We are climbers. We will sleep on a port-a-ledge, live out of our cars, put Cams on our wedding registries, and forego lunch for months so that we can invest in a nice rack and spend our days shimmying up off-widths. When the warm weather slips away and the rock becomes covered in ice, we don’t say a tearful goodbye to our summertime rockmance. We pack our crampons and tools and head into the bitter cold. Hello ice!
Ice Climbing is not for everyone. It’s a treacherous, expensive, and painful sport. Perhaps it is wiser to snuggle up by a fire in the middle of winter with a hot cup of cider and a good book. If, however, you enjoy suffer-fests and an iffy amount of personal safety, then saddle-up.
“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming—Wow! What a Ride!” ~ Unknown Author
WHEN TO GO
Utah’s prime ice climbing season is December through February and like most outdoor recreation in this State, there are many options that are close by and easily accessible. If you can’t sneak away to Ouray or Cody, there are about 20 routes in the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons and close to that number in Provo Canyon. The Bridal Veil Ice Fall in Provo Canyon and the Great White Icicle in Little Cottonwood Canyon are among the most popular classic routes. Next time you head up Little Cottonwood Canyon peer out your car window about two miles from the mouth of the canyon and you might catch a glimpse of someone free-soloing up the GWI.
It would be inhumanely irresponsible of me to write an introduction to ice climbing without telling you about the screaming-barfies. Articulate, I know. This is the term commonly used by ice climbers to refer to the painful sensation of warm blood flowing back into cold hands after sending a climb. Your blood vessels vasoconstrict, or narrow in your extremities in an effort to keep your core warm. Vasodilation is the reversal of this and occurs when the warm blood from your core flows back into your frozen sausage fingers. When this happens the pain is so heinous that you’ll actually want to sever your own hands off with your ice tool. Before you do so, keep in mind that it only lasts for one or two minutes, but it does happen to almost EVERYONE no matter how warm your gloves are. When the excruciating pain ends, it’s practically orgasmic. You can mitigate it by using leashless ice tools and by violently swinging your arms before starting the climb to get your blood moving. Shaking your hands above and below your heart as you ascend will help break up the lactic acid and encourage warm blood flow to the extremities.
UPCOMING ICE CLIMBING FESTIVALS
- Bozeman Ice Festival – Bozeman, MT – December 9–12, 2010 montanaalpineguides.com/bozemanicefestival
- Ouray Ice Festival – Ouray, CO – January 6–9, 2011 Ouray Ice Festival
- Southfork Ice Festival – Cody, WY – February 18–21, 2011 http://www.southforkice.com/
WHAT YOU’LL NEED TO GET STARTED
A shopping spree for all of the basic necessities of ice climbing would cost you about $3,000 to $4,000. Before you drop serious coin in a high yield investment strategy that will enable you to afford this sport in 3-5 years provided you reinvest your dividends and sell when the time is right, consider hiring a guide who will be able to provide the expertise and basic gear. That way you’ll know if you like it before you commit financially.
**Don’t forget to pack a professional guide or a good friend who is well versed in ice climbing (or if you are blessed, a good friend who is well versed in climbing because he or she is a professional guide).
- Alpine backpack with tool loops
- Twin Rope, 8mm double-dry
- 2 Vertical Ice Tools (preferably leashless)
- 2 Vertical Ice Crampons
- Harness with adjustable leg loops
- Belay/Rappel Device
- Locking Carabiners
- V-Thread Tool (or coat hanger)
- 8–10 Draws (per pitch)
- 8–10 Ice Screws (per pitch) variety of sizes (22cm, 19cm, 16cm & 10cm)
- Ice Clipper
- Webbing + Extra Webbing
- Base Layers (capilene or polypro)
- High performance underwear (non-cotton)
- Wool Socks
- Waterproof Jacket
- Waterproof Pants
- Down Jacket for belaying
- Full Shank Leather or Plastic Ice Climbing boots
- Gloves (2-3 pairs) one light pair for approach, a warm pair to belay in, a thin pair to climb in, a back-up thin pair in case the others get soggy
- Protective Eyewear (optional)
- Fierce attitude
- Thermos with favorite hot drink
THE RATING SYSTEM
The technical rating system for ice climbing is somewhat different from the standard rating system used for rock routes.
