Ice climbing

Last updated
ice climbing

Ice climbing is the activity of ascending inclined ice formations. Usually, ice climbing refers to roped and protected climbing of features such as icefalls, frozen waterfalls, and cliffs and rock slabs covered with ice refrozen from flows of water. [1]


For the purposes of climbing, ice can be broadly divided into two spheres, alpine ice and water ice. Alpine ice is found in a mountain environment, usually requires an approach to reach, and is often climbed in an attempt to summit a mountain. Water ice is usually found on a cliff or other outcropping beneath water flows. Alpine ice is frozen precipitation whereas water ice is a frozen liquid flow of water. Most alpine ice is generally one component of a longer route and often less technical, having more in common with standard glacier travel, while water ice is selected largely for its technical challenge. Technical grade is, however, independent of ice type and both types of ice vary greatly in consistency according to weather conditions. Ice can be soft, hard, brittle or tough.

Mixed climbing is ascent involving both ice climbing and rock climbing, [2] [3] or at least stretches of exposed rocky terrain encountered while climbing ice, which may be dealt with using suitable techniques and the gear at hand.


Ice climbing during ascent to Tartu Ulikool 350 in 1982. Photo by Jaan Kunnap 1982 expedition to Tartu Ulikool 350 (30).jpg
Ice climbing during ascent to Tartu Ülikool 350 in 1982. Photo by Jaan Künnap

Shallow and moderate stretches of ice such as those found in glacial travel and even steep pitches incidental to reaching a summit fall under the general sport of mountaineering.

For technical ice climbing, and ice climbing as a sport, double plastic mountaineering boots or their stiff leather equivalent are essential. These must be crampon compatible and stiff enough to support the climber and maintain ankle support. Vertical ice climbing is done with rigid "step-in" crampons and ice tools (specialized scaled-down ice axes). Climbers swing the picks of their tools to bed them in the ice, then kick the front points of their crampons into the ice to securely set them. This technique, leading with the picks and following with the legs, which bear most of the weight of the ascent, is known as front pointing. Embedment of either picks or front points of as little as 1/4 of an inch in sound ice can be sufficient to provide secure holds. If a climber is leading, they will place protection in the form of ice screws as they go (see climbing system).

Some important techniques and practices shared in common in rock climbing include knowledge of rope systems, tying in, belaying, leading, abseiling, and lowering. Beginners should learn these techniques before attempting to ice climb. It is highly recommended that one acquire knowledge from experts and experienced ice climbers.

Rope systems

Top-roping Ice Climbing at Plattsburg, New York.jpg

There are three primary rope systems used in ice climbing: single rope, double rope and twin rope. The single rope system, which is suited for straight climbing routes, is the most commonly used rock climbing system in the world. Also often used in climbing is the double rope system which is a more flexible system than the single rope system. Lastly, the twin rope system, which uses two twin ropes in a single rope system, is used for longer multi-pitch routes. Double and twin rope technique is used more frequently in ice climbing because these systems are more redundant, an important consideration given the number of sharp edges in both the gear and environment. Impact force on ice is an issue, with double ropes gaining popularity over twins. [4]

Tying in

Tying in entails attaching the rope to the climbing harness. This technique is a must particularly when leading a climb or belaying. A commonly used tie-in knot is the Figure-of-eight follow through, but the bowline and Thumb (stopper) knot is often preferred, since it is easier to untie when frozen.


In this climbing technique, either running belays or fixed belays are used. A running belay on ice is similar to a running belay on rock as well as snow. The leader of the climb puts protection and clips the rope through it. The next climber removes and stows the protection, known as "cleaning". There should be at least two points of protection between the leader and the next climber. Fixed belays, on the other hand, require a belayer, belay anchor, and points of protection. A belay anchor is attached to a cliff in supporting a belay or toprope.


Leading an ice climb involves placing specialized protection for the safety of the leader and anyone else on the rope. This characteristically includes the placement of ice screws and construction of belay anchors as required during any given pitch. A "second" belays the leader, who in turn belays them as they follow up. As they do, they remove protection placed below the belay anchor. The leader then resumes leading the climb, placing new protection as they go, with the second once again belaying them.


Abseiling (also called rappelling) is a means of rapid controlled descent which uses a securely fixed rope. Abseiling allows a climber to control his or her own rate of descent, whereas lowering (discussed below) is controlled by someone else. Abseiling is used to descend after a climb, when trying out new climbing routes, and when a climb can only be accessed from the top. Caution and careful execution are key when abseiling, as ropes or gear may jam and ropes be severed by sharp edges. A fireman's belay or auto block may be used for extra protection while abseiling. [5]


Lowering involves a climber's descent being controlled by another climber handling the working end of the rope. The climber to be lowered is securely tied in, then a belayer either above or below them pays out rope while they descend.

