Steep Ice climbing tips: Winter winning

Steep Ice climbing tips

Ice – mesmerising, bamboozling, intense, pumpy, awful? At some point in your ice climbing career you will most likely find a pitch that is a bit longer or a few degrees steeper than before – check out these steep ice climbing tips in advance…

It’s probably not the time to experiment as the lactic acid boils up in your forearms, better to be “forearmed” with these eight tips from James Thacker, IFMGA Guide and keen ice climbing exponent.

  1. Technique. Don’t discard that well practiced rock climbing technique when hitting the ice. A well balanced stance with bent, knees and ankles and the hips into the ice means that you can engage rear wheel drive effectively using your stronger legs rather than hanging on the arms. Consider practicing on an artificial ice wall to get some early mileage in at the start of the season.


  1. Use modern tools. Yes, modern bent shaft or leashless tools with ergonomic grips help to keep a relaxed but firm grip when placing the tools. A bit of an investment here will almost certainly make that pitch a bit easier, and allow you to shake out your arms rather than being locked into old school leashes.


  1. Use thin gloves. This is a tip from the pro’s, always climb steep pitches in thinner gloves which allow a better grip on the tool. This helps reduce the possibility of getting totally pumped but comes at the expense of having cold hands, so its worth having a warm pair of belay mittens clipped to your harness with heat pads in on cold days (just remember to clip them tips up to avoid them filling with spindrift on windier days).

Steep Ice climbing tips

  1. Keep ‘em sharp. Going on any route with a ice tool that resembles a mallet just isn’t cool. Stack the odds in your favour by sharpening your picks to aid penetration, and removal of the pick. It’s quite easily to get very tired getting your tools out of the ice with blunt picks, so pay particular attention to sharpening the top of the pick so it rides out easily.


  1. Train. Just the same as rock climbing, techniques for ice climbing require training and practice and although indoor ice walls exist the transient nature of ice mean the training opportunities are limited. So take those opportunities when you can and build up experience gradually rather than jumping straight on your dream route.


  1. Practice placing protection. Getting those ice screws in to protect a steep pitch is vital for your well being, both physical and mental! Again consider practising, on both sides of the body, with both hands, and keep them sharp. Another tip from the pros is to spray a little WD40 inside your ice screws to shift any water and prevent refreezing after removal.


  1. Use double ropes. Being able to protect an ice pitch correctly without suffering lots of rope drag is essential, especially with wet and heavy ropes. Consider using modern double or half ropes to reduce drag and weight on steep pitches as well as the ability to do full length abseils. Just make sure that you match they with the correct belay device.

8. Understand Ice. Conditions are everything, and in cold conditions with brittle ice that steep pitch will feel even harder. It pays dividends to pick your day climbing when the temperatures are below freezing but stable. Avoid periods of intense cold when pillars can be prone to collapse.

For more top ice climbing tips (and for your own tailored experience of it) contact James Thacker at Off Piste Performance

On the topic of Steep ice and tips, here’s US-based Ice expert Will Gadd (author of Ice and Mixed Climbing) with his top five tips for good measure – notice the thin gloves tip gets a repeat, so it must be true!

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