There are three rating designations for ice climbing, Water-Ice (WI), Mixed Terrain (M) (Rock and Ice) and Alpine or Glacial Ice (AI). The spectrum of technical difficulty spans from 1–7+, 1—no tools necessary and 7+, which are practically unheard of, and if you do find them, they are extremely overhung, strenuous, intense and likely to cause insanity. These designations are combined with the grading system to indicate level of difficulty. Grades range from I—a short-pitch route on a high alpine climb with an easy ascent that can be completed in a couple of hours to VI—long, multi-pitch, which may include winter alpine climbing logistical problems in addition to severe objective hazards including avalanches, falling seracs, high elevation, remoteness and days to complete.
To make things increasingly more complicated these ratings are combined with the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which happens to be identical to the American system for rating the content of movies. My personal theory is that this is equitable to the number of times you might be inclined to scream out profanities on your way up, or down as it may be. G = good protection, X = no protection and imminent death if you eff up. And finally, many guidebooks use a star system (note: not galactic) to denote the overall quality of the climb i.e. the fun factor.
A typical rating will look something like this:
Stairway to Heaven (Provo Canyon) WI5+ R (★★★) Ice, 10 pitches, 1000 feet, Grade III
BREAKING THE ICE –
ROUTES FOR NOVICES
Great White Icicle “GWI” (Little Cottonwood Canyon) W13+ (★★★), Ice, 3 pitches, 600 feet, Grade II
Scruffy Band Left (Little Cottonwood Canyon) WI 3-4 (★★.5), Ice, single-pitch, 240 feet
Itchy and Scratchy (Provo Canyon) WI3 M2-3 Mixed (★.5), Ice, 1 pitch, 60 feet
Bridal Veil Right (Provo Canyon) WI4-5 (★★★), Ice, 2 pitches, 200 feet, Grade II
Glass Case of Emotion (Big Cottonwood Canyon) WI3-4 M4-5 (★★★) Mixed, Ice, Alpine, 4 pitches, Grade II
Despite the expense and above referenced hazards, ice climbing is a fast growing sport. It’s not the same kind of thrill you might experience navigating your way through a fresh powder field, but the joy and glory of the climb makes it worth every freezing second and as climbing legend Mark Twight said, “It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun.”
One of the things that I love the most about ice climbing is that it is temporal. One day you are climbing this beautiful blue crystal ice flow and the next day it is gone. It reminds me of the old frosty the snowman song, ♫He waved good bye saying ‘don’t you cry, I’ll be back again some day.’ Thump a dee thump thump thump a dee thump.”♫ Plus it is visceral. There is nothing like swinging and kicking into beautiful blue ice. It is almost as if grandma said go nuts, gave you a hammer and let you loose on her good China dishes.
ICE CLIMBING GEAR PICKS
OUTDOOR RESEARCH – Alibi Jacket™
The Alibi jacket is a combination of different materials designed to perform in all the right places. Durable, weatherproof fabric is used on the hood and shoulders where the ice is most likely to fall. A warm soft shell lower body holds in core warmth while providing breathability as the climb heats up, and stretch fabric along the torso allows easy, unrestricted movement for the longest reaches. A two piece hood, with an inner helmet liner and an outer shell keeps the head warm and protected so that focus can stay on the next move. Engineered for motion, an alpine cut minimizes bulk allowing the jacket to move with you while providing protection from specific conditions you meet in the alpine and ice climbing environments. MSRP $250 Outdoorresearch.com
RAB – Neutrino Jacket
For arcticly cold days on the mountain the Rab Neutrino Jacket is perfect. It’s as comfortable as climbing into a sleeping bag and you’ll need a seriously warm jacket for belaying. It’s made with Pertex ® outer and inner so it’s lightweight, water resistant and highly efficient. It also comes with a handy stuff sack so you can squeeze all 225g of goose down will fill power 800 into a very compact space. And not that being cute on the mountain is important, but it does happen to be cut in a flattering way so ladies are less likely to portray the stay-puffed marshmallow look. $250 rab.uk.com
BLACK DIAMOND – Reactor Ice Tools
These axes are perfect for beginning climbers. They have a reasonable price point and high performance. The curved upper shaft clears ice bulges and cauliflowers with ease while the pick provides excellent penetration in bullet-hard blue. The bottom grip is coated with TPU for easy matching on both ice and mixed routes with minimal pick shift, and the mini-hammer is just big enough for pounding the occasional pin in a gear-protected line. MSRP $189.95 blackdiamondequipment.com
BLACK DIAMOND – Cyborg Pro Step-In Crampons with ABS Plates
