Even if you love skiing or snowboarding, getting outdoors during the brisk months can start to seem like a drag. Plus there’s the whole lift expense, long lines and crowded runs. Try busting out of your cold-weather coma with a new activity instead — ice climbing.
The twist on traditional rock climbing is ascending in popularity, and for good reason: It blasts up to 600 calories an hour, tones muscles from head to toe, and lets you reap the emotional benefits of being outdoors and challenging yourself. Think scaling a frozen waterfall or cliff covered in ice sounds too extreme? Not necessarily, says Dawn Glanc, a professional rock and ice climber based in Ouray, Colorado: “Ice climbing and rock climbing are very similar, but because you can place axes and crampons just about anywhere, ice climbing can actually seem easier for some people.”
Use Glanc’s advice about proper technique, essential gear, and must-see locales to give this hot winter sport a go.
7 Essential Ice Climbing Tips
1. Pick Your Locale
Traveling to a spot with ice-climbing routes that are well established is key for a successful outing. Some of the best areas to find icy walls are Cody, Wyoming, Bozeman, Montana, the Adirondacks in the Northeast, and North Conway, New Hampshire. Glanc’s favorite place to ascent frozen walls is around her local Ouray Ice Park in Colorado, which features more than 200 ice climbs.
Though some experienced climbers go out alone, it’s always a safe bet to climb with a buddy so you can feel safer and avoid a 127 Hours situation. Not friends with any advanced climbers? Find a program, class, or guide through programs like REI Adventures or Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School and join a group to head out with.
Keep in mind that climbing is a life-threatening activity.
2. Shift Into Gear
The positions and motions you’ll go through while moving up a wall of ice are very similar to those of rock climbing. They’re made possible on slippery surfaces thanks to the aid of crampons (sharp metal frames that strap onto your shoes, like these from Black Diamond) as well as ice axes that cut into the ice to create hand and foot holds. As with rock climbing, you’ll be strapped into a harness, too (like the Petzl Adjama). Note: If you’re going with a group or organization check if equipment is provided.
To stay dry and warm, Glanc wears the insulated Mountain Hardwear Seraction jacket (men’s, women’s) and pants. (men’s, women’s). She also recommends bringing along hot chocolate or another warm beverage to keep you toasty during the climb; store it in the HydroFlask Insulated Coffee, Tea, and Water Bottle and it’ll stay steamy all day.
3. Get a Guide
Keep in mind that climbing is a life-threatening activity, advises Glanc, so head out with a certified guide to learn safety skills and techniques, especially if you’ve never done this before. She suggests that all first-time climbers find a guide through the American Mountain Guide Association or the listings on websites like climbing.com. You could even connect with a pro climber like Glanc herself; she leads routes through San Juan Mountain Guides as well as Chicks Climbing. People do occasionally suffer major injuries and fatalities have been reported, but in general, injury rates among ice climbers are low. Common conditions are altitude sickness, upper-body muscle strains or swelling in the elbows and shoulders.
4. Assume the Position
As with rock climbing, it’s important to keep proper position against the wall during ice ascents to maintain balance and give you more drive. “Think of your body as a tripod or a letter A, with your feet as the base of the triangle,” suggests Glanc. “Stand with your toes about shoulder-width apart and at the same height, then reach overhead and connect to the wall with your ice axe, just off center from your body.” The axe helps give stability while your feet will drive you up the wall. Think about powering yourself up from your hips, glutes and legs — not your arms! If you do, you’ll tire extremely quickly.
“Climbing does work your entire body, but if you try to muscle up a wall rather than use good technique, you’ll be inefficient…”
5. Work Your Hips
An in-and-out motion of your hips, while you stay in the tripod position, will help you scale up smoothly, says Glanc. “Your hips should always be pushed against the wall while you’re adjusting the ice axes to help keep you balanced and secure,” she says. “Then, once they’re secured, hang with straight arms and push the hips away from the wall to increase your stability while you’re stepping your feet up the wall.” Having your pelvis pushed out from the wall will help you stay steady and give you more force from your legs as you take steps upward; you never want to pull yourself up with your arms, since they’re not as strong as your lower half and can be over-strained easily.
6. Don’t Push It
The movements of ice climbing are repetitive; try to enjoy that rhythm and not let yourself get antsy — you could end up overdoing it or pulling yourself up with your arms instead of your lower body, which will wear you out. “The sport is about form, not power,” says Glanc. “Climbing does work your entire body, but if you try to muscle up a wall rather than use good technique, you’ll be inefficient, waste energy, and fatigue quickly.”
7. Take a Breather
“To successfully make it up a challenging climb, you need to take care to rest and pace yourself,” says Glanc. With your crampons and axes connected to the ice, you’ll be secure enough to stop in place. Every few minutes on your way up, pause and take a few relaxing breaths. Remember that much of this extreme sport is mental: Focus on the next best place to put your axes and feet, and then excel upward.