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A Beginners Guide To Ice Climbing

8 February 2019 No comments
A Beginners Guide To Ice Climbing

Written by: Bill Strachan, Senior Instructor at Glenmore Lodge
Main Photo Credit: Darren Swift

This brief guide to ice climbing highlights key aspects that you should consider before tackling the intense conditions found in winter climbing. Use it as a platform to be inspired or even start your own ice climbing adventure.

As I write this, the corries and crags of Scotland’s mountains are frosted with ice; waterfall ice, snow ice and every state of ice in-between. If you have seen tantalising images in blogs and articles of ice climbing in this country and abroad, then you’ve already started to get hooked into this incredible sport.

Ice Climbing Grades

ice climber on ice wall

Photo Credit: Bill Strachan

Ice climbing grades in the UK have an objective and a technical grade. Get hold of a Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook (SMC) for full details, but in brief the Roman numeral indicates the overall difficulty of the route, and the technical grade will be shown in numbers and applies to the hardest moves, e.g. the famous classic Point 5 Gully on Ben Nevis is V,5.

That’s the scientific bit. However, like rock climbing in the summer, all grades can feel easy or hard depending on a range of conditions. The dark art is in understanding these conditions and choosing accordingly!

For me, how hard a route feels (not graded) can also depend on your stress level – which depends upon weather conditions, ice conditions, quality of belays, your fitness, experience and how much of the leading you do. It also depends on how good your technique is. Dragging yourself up 60 feet of ice by doing continual pull-ups will feel a lot harder than walking up with axes for balance.

In time you’ll gain the confidence to strike the balance between going slowly and placing lots of gear, and moving confidently between rest points and runner placements.

Essential Kit for Ice Climbing

ice climber looking for gear

Photo Credit: Bill Strachan

  • A pair of technical ice axes
  • Crampons - rather than general mountaineering crampons this is the terrain where vertical front points or even mono points start to be of benefit
  • Ice screws – the size and amount carried will depend on the length and nature of the route
  • Leashes for axes - not essential but could help prevent dropping one and the resulting embarrassing situation
  • Quickdraws, slings, carabiners and other suitable rock gear depending on the route
  • Abseil tat and the knowledge of V-threads / Abolokov threads - very useful in retreat
  • Helmet – essential - you’ll be grateful for this when your partner kicks ice down!
  • Safety gear – goggles, fully charged phone, head torch etc
  • Plenty of gloves! Belay gloves, climbing gloves, gloves for the walk in and fresh dry ones for the walk out
  • Buff / balaclava
  • Suitable winter climbing boots
  • Full winter clothing – see our layering system buying guide
  • Suncream & sunnies or goggles

Basic Techniques for Ice Climbing

ice climber ascending ice wall

Photo Credit: Nadir Khan

Consider your body positioning and ‘framing’. You want to maximise the number of moves per axe placement. Avoid over-tiring your arms and getting ‘pumped’.

You’ll want to read the ice in front of you. Are there existing hooks created by previous climbers that you can use? What is happening ahead – can you see bulges or a variation in the ice? What is the state of the ice? Is there ‘neve’, that magical term for snow formed by multiple freeze/thaw cycles, which will provide good axe placements, but may well be useless for placing an ice screw.

All of us tense too much when starting out. Try to relax. If you grip your ice axe too tightly, you’ll very quickly exhaust your arms and will end up flailing your ice axe around ineffectually. Learn how to obtain ‘rest positions’ on the ice and give yourself the chance to shake those arms out before moving on to the next sequence of moves.

How Do You Get Involved?

ice climber smiling at camera

Photo Credit: Nadir Khan

Some people learn through clubs and friends who have more experience, another option is to hire an MIC or Guide. By doing this you will find that you can learn from their experiences and have less of your own inevitable “miss-adventures”.

Glenmore Lodge offer a range of ‘Learn to Lead’ courses throughout the winter months. They have 2 day and 5 day options; or the option to tailor-make your own package with one of our Instructors.

Lastly, Still Need Convincing?

three walkers approaching ice climb

Photo Credit: Nadir Khan

Simply put, you can’t ask for a better sport to exercise every part of your body – physically and mentally. Your core body strength and most muscles will be given a good workout. You’ll feel muscles after a trip to the ice wall, or a day out, which you never knew existed. You’ll also be so engrossed in what you are experiencing that all other aspects of life melt away until all that exists is your climb and your climbing pal.

It is also an incredible way to meet new people, through courses and clubs, you’ll form lifelong friends and lifelong memories. You’ll soon find yourself so hooked that weekends away climbing in Scotland and weeks away in Europe become something you passionately protect. And that level of enjoyment has to be a good thing for us all! But don’t take our word for it, visit our website and find out what others have to say who’ve already started that journey.

About Us:

Glenmore Lodge is Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre and delivers training courses for beginners to performance level in climbing, mountaineering, paddlesports, mountain biking, backcountry skiing and First Aid.

The centre offers fully inclusive 2 & 5 day courses, based in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, 10 minutes from Aviemore, 1 hour from Inverness Airport and 2 hours from Edinburgh Airport.