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Ice Climbing

Discover the action sport of ice climbing.

Ice climbers ascend formations such as icefalls, frozen waterfalls and ice-covered rocks. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Ice climbers ascend formations such as icefalls, frozen waterfalls and ice-covered rocks.

Ice climbing is an action sport that allows enthusiasts and competitors to experience nature in its purest form as they scale frozen ice formations. Ice climbers ascend formations such as icefalls, frozen waterfalls and ice-covered rocks. In some cases, they climb artificial ice structures.

According to the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), all mountaineering training encompasses ice climbing to some extent, although ice climbing is its own sport and discipline. Ice climbers experience the grandeur of an ever-changing environment. No climb is exactly the same as another. The UIAA calls ice climbing "a unique adrenaline driven action sport." Ice climbing is also a competitive sport, with a world cup and championship events.

Ice climbing ratings for destinations depend on whether the ice is alpine or water; alpine ice is created from snow, and water ice formations develop from liquid water, according to iceclimb.com. According to the UIAA, ice climbing competitions are broken into three areas: speed, lead difficulty and boulder difficulty. Not all ice climbers compete with others, however; some compete only with themselves and the natural environment. Either way, people should not attempt ice climbing without proper training, equipment and practice.

History of Ice Climbing

The first ice-climbing competition was held in 1912; however, ice climbing as a competitive sport is relatively recent, dating to 1970, when Russia started hosting competitions. Early competitions also occurred in France. Today, ice climbing competitions are also held in Colorado and Canada. Modern-day mountain climbing is divided into three related sports: ice climbing, alpine climbing and rock climbing. Subsets of ice climbing have also sprung up, such as frozen waterfall climbing, which itself has several sub-disciplines, according to Climbing magazine.

Ice Climbing Equipment

Ice climbers strive to land their ice picks directly into the ice, a skill that takes practice, technique and effective tools. MountainDays.net provides a detailed climbing glossary that may be helpful to prospective ice climbers who run across new terms.

The following list defines important pieces of ice climbing equipment:

  • Crampons. These shoe covers attach to an ice climber's boots and have metal points that grab onto the ice.
  • Ice picks. Climbers use these to move forward by plunging them into the ice.
  • Ice screws. When screwed into the ice, ice screws protect an ice climber from slipping.
  • Leashes. These attach to ice tools to allow the ice climber to maintain control of the tool.
  • Ropes. These provide a group of ice climbers with protection by linking them together during a climb.
  • Harnesses. Harnesses keep ice climbers secure during the ascent and keep them fastened to the rope.
  • Belay devices. These control the rope. When ice climbers protect others by stopping them from slipping, it is referred to as belaying.
  • Helmets. As ice climbers can easily fall, it is essential that they wear helmets.
  • Carabiners. These metal loops are attached to protection, which is what ice climbers call objects that act as anchors during a climb.
  • Quickdraws. These reduce the rope's drag.
  • Proper shoes and clothing. Wearing the right clothing when ice climbing requires a lot of thought and preparation. Ice climbers wear different clothing for three different aspects of ice climbing: the approach, the belay and the climb. For the approach, climbers wear thin, polypro pants and shirts, soft-shell pants, thin liner gloves and a headband. For the belay, they wear a hoodless down or synthetic jacket and special belay gloves. And, for the climb, they add a soft-shell jacket and hat.

As ice climbing evolved from mountain climbing, ice climbers still use similar equipment to that of mountain climbers; however, their crampons have two extra points due to their need to climb vertical ice sheets. Their ice picks also differ; ice climbers favor curved ice picks, which allow ice climbers to handle defects in the ice, such as bulges and fractured ice.

Ice Climbing Skills

ABC of Ice Climbing, a Web site devoted to the sport, recommends that aspiring ice climbers master at least seven basic skills:

  • Rope systems. Ice climbers must learn to navigate using rope systems.
  • Tying in. Ice climbers must be able to tie rope into a harness.
  • Belaying. An ice climber should be able to secure a fellow ice climber.
  • Leading. A leader must be able to "place protection" on other ice climbers.
  • Abseiling. Abseiling is the act of coming down steep rock.
  • Lowering. The act of descending.
  • Back clipping. Clipping a rope to a backdraw.

Where to Climb in North America

Colorado, New Hampshire and the areas around Lake Superior (both in the United States and Canada) are considered the top ice climbing destinations in North America. Mtnguide.org publishes a list of ice climbing guides and expeditions. The following list describes other top North American destinations for ice climbing:

  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior. The National Park Service provides a detailed map for ice climbers. Blue ice columns and waterfalls are features of the area. Many of the areas around Lake Superior are top destinations for ice climbers. The Web site NEice publishes ice condition reports for Lake Superior, as well as other ice climbing destinations in North America.
  • Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado. Ouray Ice Park has been an ice-climbing destination since the 1970s. The Ouray Ice Festival is an international draw that includes a competitive route, ice clinics and other activities. Colorado's Official Tourist Web site lists other ice climbing destinations in the state, including Crested Butte and Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • New Hampshire. The Web site NEClimbs offers detailed information about ice climbing in New Hampshire. Mount Washington, Crawford Notch and Frankenstein are among the many regional ice climbing areas there.
  • Southern Ontario, Canada. The area in and around Southern Ontario, Canada, is becoming a destination for ice climbing. Ice climbing is popular in the Adirondacks, Sault Ste. Marie and Orient Bay in northwestern Ontario.
  • Utah Valley's Provo Canyon. Known as a "stairway to heaven," this site is an ice climbing destination that is touted as one of the longest continuing ice climbing locations in North America.

Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, New York and other states also have ice climbing destinations.

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