Ice climbing for beginners

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Ice climbing is a unique experience that you will never forget. It feels totally different than rock climbing, but the basic body position stays the same. You need to have the most weight on the feet to prevent arms fatigue. An amazing place to try ice climbing is in the French Alps. Of course, there are many other places where you can try this out.

It depends on the weather conditions and the ice conditions whether it’s possible to go.  If you have never done ice climbing before, you need a guide who will give you the proper explanation. Ice climbing can be dangerous if it’s not done with a professional guide. The local guides know the mountains and they know the conditions of the weather and the ice.

What to know before you go ice climbing?

Climbing on ice is different than climbing on rocks. Ice constantly changes with the weather which means the environment is constantly changing. This makes each climb a challenge.

If you’ve never done ice climbing before you need to book a guide. A guide in the French Alps will cost around €400 for the whole day. Usually, you can bring up to 6 people for this price, depending on the guide. I know this is rather expensive, but it’s for the whole day and an experience you will never forget.

When you go for a whole day it’s important to bring a small bag with water, snacks, and sun protection. You’re climbing in the cold so it’s also important to think about the clothing you’re going to wear.

What to wear for ice climbing?

Now let’s talk about the best clothing for ice climbing. First, you need to know that there is a chance that your clothing will get damaged for example when the crampons get stuck in your pants. So, don’t wear your new, most expensive clothes. You can easily buy cheaper clothing at Decathlon.

Tip: always dress in layers of clothes when it’s cold so you can take of a layer or put on a layer.

Layering means that you wear multiple light pieces of clothing on top of each other. This helps you to have control over your temperature. You can easily take off a layer when you’re too hot or take on a layer when you’re too cold. Always make sure you’re not feeling too hot or too cold because this can be dangerous when you do a winter activity.

Upper body layering

Start by wearing a base layer. This is the first piece of clothing that you are putting on. This needs to be lightweight and comfortable because this layer stays on for the whole day. Make sure this layer is also quick drying. This can be a shirt with long or short sleeves, with or without a turtleneck, it’s what you prefer. A hiking shirt is always a good option.

The middle layer can be another shirt if you’re a person that gets cold fast. Then you put on a lightweight fleece. If you are not somebody that gets cold easily then you should immediately put on the fleece above the base layer. For this layer you need something that is lightweight and warm. You will wear this layer for hours, so it also needs to be comfortable and thin.

Top layer will be a thick fleece, a lightweight down jacket or a light ski jacket. Make sure this layer is water repellent and not too baggy. You will wear this one to climb.

Extra layer is an extra warm jacket for when you are not moving or for after the climb. This needs to be an easy layer to put on and off and is best loose fitted because you only wear it before the climb, in between the climb and after the climb. It’s to keep you warm when you’re not active.

Lower body layering

The base layer should be something comfortable and quick drying. This layer also needs to be a bit tight so you can wear another layer over it, like a legging. A base layer for under your ski pants is perfect to wear for the base layer of ice climbing.

The second layer for your lower body is the top layer. Make sure this pair of pants is waterproof and comfortable to move with. A snow pants is a perfect pants to wear or an easy ski pants that is not too baggy.

What else to wear

Besides clothing there are some other things you need to think about. Below you’ll see what else is important to think about when you go ice climbing:

  • Socks: hiking or ski socks but make sure they are not too big and avoid cotton (cotton stays wet).
  • Gloves: make sure to bring at least two pairs. A lightweight pair is needed to climb with a good grip and a heavy warm pair is needed for in between so you don’t get cold hands.
  • Buff and hat: bring something for around your neck and for on your head in case you need this.
  • If you have long hair don’t forget to bring a hair tie.

Remember: there is a chance that your clothing will get damaged so be prepared for that!

Which equipment do you need for ice climbing?

The equipment that you need for ice climbing is a bit different than for rock climbing. Normally when you book a guide, this equipment is included so you don’t need to arrange this unless the guide says otherwise.

Let’s have a look at the equipment that is necessary to go ice climbing:

  • A helmet for your safety
  • Mountaineering boots or ski boots
  • Crampons to attach to your boots
  • Two ice axes to climb
  • A rope
  • Ice screws (5-6 screws)
  • A harness, belay device and carabiners
  • Good winter clothing like discussed above

Make sure this equipment is in good condition. Always check out the gear for damage before you use it. Equipment always needs to be stored in a dry, dark place and needs to be checked every time before use.

How to ice climb?

Most of the time ice climbing will be done on frozen waterfalls. It’s different than rock climbing but the body position stays the same. Keep most of the weight on the feet otherwise your arms will get tired. For ice climbing you don’t use your hands directly like rock climbing and you go up on ice instead of rocks using two ice axes for the hands and crampons for the feet. The most difficult part of ice climbing is the swing to put the ice axes in the ice.  

Your guide will explain how you need to ice climb. There are many different techniques to use the equipment. It’s important to know that there is a technique, and you don’t need much strength.

First you swing one axe in the ice, which is done with a shoulder and wrist movement, and you will hear a specific sound when the axe is correctly placed in the ice. The swing is the most difficult part. The axe doesn’t need to be deep, and you don’t need to use a lot of power. It’s a technique and you don’t need to be strong for this. The axe just needs to be correctly placed into the ice. When the first axe is in, you do the same with the second axe. Make sure you don’t place the ice axes too high or too low.

For the feet you need to spread your legs a bit and kick the crampons in the ice. Your heels need to be down to prevent tiredness. Make sure your feet are placed good because that’s an important part.

It’s difficult to explain how to ice climb in words, you need to try it out for yourself to understand. I recommend watching this video to get a good explanation on how it’s done.

There’s also not just one correct way to do it. Like I said, there are many techniques you can use. Ask your guide for the best way that works for you.

Our experience with ice climbing

I surprised my husband for his thirtieth birthday with this ice climbing experience. It was €400 to go ice climbing and we were with three. A fourth person would be ideal to split the price. Our guide could take six people, but I think that would be too much. You would wait a lot and you can’t go too far then because you need to wait.

You will never know until you try

We went ice climbing near Chapelle Notre Dame de la Gorge in the French Alps near Chamonix. We started climbing early in the morning around 8.30 am and finished the day around 5 pm.

First, we climbed up multiple waterfalls and after climbing some waterfalls we needed to hike down. In the end we climbed up one big waterfall to finish off the day. It’s an experience that we will never forget.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings we had during this crazy experience. It’s indescribable. You will have many feelings. I felt overwhelmed and scared, while also feeling powerful, excited, curious and in the end relaxed and proud of the accomplishment.

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