Optimized for steep waterfall ice, mixed climbing or hard mountain routes, these crampons have a semi-rigid design offers maximum control for precise placement with minimal weight. Used in mono- or dual-point configuration, the modular, hooded vertical front points perform flawlessly on everything from tiny rock edges to thin ice smears. Beginners sometimes feel more comfortable in dual-point because it is more stable, but the mono-point is nice for precision Substantial, aggressive secondary points enhance balance and stability and an articulated center strap and Micro-Adjust heel lever provide a solid fit on almost all technical boots. ABS plates included. MSRP $199.95 blackdiamondequipment.com
SCARPA – Mont Blanc GTX Mountain Boots
Ice climbing boots are a pricey item so it’s important to get exactly the right boot. Make sure your boots are full shank because half or three-quarters won’t suffice. You can pick either hard plastic boots or leather boots. Leather boots are lighter and more popular, but the plastic boots will keep your feet dryer and perhaps warmer. The Scarpa Mont Blancs have Gore-Tex waterproof breathable materials and are known for their flexibility and comfort. MSRP $419 scarpa.com
OUTDOOR RESEARCH – Motive Gloves & Alibi Gloves
The leather-palmed Outdoor Research Motive Gloves™ are built for technical alpine ice. The GORE-TEX® X-TRAFIT® insert keeps hands dry while keeping layers between the insert and fabrics from slipping for a confident grip. Light insulation adds a barrier of warmth without minimizing dexterity. Padding on the back of hand and fingers protect you against rough ice. MSRP $139 outdoorresearch.com
Outdoor Research Alibi Gloves have sticky palms, gel padding and a digit hugging fit for maximum dexterity and precision tool handling. These gloves are amongst the top rated in the ice competition circuit because of their comfortable and technical design. MSRP $89 outdoorresearch.com
OUTDOOR RESEARCH – Croc Gaiters
Crocodile® Gaiters are designed to handle anything. Durable Taslan Gore-Tex® leg sections resist Devil’s Club and keep snow out. The 1000D Cordura® boot section, lined with coated 8 oz. packcloth, stands up to ski edges, crampon snags, and general boot wear. The water-resistant coating on the packcloth is sewn to face the Cordura® layer, protecting the coating from boot abrasion. The hook and loop front closure is sewn with sturdy double-needle stitching. A shear tab prevents the front closure from separating at the bottom. The urethane coated nylon instep strap can be replaced on the trail without tools. MSRP $65 outdoorresearch.com
SMARTWOOL – Socks;
The SmartWool PhD Ski Medium socks are warm, comfortable and will make a noticeable difference in your comfort level on the ice. Smartwool socks are made from Merino wool and they are some of the best high performance socks available. They are known for their moisture wicking, breathability, insulation and no-itch softness. MSRP $23.95 smartwool.com
RAB – Fusion Pants
Ice climbers often choose to use softshells over hardshells because of the durability, breathability, and flexibility. That’s a lot of ilities. The Rab hybrid softshell pants combines Pertex Equilibrium Stretch and Event tri-layer paneling for optimum breathability and weather protection. These pants are made for agile alpine climbing. MSRP $199.95 rab.uk.com
MAMMUT – Trion Pro Alpine Backpack
The Trio Pro has features galore and was made for alpinism. There’s a reinforced daisy chain gear carrier, a stowable ice tool attachments and blade storage compartment, a detatchable rope affixing strap, and the pack has been treated to stand up to abrasion from crampons. It’s also hydration system compatible. Hydrate or die. MSRP $229.95 www.mammut.ch
MAMMUT – Phoenix 8mm Double Rope
The Mammut Phoenix 8mm ultra light double Rope features excellent durability and handling properties because of the coating finish. It’s made specifically for mixed and ice multi-pitch climbing and has a very small diameter and low impact force. MSRP $189.95 mammut.ch
TALUS – ColdAvenger Pro – Face Mask
If you’re worried about protecting your face from cold air and other icy conditions, you can try the ColdAvenger Pro. It’s made from microbial-resistant medical-grade polyurethane and protects your face from cold weather, sun and wind. It has a ventilator that humidifies dry, cold air so you can breath freely while you climb. 50% of cold weather athletes experience respiratory symptoms of asthma and essentially experience sunburn to the lungs and airway from exerting effort. This mask will help protect you plus it’s moisture wicking so your skin stays dry. MSRP $59.95 talusoutdoor.com
HYDRO FLASK – Stainless Steel Beverage Bottle
Yes—it really does keep drinks warm for 12 hours and is ideal for a full day of skiing or climbing. It also keeps cold drinks cold for 24 hours. It’s patent pending mouth is designed so you won’t have the problem of spilling water down your shirt and it features double wall vacuum insulation, which prevents the transfer of heat from the inside to the out. You won’t burn your hands holding with bottle if it’s full of a piping hot beverage and no more “cold sweats” from cold drinks. MSRP $23.99 hydroflask.com