Ice Climbing: An Exhilarating Challenge

Feb 04, 21
Ice Climbing: An Exhilarating Challenge

Unlike rock climbing, where the terrain may be stable, snow and ice present unique challenges due to their ever-changing nature. From glacier walks to more vertical waterfall climbing, there are breathtaking paths for every explorer. To maximize safety, learning, and enjoyment while on these journeys, the following guide, presented by RopeSafe, is a good place to start.
Man with a red backpack walking on a snowy hill

“To stand in a far-off place, on a pedestal in the mountains, was more than exhilarating.”
- Karsten Delap, Pisgah Climbing School Founder, Professional Mountain Athlete, and Rescuer



Woman in a colorful cold-weather outfit climbing a wall of ice with crampons

While many videos of climbs focus on a person’s arms and hands, anyone who has done any type of climbing knows that having a solid foothold and proper footwork technique are critical. Karsten Delap advises that all climbers, especially novices, should take time to learn movement from coaches. Movement is critical to what takes place in the mountains and getting these techniques down can really help conserve energy, enable more efficient terrain coverage, and, most importantly, increase fun!

In a frozen environment, crampons, when used effectively, conserve energy for more technical areas as well as increase safety. Crampons are basically metal plates with spikes that can be attached around the sole of a boot to increase traction on snow and ice. They come in less aggressive forms designed to help gain mobility in slippery conditions, to ones with large front sections that allow climbers to dig into an ice face. For instance, in the Petzl lineup of crampons it can be easy to see the difference among the innocuous Spiky Plus anti-slip soles, the light Leopard series that are made for traversing snow, and the Dart which are designed for ice climbing.

Having the right equipment is the first step in tackling new winter terrain but technique is even more important. There are three main ways to effectively utilize crampons depending on the climber and the environment and each technique comes with a country and descriptive name:

  • The French Technique (flat-foot): climbers angle their feet parallel to the slope thus allowing the whole crampon, its tines, to dig into the surface.
  • The German Technique (front-pointing): climbers utilize this when attacking steep slopes and involves kicking the front points into the snow or ice to create an indentation that serves as a foothold.
  • The American Technique (hybrid): climbers utilize both methods by kicking directly into the surface with one foot while flat-footing the second foot for greater stability.



Man with ice climbing tools getting ready to mountain climbIt is best practice to train footwork, especially flat-footing, before introducing any hand tool. This is to ensure a proper and consistent bite into the snow and feedback for how different angles may feel. However, as you move to more vertical climbs, ice axes, hammers, and other tools become critical for safe and successful ascents. 

For instance, on technical steep routes, an adze and hammer are typically used. The hammer is used to set snow pickets or pitons into the surface. The adze can be used to chop steps or ledges, clearing snow and ice, and placing ice screws.

With the ice axe, the techniques are again organized by country names. For low-to-medium-angles (<45°) using the French technique:

  • Cane (piolet canne): The cane position is used when walking on flat or moderately steep terrain. The spike of the head should be in contact with the ice and the head of the axe serves as a handhold. This technique can be combined with the walking moves explained in the crampon section above.
  • Cross-body (piolet ramasse): As the slope increases, this technique is a more secure way to hold the axe because the climber turns more parallel to the terrain and moves diagonally. The axe is held, by the head, in the downhill hand and the spike is hit into the ice across the body to create a hold.

For steeper snow and ice (>45°), using the German technique, there are four methods that can be used:

  • Low dagger (piolet panne)
  • High dagger (piolet poignard)
  • Anchor (piolet ancre)
  • Traction (piolet traction)



Man wearing a red jacket and gray pants climbing an ice wall with crampons

As in any sport, clothing can play an important role in safety and performance, but few have as critical of a need as winter climbing. Temperatures, moisture, and wind are always in flux and being prepared can make the difference between an accomplished climb and having to abandon the mountain.

The key is to have quality gear that can combat the elements, help regulate the body’s needs, and be easily added or removed.

Since snow and ice climbing is so dynamic in terms of terrain, environment, and body reactions, here are a general list of things to look for in clothing:

  • Insulation factor: While each apparel manufacturer will utilize their own system to quantify the insultation/warmth of the clothing, look for ratings in the top ¾ of the range. The gear should protect while exposed or in the shade but be breathable when in full sun.
  • Packability: This concept is especially important for items that may be removed during a climb and is a qualification of how easily the clothing can be pressed into a small space. Many “puffy” looking shells are actually quite packable because they compress into pouches or pockets.
  • Rip/Tear Resistance: This again is a qualitative concept, but the product should address how well it stands up to use. Detachable hoods, reinforced stitching, high quality fabrics, and rubber/plastic edgings can all play a role increasing rip resistance.

For reference, the Anchor Light Belay K7 Jacket and the Guide Glove from Beyond Clothing are two excellent examples of quality affordable gear and hit all of the points mentioned above.  Added bonus, the Anchor Light Belay Jacket has PrimaLoft Black Bio insulation. It is biodegradable and made from post-consumer recycled content.



Snow and ice climbing offer an experience unlike any other. It combines technical skills, athletic performance, and an amazing sense of wonder and accomplishment. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get effective gear, just know what to look for when shopping. Also realize that there is a large learning curve to this sport, so to increase safety and enjoyment quickly, Delap advises that everyone hire a guide at least once. If you are interested in hiring a climbing guide, check out Pisgah Climbing School or message @karstendelap on Instagram.

Image Credits:
Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Photo by RopeSafe