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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When choosing a spot for your placement, you’ll want to inspect the ice, as the screw is only as strong as what you put it in. You need solid ice of course but sometimes you find it's aerated or has ash layers, snow layers, or air pockets which are all bad. You'll know you have good ice if you see a steady stream of ice coming out of the center of the screw. If this gets interrupted, it means you are hitting air, snow or ash.
Why not just use the biggest screw all the time. Sometimes you are not putting it in a thick glacier but a thin layer of ice with rock behind it. Using a screw that is too long could break the ice off the rock where it’s attached and destroy the teeth on your shiny new ice screw. If the hanger can't get all the way down to the ice, and sticks half way out because there is rock behind it, then it will leverage it and is too weak to hold you without doing some more complicated solutions.
Placing two screws too close together or in the same horizontal plane on waterfalls could create cracks in the ice that reduce both placements' strength (think of the squirrel from Ice Age). Screws have a limited lifespan as they melt the ice around them so check them regularly. This can happen in just a few hours and hold 0kN.
See how strong ice screws are in this EPISODE. The longest ones, Petzl 21cm stayed in the ice and the hanger broke at 14kN but the Black Diamond Express 13cm came out of the ice at 16kN and the hanger didn't break. This would be great to watch to learn to trust ice screws and learn when they don't hold.
It is possible but doesn't seem necessary to use V threads for a top rope anchor but we did also test V threads. That is where you drill a V with the long ice screws and thread your rope into the ice.
6mm rope would break before the ice and our ice in our context was breaking at 15kN with bigger ropes. See just how it all happens in this EPISODE.
The two most common anchor setups used in both rock climbing and ice climbing are the BFK and the sliding X. Both are super good enough but have some minor differences that make them more useful for different applications. The BFK or Big Fat Knot, allows an anchor to be redundant and limits the extension of the master point should one piece fail. However, if the climb wanders side to side, or you plan on climbing multiple routes right next to each other, it doesn't equalize at all when the direction of the pull changes from what you set it up with. The sliding X, on the other hand, equalizes the pieces really well given any direction of pull. You can check the redundant box by using 2 or 3 slings but, if one piece were to fail, the master point would slide down the length of the sling, shock-loading the other piece. Not a huge problem if you have a bunch of rope between you and the anchor but you want to minimize that on your anchors.
How Edgy Are you
Depending on where and how you’ll be climbing, the anchor may need to be 3 meters back from the edge or extended over it. If you’ll be belaying and climbing from the bottom you will want the master point extended over the edge so you can see the carabiner(s) from the bottom. Having a rope run over an edge creates rope drag and makes belaying more difficult. More importantly, that rope drag can actually melt the ice where the rope runs. This isn’t so much of an issue until the rope stops moving and all that ice refreezes. If you leave it for too long, the rope could get stuck and you’d have to free it (creating a mild inconvenience and an absolute epic). It’s also nice to see that your rope is still properly loaded in the carabiner(s) at all times instead of being out of site.
If you are not able to easily access the start of the climb, the climber will then be lowered to the bottom to climb back up. You don’t want your anchor right on the edge so the climber has a lot of room to comfortably get over the edge as they are being lowered or a lot of room to safely belay. The belayer could stand right at the anchor or if they wanted to keep an eye on the climber, extend their personal anchor so they can right up to the edge.
However, as we mentioned earlier if it’s your first time ice climbing you likely won’t have to worry about anchor setups and ice screws. Your experience will be very similar to going to a climbing gym to top rope. If you have never top roped in a gym before, it’ll really improve your experience to do that before you go ice climbing (learning things when you’re cold and tired, and hungry is hard). Learning the sequence of how to belay and tie in will translate well to your outdoor ice experience, and allow you to focus on learning how to climb the ice.
Ice Climbing Techniques
Similarly to rock climbing, your feet are the most important part but that's where the similarities stop. You can't approach ice like you would approach rock. The teeth on your feet are in the front, which means your feet must point straight forward at all times. To get the power to kick them into the ice, you can't top step, or place your feet really high like you might climbing. And if you campus up the wall with the axes you will get gassed out.
Play It Straight
It pays to understand how your crampons are designed to interact with the ice. There are a few different designs, but all share the same basic concept. The front points are the points in the front, mind-blowing, right? These are designed to break into the ice and get your crampon seated. This is obvious on the ground but it has to translate into how your foot is positioned! There are also secondary points behind these which create more stability when utilized correctly.
