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a-beginners-guide-to-climbing-ice

Its that time of year again, its getting dark earlier, you’re recovering from Turkey overload, the rain’s incessant and you have to wear every item of clothing you own because you’ve blown all potential heating funds on dubious ‘medicinal’ plant material. The silver lining is that If you’ve been rock climbing for a while, now might be the perfect time to give the colder, more adventurous ugly sister a go and try grunting your way up some frozen water. If you already have – congratulations, welcome to real climbing. But if you haven’t then read on for our introduction to climbing on the cold stuff.

Learning to screw:

Ice climbing is exactly the same as rock climbing in that the braver of the two of you leads up to a belay and then the second follows (if this is sounding alien already go back to rock climbing 101). Just like ‘traditional’ climbing the leader places protection as they ascend which the second will later remove. There are several different kinds of ice protection but by far the most likely to save your life is an ice screw. Unsurprisingly this constitutes a metal ‘screw’ which you twist into the ice and then clip the rope to. The number of screws you’ll need on a route is determined by a complex matrix depending on how difficult it is, how brave/poor you are, and if you have any buddies willing to to lend you any (Now there’s an incentive for not being a dick!).

Once you have bought, begged or borrowed enough screws the next step is learning what to do with them. On steep ice you’ll find you have to place them one handed so practice before hand. These things aren’t cheap and dropping just one can be like losing an entire set of nuts so spend some time practicing.

Axes:

By far and away the coolest thing about ice climbing is the axes which are essential for upward progress. Aside from looking cool, the satisfaction you get from a good placement can lead to you developing unnatural feelings towards these inanimate objects. Learning how hard to hit the ice to get a good placement varies wildly and is something you can only learn from experience. Once again these are expensive bits of kit so try and borrow someones when you start out so you can learn what you need. You don’t want to be the guy with ‘all the gear and no idea’.

Crampons:

These are going to be the hardest things to borrow from someone. You can often share a pair of axes and a rack of screws but you’re both going to need your own crampons. There are a bewildering variety of crampons on the market that will fit into one of 3 categories (C1,C2,C3). These three categories are designed to fit on different kinds of boots. Helpfully walking and climbing boots also split into 3 categories (all together now!: B1,B2,B3). Basically match the crampon rating with a boot rating and they’ll fit. (A B3 boot will take almost any crampon but a C3 crampon will only go on a B3 boot).

Once you have some crampons that fit your boots you’re ready to go kicking stuff. Avoid kicking yourself for a start and to keep you ‘dick’ rating low (see above), avoid the temptation to kick anyone else. When you climb you will be using the metal spikes that stick out of the from of your boot. These (obviously) named ‘front points’ are going to support most of your weight whilst you climb to make sure they’re in the ice! Again practice makes perfect but when you kick in make sure you drop your heels. If you try to stand on tip toes you’ll find your boot cams the front points out of the ice and you foot will ‘pop’ – not good.

Boots:

As mentioned above there are three different category of boot. They divide on the flexibility of the sole. Basically the stiffer the sole, the better for climbing but, the worse for walking. If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket its here that it’s worth spending. You can buy some reasonably cheap, stiff boots but when it comes to walking to and from the crag you’ll hate yourself for being such a tight ass. Conversely don’t buy the most expensive pair in the shop just because you have the money, you most likely won’t need them if you’re just starting out and it’ll increase that ‘dick’ rating!

Other stuff:

Its possible to go on and on about different gear options. Go on any internet forum and its full of people extolling the virtues of one product over another, the breathability of one fabric vs its waterproofness. What you need to remember is that the cheapest outdoor gear these days is better than the most expensive stuff they had only 30-40 years ago (Heinrich Harrer climbed the North face of the Eiger in 1938 without any crampons!).

Staying alive:

Much more important than your gear is having the knowledge to keep safe in these environments. Ice climbing is not like rock climbing in that potential hazards change over space and time much more frequently. You need to be aware of a whole host of dangers you don’t have to think about when you go rock climbing.

  • How cold is it?
  • What effect is that having on the ice?
  • Is there any avalanche danger?
  • Is this gear any good?
  • What do I do if this goes wrong?

Like any sort of climbing the best and cheapest way to get into it is to go with someone more knowledgeable than yourself and build up your knowledge over time. If you don’t have any climbing friends employ a guide to take you out a few times and show you what to do. Another option is to go on a mountaineering course and learn the basics. Remember the biggest dick is the one that ruins everyones day by going ‘splat’ at the bottom of the crag – don’t be that guy/gal.

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