies in size from ice cube to deadly, so helmets are essential.

A standard climbing harness will work for ice climbing. Ice-specific harnesses are out there, but those won’t be necessary for top roping. You’ll begin to consider them once you start thinking about leading on ice but for beginners, leading is out of the question and will be for a while. Progression on ice should be a slow process.

As for rope, any rope safe for climbing will do. Nope, it doesn’t need to be dry treated; while that would be convenient and optimal, any rope is going to become wet with use. Take two 70-meter ropes to ensure belayers can safely distance themselves from ice sheared off by the climber.

For protection, the same equipment you would use to set up a safe, equalized and redundant anchor for top-rope rock climbing applies on ice, with the additional possibility of v-thread anchors. Anchor building is far beyond the scope of this article; take a class with a local guiding service or make sure your partners are expert anchor builders.

Don the same attire you would for a day of skiing in cold, wet conditions – the more Gore-Tex the merrier – and pack extra gloves. Bring thick and thin gloves to experiment with. Thinner gloves provide better grip, but cold hands can lead to the screaming barfies, which are just as bad as they sound.


Before beginning an ice climb, take a moment to pause and reflect: am I ready to take on the risk? Have I evaluated the conditions? Are all members of my party adequately prepared? Am I properly equipped with all the knowledge and equipment I’m going to need?

My ice crag of choice is Marble Canyon, outside of Lillooet, B.C. According to Google Maps, it should only take about four hours to get there from Vancouver, but allow extra time for pit stops, icy driving conditions and the border crossing if coming from Washington. Once at the trailhead, it takes about five minutes to walk across frozen Pavilion Lake. The ice is great, ranging from WI3–5. The options are plentiful and top rope anchors abound. X