Lowering is used to safely control the descent of injured climbers, when urgency requires speed and lowering one or more in a party, particularly the inexperienced, is both faster and safer than them controlling their own descents, and, when appropriate, mere convenience among capable climbers.


The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) organizes an annual Ice Climbing World Cup and bi-annual Ice Climbing World Championships. [6] [7]

Climbers can compete in the categories Lead and Speed. [6]

Climbing protection

Ice screw Ice screw.jpg
Ice screw
Ice climbing anchor with two ice screws Iceclimbinganchor.jpg
Ice climbing anchor with two ice screws

The most common form of protection in ice climbing is the ice screw. It is a hollow metal threaded tube, typically steel, with cutting teeth on its base and a hanger eye on the opposite end. It is screwed into the ice and can provide very strong protection in solid conditions, [2] with its hold dependent both on the angle and quality of its placement and soundness of the ice. [8]

Ice itself is also used as protection. The two most common techniques for doing so are the V-Thread (also known as the "Abalakov anchor", named after the Russian climber who popularised the approach) and the ice bollard. In a V-thread two intersecting tunnels are bored into the ice to form a "V" shaped tunnel. A nylon webbing sling or cordelette is then threaded through the V and tied in a loop. The rope is passed through the sling, which remains left behind after use. [8]

An ice bollard involves chipping ice away to create a teardrop shaped anchor. A sling is placed around it, and the rope through the sling, which again is left behind. [9] When ice conditions permit the sling may be dispensed with.

Useful natural formations, ice hooks,[ clarification needed ] and ice pitons are also used as protection anchors by ice climbers.


Lead climbing a frozen waterfall in the Canadian Rockies Canadian Rockies - Oh le tabernacle.jpg
Lead climbing a frozen waterfall in the Canadian Rockies

Waterfall ice grading

Ice grading is not merely subjective but, given the variability of ice, weather, and route usage, cannot reflect the difficulty of a given route in all conditions. In general, routes become easier the more they are climbed. This is due to the early or ongoing cleaning of chandeliered ice and the creation of "hooks" - convenient pockets formed by previous climbers' picks - which reduce the effort expended in cleaning routes and tool placement. Routes with high-flow seeps also tend to become easier as the season progresses, due to the increase in the volume of ice. Low-flow seeps, however (e.g. French Reality, Banff; Moonlight/Snowline, Kananaskis), often from early in the season (September–November) when the flow is good from the latent summer heat, and then slow down or even stop with the deepening winter frost; subsequent ablation (and destruction by climbing) of the ice often makes for thinner and brittler ice with time.

Grading in the Canadian Rockies, especially recently, focuses on the steepness of a pitch rather than the more subjective measures of difficulty (which include such considerations as protectability, exposure, commitment required, etc.) and "technical difficulty" (e.g. chandeliers, bonding, etc.) during the first ascent. This has resulted in the downgrading of several high-rated routes, e.g. Sea of Vapours, which were in poor conditions during the first ascents. A common use of the "+" designation is to indicate a higher level of technicality than is typical for the grade (e.g. chandeliers, poor bonding, etc.) that is consistent from year to year (i.e. Wicked Wanda, WI4+, has vicious mushrooms on an otherwise low-angled route, which persist from year to year).

Canadian Rockies WI grading does not regard pitch length - I.e. a 4-pitch WI5 is not rated WI6 just because it's long; its rating reflects the difficulty of its greatest challenge(s).

WI2 – low-angled (60-degree consistent ice), with good technique, can be easily climbed with one ice axe. Grades beyond this generally require the use of two ice tools.

WI3 – generally sustained in the 60–70 degree range with occasional near-vertical steps up to 4 metres (Cascade Waterfall, Banff; This House of Sky, Ghost River)

WI4 – near-vertical steps of up to 10 metres, generally sustained climbing requiring placing protection screws from strenuous stances (Professor's Falls, Banff; Weeping Wall Left, Icefields Parkway; Silk Tassle, Yoho; Moonlight & Snowline, Kananaskis)

WI4+ – highly technical WI4. (Wicked Wanda, Ghost River)

WI5 – near-vertical or vertical steps of up to 20 metres, sustained climbing requiring placing multiple protection screws from strenuous stances with very few good rests (Carlsberg Column, Field; The Sorcerer, Ghost River; Bourgeau Left Hand, Banff)

