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Intro to Ice Climbing

A HowNOT2 Course

Intro to Ice Climbing

We have 4 glacier guides in Iceland introducing you to Ice Climbing. This was going to be 3 episodes of Gear, Anchors, and Technique but we were able to smash it all cohesively into the one video you see above. Naturally, as this was filmed in Iceland by Iceland guides, this is taught on glacial ice. Waterfall ice climbing is a bit different but many of the things shared here cross over super good enough at the beginning level.

This is intended to read and watch before you go ice climbing with someone who knows what they are doing, so you can absorb things a lot faster. It would have been super helpful to have seen this before going ourselves instead of showing up "cold turkey". Please don't watch an hour-long video on youtube of people you don't know and then put knives on your feet and sharp axes in your hands and try this stuff on your own. There is no way all the nuances of your context can be covered and you don't know what you don't know and could get hurt as a result.

Your Ice Guides

Mike Reid is originally from the USA and imported a surplus of stoke when he moved there in 2018 so he could ice climb... all day baby! He also is an AIMG certified glacier guide and also owns and operates his own private company, ICE PIC JOURNEYS, for ice tours, adventures, and pics.

Ásgeir Már is from Iceland and has been an AIMG certified glacier guide since 2015. He has a lot of experience with waterfall ice as well as he has traveled through the Alps, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand exploring mountains.

Žaneta Bartoňová is originally from the Czech Republic and she has been an AIMG glacier guide for 3 years and is an avid rock climber. She's ice climbing in Antarctica at the moment so she can't finish filling out her bio yet!

Stephan Mantler is originally from Austria and has been climbing the European mountains and Iceland's glaciers for over 30 years. He is an AIMG certified glacier and mountain guide, member of the Icelandic search and rescue team. He owns and operates his own private tour company, STEPMAN, where you can see Ice Caves or summit the highest mountains in Iceland. His guesthouse, Dynjandi, was very nice and comfortable and we recommend it if you visit that area.

Ice Climbing Gear

Even if the rope is set up already, you'll need personal gear. Harness, helmet, crampons, and axes. If the rope is not set up (not sure how since you are going with an expert) you need ice screws, anchor material, a rope, and a belay device and that's beyond the scope of this course. As free content is not free to make, we promote Extreme Gear products below as they support us 10% with what you buy. It helps us add to this course and make others.


The harness you’ll use for ice climbing is essentially the same as for normal climbing, if you already have one, perfect! If not, or if your existing harness doesn’t have a lot of adjustment left, you may want to buy one specifically for ice climbing. It’s important that you’re able to adjust the waist and leg loops to be large enough to fit you when you’re wearing all your layers.

caritool for screws

For more advanced applications like leading or longer multi-pitch routes, you may want a harness that has space for a caritool tool holding carabiner. This is a plastic (not-rated!) carabiner which hooks onto the harness for storing ice screws, and occasionally your ice axes.


As for helmets, you can choose to use an existing climbing helmet if you’ve got one, but ice climbing-specific helmets have some kind of eye protection built in (ice hurts when it hits you in the eyes), and different helmets achieve this in different ways. Some have just a small brim that sticks out to help prevent things from hitting you, others will have a clear face shield that can swivel into and out of place. If you are on steep terrain and you don't want to risk your axe popping out and busting your mouth open, you could always just wear a hockey helmet. You might look new or confused to other ice climbers but you'll keep your smile at the end of the day. Be aware that face shields or sunglasses can fog up and prevent you from sending. I mean seeing.

Boots and Crampons

Do NOT use normal hiking or snow boots for ice climbing, they will ruin your day and your feet. Mountaineering/ice climbing boots are much stiffer and will help your crampon to stay attached to your feet, and provide a good base for climbing later on. It’s crucial that your boots match the crampon style that you’ll be using. There are 3 categories of crampons that are made: Strap crampons, semi-automatic/hybrid crampons, and automatic crampons.

