Getting ready for an ice climbing expedition requires a few crucial things, including: the right equipment, the right mindset, and the right ice. There are several different methods of ice climbing that we utilize, and each method is specific to different types of climbing conditions. So while we find ice climbing to be a fun and meaningful endeavor, it is also a carefully planned process. Never underestimate the ice.
The Right Equipment
The right tools vary depending on the different method of climbing that we utilize, but on average, there are a few essential ice climbing tools that we always have on hand:
- The Traditional Ice Tool – This tool resembles an ice pick with a leash that loops around the wrist so that, if I were to lose my grip, I won’t lose my tool. There is also a leashless form of this traditional tool, but we suggest that one for more experienced ice climbers.
- Mono-Point Crampons – These bad boys resemble big, spiky boots that are used to give us some grip in our feet while we are climbing. The Mono-Point style has (surprise!) one spike in front that is perfect when we find ourselves on mixed terrain (ice to rock). The Mono-Point is also better at overall ice penetration, but stability can be an issue.
- Dual-Point Crampons – These guys serve the same purpose as the Mono-Points, but have more than one spike and offer greater stability during the climb. The Dual-Points are not as good at penetrating the ice, but they do make the climb less wobbly.
- Ice Screws and Ropes – These guys are our essential “protection” and safeguards when climbing. Ice screws are placed at strategic intervals throughout the climb and attached to ropes which will are useful in the unfortunate case of a slip or fall. No Ice Screw is perfect, since they rely on the ice itself for their efficacy, but they are still a smart safeguard to have in the event of an emergency situation.
These are not all of the tools out there, but they comprise the basic set up for a successful ice climber. Figuring out which tools and gear work best for you is really up to you. But hopefully we have given you a good idea of where to start.
The Right Methods
Ok, so we have our tools, and we are ready to get started. But simply having an ice axe and some fancy spiked shoes are not enough to really get you started. After all, if I were to place my pick in the wrong stretch of ice, I could easily find myself flat on my back in seconds. So how do we know the right way to get up the ice?
There are a few different techniques or methods that we use to properly climb our favorite ice floes using our Mono-Point or Dual-Point Crampons. These include:
- The French Technique – AKA “Flat-Footing”, this technique involves using the bottom points of the Crampons to walk along ice that is generally at a lower angle. Hence the “flat foot.” Really, we are just walking up the ice, though as the slope increases, it becomes necessary to flex the ankle in ways that allow for optimum grip. As we near the top of the slope, side-stepping becomes the necessary method. But the key to the French Technique is to keep the front points out of the ice.
- The German Technique – AKA “front-pointing”, this technique is essentially the opposite of the French Technique and requires that the front points of the Crampons come in contact with the ice. Generally, this methods works best on steeper slopes and involves a lot of kicking as we make our way up the icy slope. Kick, plant the spikes, stand, repeat. Simple, but definitely a leg work out.
- The Combined Technique – Just like it sounds, this method combines the French and German Techniques so that you alternate how your feet are planted when climbing. This method involves one foot with front points planted in the ice while the other foot goes flat against the ice. Move, rinse, repeat.
These are great methods to start learning your own technique, which will come with time. So long as we can start from a solid foundation, our skills will continue to grow the more we get out on the ice.
Now, for the other tools. The same technique titles apply, but now we are focusing on the ice axe:
The French Technique
- Cane – Hold the axe so that the spiked shaft is facing the ice. This is what we use to climb.
- Cross-Body – When the slope increases, we turn our bodies sideways, hold the axe by its head, and use the spiked shaft end diagonally across the body as we move up.
The German Technique
- Low Dagger – When we are face-to-face with the ice, hold the axe by its head and push the pick into the slope at waist or chest level for short movements.
- High Dagger – Same as the low dagger, only we reach above the head to place the pick.
- Anchor – Hold the axe near the bottom of the shaft and swing it overhead to bury the pick in the ice. This helps anchor our position so that we can front-point climb our way upward.
- Traction – This method involves two ice axes, and is used for very steep slopes. It is essentially the same motion as the Anchor, but with two picks.
The Right Mindset
Having a good foundation for ice climbing is essential to a successful adventure, but, really, having the right mindset is the best tool. We like to always remember two things: the ice is our friend, until it isn’t. This way, we understand that while this is a noble endeavor, it is important to always be prepared. Get the right equipment, get in the right mindset, and have fun with it. These are the rules of ice climbing.