WI5+ – highly technical WI5 (Oh le Tabernac, Icefield Parkway; Hydrophobia, Ghost River; Sacre Bleu, Banff; Stairway to Heaven, Provo Canyon)

WI6 – vertical climbing for the entire pitch (e.g. 30–60 metres) with no rests. Requires excellent technique and/or a high level of fitness (The Terminator, Banff; Nemesis, Kootenay Park; Whiteman Falls, Kananaskis Country; Riptide, Banff)

WI6+ – vertical or overhanging with no rests, and highly technical WI6 (Fosslimonster, Norway; French Maid, Yoho; French Reality, Kootenay Park)

WI7 – sustained and overhanging with no rests. Rare; widely accepted testpiece examples of this grade do not exist in the Canadian Rockies (e.g. Sea of Vapours, Banff; Riptide, Icefield Parkway, Banff)

Modern ice-climbers have established even more severe grades for waterfall ice climbs that are largely severely overhanging, notable milestones being: [10]

WI10Spray On (first W10 climbed by Tim Emmett and Will Gadd in 2010 at Helmcken Falls). [10]

WI11Wolverine (first W11 climbed by Tim Emmett and Klemen Premrl in 2011 at Helmcken Falls). [10]

WI12Interstellar Spice (first W12 climbed by Tim Emmett and Klemen Premrl in 2016 at Helmcken Falls). [10] [11]

WI13Misson to Mars (first W13 climbed Tim Emmett and Klemen Premrl in 2020 at Helmcken Falls). [11]

Mixed ice grading

Mixed climbing has its own grading scale that roughly follows the WI rating system with respect to its physical and technical demands. Typically starts at M4. Subgrades of "−" and "+" are commonly used, although the distinctions are typically very subjective.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, for sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension; such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mountaineering</span> Sport of mountain climbing

Mountaineering, mountain climbing, or alpinism, is a set of outdoor activities that involves ascending mountains. Mountaineering-related activities include traditional outdoor climbing, skiing, and traversing via ferratas that have become sports in their own right. Indoor climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering are also considered variants of mountaineering by some, but are part of a wide group of mountain sports.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grade (climbing)</span> Degree of difficulty of a climbing route

In rock climbing, mountaineering, and other climbing disciplines, climbers give a grade to a climbing route or boulder problem, intended to describe concisely the difficulty and danger of climbing it. Different types of climbing each have their own grading systems, and many nationalities developed their own, distinctive grading systems.

Climbing protection are mechanical man-made devices employed to reduce the risk and effect of a fall to climbers while rock or ice. It includes such items as nylon webbing and metal nuts, cams, bolts, and pitons.

This is an index of topics related to climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock-climbing equipment</span> List of manmade gear

Rock-climbing equipment requires a range of specialized sports equipment, for training, for aid climbing, and for free climbing. Developments in rock-climbing equipment played an important role in the history of rock climbing, enabling climbers to ascend more difficult climbing routes safely, and materially improving the strength, conditioning, and ability of climbers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Abseiling</span> Rope-controlled descent

Abseiling, also known as rappelling, is the controlled descent of a steep slope, such as a rock face, by moving down a rope. When abseiling, the person descending controls their own movement down the rope, in contrast to lowering off, in which the rope attached to the person descending is paid out by their belayer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Style of climbing

Aid climbing is a style of climbing in which standing on or pulling oneself up via devices attached to fixed or placed protection is used to make upward progress.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Belaying</span> Rock climbing safety technique using ropes

Belaying is a variety of techniques climbers use to create friction within a climbing system, particularly on a climbing rope, so that a falling climber does not fall very far. A climbing partner typically applies tension at the other end of the rope whenever the climber is not moving, and removes the tension from the rope whenever the climber needs more rope to continue climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pitch (climbing)</span> Steep section of a climbing route requiring a rope

In rock climbing and ice climbing, a pitch is a steep section of a route that requires a rope between two belays, as part of a climbing system. Standard climbing ropes are between 50 and 80 metres long, so a pitch is always shorter, between two convenient ledges if possible; longer routes are multi-pitch, requiring the re-use of the rope each time. In free climbing, pitch refers to classification by climbers of the difficulty of ascent on certain climbing routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Munter hitch</span> Adjustable knot used control friction in a belay system

The Munter hitch, also known as the Italian hitch, mezzo barcaiolo or the crossing hitch, is a simple adjustable knot, commonly used by climbers, cavers, and rescuers to control friction in a life-lining or belay system. To climbers, this hitch is also known as HMS, the abbreviation for the German term Halbmastwurfsicherung, meaning half clove hitch belay. This technique can be used with a special "pear-shaped" HMS locking carabiner, or any locking carabiner wide enough to take two turns of the rope.