Strap crampons are the most versatile as they simply use a strap to attach to most boots. They are also the most likely to shift while in use, making doing harder climbing in them a challenge. These crampons are most often used for walking.

Semi-automatic/hybrid crampons combine straps and a metal piece in the rear that hooks onto a lip on the back of some boots. This means you will have to have a compatible boot, but the fit you can achieve is much tighter and more suitable for climbing.

Automatic crampons have a metal piece in the rear and in the front, both of which hook onto ledges on your boot. This crampon requires a boot that is specially designed for automatic crampons, but they provide the tightest and best fit for climbing applications.

Every crampon features adjustability for different-sized boots, however, it is really important that your crampons work well with your boots, and to test them at home. Don’t find out that they won’t work together at the base of a waterfall!

Carrying your crampons for the approach can be in a bag specifically for them, putting the crampons with points together, or facing the teeth in the same direction and strapping them to the outside of your bag (teeth out).


Axes come straight and curvy, with different blades and different attachments on the back.

Mountaineering axes are meant for walking and going up inclines, but not for climbing. Its straight handle provides little purchase for actually gripping and it's meant to be poked in the snow like a walking stick. Its pick and adze can be used to clear away bad ice and snow.

Slightly curved axes are for a similar purpose but could be used for more technical mountaineering. If you are looking for a 1-tool-does-all type of axe.

The ice climbing-specific axes have a more curved shaft and a pommel/handguard to give you more grab on the tool. These are what you want for your first time ice climbing. You may not need the curviest of all the axes as they are for higher performance steep AF terrain.

Ice Anchors

While it’s unlikely you’ll be actually building an anchor on your first ice climbing excursion, it's good to know how they work so you can understand what’s going on or ask good questions to understand the context of that climb. As with rock climbing, we like to aim for a SERENE anchor. This acronym helps us remember a few questions that are important for creating a super good enough anchor:

Strong - Is it strong enough for our application + some safety margin?

A kilonewton (kN) is102kg or 225 pounds of force. Top roping doesn't have a lot of big falls since the rope is above you. The weight of the person belaying also counts. So on average your anchor will see 2kN. If ice screws are installed well, they are 14kn, your rope at the knot breaks between 14kN and 20kN, your rope in a U shape going through the anchor isn't twice that strong but almost. The carabiner is around 20kN and your harness is stronger than your spine.

Equalized - Do the multiple pieces in the anchor share the load equally?

With two pieces, you want them both to hold 50% of the force but realistically one sees more than the other, just aim to have them share the load even though one piece is super strong enough.

Redundant - If one piece fails are we still connected to the wall?

Two screws are redundant. One sling with a knot in it makes each leg isolated and therefore redundant. A triple auto-locking carabiner is so bomber you don't have to have two but if you got them that would be redundant. Yes, you have only one rope but it's not always practical to have two.

Efficient - How long did it take us to build? Take too long and summer will come.

Don't over-engineer an anchor. Keeping it simple and quick keeps it super safe enough.

No Extension - If 1 piece does fail, will the other piece(s) be shock loaded?

This is not very important for top roping as the forces are low and the rope absorbs any fall that may happen because one screw fails. It's just a good anchor principle to follow for other contexts in the future. If something were to fail, you want to minimize how the rest of the anchor shifts and extends. Shock loading the rest of your anchor and ropes rubbing rocks is not ideal.

From tying in with figure 8s to using munter hitches to belay with, if you don't know lots about knots, this EPISODE will going to be very helpful.

Screwing Around

Again, it’s unlikely you’ll have to do this on your first time, but ice screws are the main protection used when climbing ice, so it’s good to know how they work. They have sharp teeth on the end that helps the screw bite into the ice initially, then the ice screw is turned clockwise to engage the threads. Once engaged, these threads guide the screw into the ice until the hanger hits the wall. At this point make sure you don't force the screw in any further, as it will reduce the strength of the placement. Instead back the screw out just a little until the hanger points in the expected direction of pull.