When you kick, kick the teeth in, not your toenails. If the boot is facing down because you are standing on your tippy toes with your other foot, you are just kicking the top of your boot into the ice. We’re kicking ice here, not soccer balls! Next, you can lower your heel until the secondary points engage. You should be able to feel your foot become more secure.
Remember you are not climbing a rock so don't try to get higher by standing on your toes. If you point your feet down, they come out. Keep your heel down to keep all the teeth in.
Don't Get Cocky
If you cock your foot sideways because it's too far to one side, you guessed it, your teeth come out. So where do your feet need to be placed? A good base technique is about shoulder width apart, but you can build on this as you get more comfortable and understand the ice better. To advance your feet up the wall, you’ll want to hang from straight arms and make small movements up the wall to your next stance.
The first step is to shift your hips out from the wall and look at your feet, this will help you get better placements and it makes kicking easier. Think “center, center, wide, wide” as you move both of your feet up. You can move one foot to the center and up a little from where it originally was, then do the same with the other foot.
These center steps don’t need to be perfect so don’t spend too much time on placing them perfectly (you’ll be hanging from bomber ice axe placements, more on this in a second). After centering your feet you can move them one by one up a little bit and back to shoulder width apart. Once you have feet you are happy with, do the second half of a squat to return to a standing position. DO NOT DO A PULL UP. This is the most crucial part of ice climbing footwork and it makes climbing up a whole lot easier on your upper body. Use the big muscles in your legs to climb up the ice, not the small muscles in your arms. The whole point of this exercise is to minimize how much your body swings side to side and keeps your center of gravity... centered.
Edward Scissor Hands
Moving to the axes side of things, remember that they are ice axes and not baseball bats. Getting a good swing is important for the stability and reliability of the placement. Getting a good swing does not rely on a big wind-up that would give Babe Ruth a run for his money. Rather, the swing relies on the engagement of the lats, a good wrist flick, and most importantly: a downward pull. Flick the wrist too soon and you lost your power, too late and you bash your knuckles. It's ok if it takes you a few wacks to get it in solid but with practice, you can nail it in one. If you do wack it multiple times, try to hit the same hole.
As for where the axes should be placed, there are two different techniques. The first is better for beginners as it keeps you more square to the wall and prevents you from hitting yourself in the face with an axe. This is called the two-hand technique, and it involves your two axes being at least shoulder width apart from each other at the same height. This wide stance allows you to be stable in most situations and when you pull your axe out of the ice to move it, there is no risk of hitting yourself in the face (shoulder width remember?). So starting from a standing position you can do the center, center, wide, wide foot technique we were talking about earlier to get the handles of your axes close to your shoulders. Once you are here, remove one axe and place it higher up, still at shoulder width apart. You repeat this with the 2nd axe so they are at a similar height. Then just repeat the process.
The second method is called the A-frame. This technique keeps both axes mostly in line with your body the entire time you are climbing. Again starting from a stance you can place one axe high and in line with your body. Then hanging from just one straight arm, you can advance your feet again using center, center, wide, wide. But this time when you go to stand up (using your legs!) you can pull the handle of your lower axe upwards, breaking its placement, and releasing the axe all in one motion. Now you can place this axe high and in line with your body and repeat the process. Be careful when pulling out the axe not to do it too early or you may risk hitting yourself. You want it to sort of come out on it’s own as your body and arm move upwards. Your arm should be bent at about 90 degrees when this happens as it will be easiest to remove the axe at this angle.
For both these techniques you’ll want to keep your hips close to the wall in order to increase the force through your feet and reduce the force through your arms. This will help your endurance on longer routes and will make you climb better overall.
Just the Tips
Keep your hips to keep the force on your feet not your hands
Don't try to retrieve your axe by moving it side to side. Lift it straight up and then out.
Axe tethers are not to keep you on the axes but the axes to you, Clip them to the rope in front of your face during a top rope session so they are always within reach but don't bungee cord down to your face if they were attached to your harness
Hockey helmets might make you look new or dumb, but you'll have all your teeth at the end of the day
If you forgot to take your chalk bag off your harness, dump out the chalk and put a bunch of hand warmers in it!
Youtube metrics don't tell me if this was super helpful to you, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me yourself so I know to keep adding energy to this course and the others.
Before you go up the ice, just stay right at the ground and practice using your axe A LOT. Before you tie into climb, practice your foot work right off the ground until you learn how to get the front points in and keep them in. If you go up without doing this, you'll get gassed out and really limit how much ice time you get in.