In rock climbing, an anchor can be any device or method for attaching a climber, a rope, or a load above or onto a climbing surface—typically rock, ice, steep dirt, or a building—either permanently or temporarily. The intention of an anchor is case-specific but is usually for fall protection, primarily fall arrest and fall restraint. Climbing anchors are also used for hoisting, holding static loads, or redirecting a rope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Single-rope technique</span>

Single-rope technique (SRT) is a set of methods used to descend and ascend on the same single rope. Single-rope technique is used in caving, potholing, rock climbing, canyoning, roped access for building maintenance and by arborists for tree climbing, although to avoid confusion in the tree climbing community, many have taken to calling it "stationary" rope technique.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dynamic rope</span> Rope designed to stretch under load

A dynamic rope is a specially constructed, somewhat elastic rope used primarily in rock climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering. This elasticity, or stretch, is the property that makes the rope dynamic—in contrast to a static rope that has only slight elongation under load. Greater elasticity allows a dynamic rope to more slowly absorb the energy of a sudden load, such from arresting a climber's fall, by reducing the peak force on the rope and thus the probability of the rope's catastrophic failure. A kernmantle rope is the most common type of dynamic rope now used. Since 1945, nylon has, because of its superior durability and strength, replaced all natural materials in climbing rope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ice screw</span> Protection anchor for ice climbing

An ice screw is a threaded tubular screw used as a running belay or anchor by climbers on steep ice surface such as steep waterfall ice or alpine ice during ice climbing or crevasse rescue, to hold the climber in the event of a fall, and at belays as anchor points.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Abalakov thread</span> Ice climbing loop knot

The Abalakov thread, also known as a V-thread, A-thread, or 0-thread, is an ice protection technique named after its innovator, Soviet climber Vitaly Abalakov. The Abalakov thread is a common method of protecting oneself while ice climbing because it is easy to create, does not require the sacrifice of expensive gear, and can be very safe when used properly. An Abalakov thread is often used in multi-pitch ice climbing routes. Because of its safety and convenience, the Abalakov thread is considered one of the most significant innovations in ice climbing. It significantly expanded the scope of possible routes and abseiling safety.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alpine climbing</span> Type of mountaineering

Alpine climbing is a branch of climbing in which the primary aim is very often to reach the summit of a mountain. In order to do this high rock faces or pinnacles requiring several lengths of climbing rope must be ascended. Often mobile, intermediate climbing protection has to be used in addition to the pitons usually in place on the climbing routes.

Tim Emmett, is a British-born adventure climber and climbing author, who practices to a high level in a diverse range of climbing disciplines, being ice-climbing, rock climbing, deep-water soloing and alpine climbing. Emmett has established the hardest waterfall ice-climbs in the world, and was the first to climb grades of W10 and above.


  1. Chouinard, Yvon (1978). Climbing Ice . San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. ISBN   978-0871562081.
  2. 1 2 Lowe, Jeff (1996). Ice World: Techniques and Experiences of Modern Ice Climbing. Seattle: The Mountaineers.
  3. Gadd, Will; Roger Chayer (November 2003). Ice & Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique (First ed.). Mountaineers Books. ISBN   0-89886-769-X.
  4., Juho Risku (January 2012). "Climbing Extreme: Ice climbing, ropes and single vs. half". Archived from the original on 2012-05-19. Retrieved 2012-01-21.
  5. "Rappel Safety Tips". Archived from the original on 2014-10-06.
  6. 1 2 "About Ice Climbing - UIAA". UIAA. Archived from the original on May 27, 2019.
  7. "UIAA Ice Climbing – Results Archive – UIAA". UIAA. Archived from the original on Mar 16, 2018.
  8. 1 2 Steven M. Cox and Kris Fulsaas, ed. (2003) [1960]. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (7th ed.). Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. ISBN   978-0898868289.
  9. Institute, American Alpine. "The Ice Bollard". Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Gray, Will (9 December 2021). "These are the 10 hardest climbs in the world". RedBull. Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  11. 1 2 Levy, Michael (19 February 2020). ""Mission to Mars" Is Tim Emmett and Klem Premrl's New WI 13 (What?!) at Helmcken Falls". Rock&Ice. Retrieved 21 December 2021.

Commons-logo.svg Media related to Ice climbing at Wikimedia Commons