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Are You New to Ice Climbing? Here Are 10 Helpful Tips

Being prepared can lead to better days on the ice this year

Photo by: Tim Banfield

As the sport of ice climbing becomes more popular every year, climbers across Canada are already heading out to get their first swings of the season.

The journey from your driveway to the crag takes a lot of planning, organization and patience. There’s a lot to learn about if you’re new to the sport. Below are 10 tips to get you to the crag safely, climb comfortably and home before dinner.

1. The Weather: All of Canada’s provinces experience different weather patterns. In the east, damp, bone-chilling conditions require a different layering system than the dry, but frigid, west. People who leave the comfort of their climbing gym to climb outdoors in the winter are often hardy folk. Some climbers enjoy the sub-zero temps more than summer heat. Dress accordingly and be prepared for the worst.

2. Its Dark: Winter is dark. Time your day so you do the driving, approaching and descending in the dark. Limit the time you are climbing with no day light. Bring a headlamp, know your way in and out and bring extra layers in case anything happens. Many climbers enjoy doing an ice climb under a full moon. Some consider it a rite of passage. Heads up though, waiting to spot falling ice until its in the range of your headlamp usually doesn’t end well.

3. Avalanches: Avalanches are no joke. They kill people every year. Few people know that avalanches have happened in eastern Canada, in Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario. It doesn’t take much snow to kill. Check local avalanche bulletins, be aware of snow safety and if in doubt, don’t go. Slides don’t only happen on approaches. They can catch you off guard between pitches, in gullies or on top outs and descents. Here’s why ice climbers should always carry avalanche gear in avalanche terrain.

4. Gear: Know your winter gear, it’s different than summer equipment. Rope management can be hard with gloves on, more so when the ropes freeze. Learn how to rack your screws and quickdraws with an insulated coat on. Be efficient at using ice screw holsters on your harness. Always wear a helmet, have sharp tools and double-check that you have all your gear in your pack before leaving the car. If your mixed climbing, know how to use rock-pro in icy cracks. Get your gear on early. If your climb is high on a face, gear up in the forest or somewhere flat.

5. Belaying: Never belay directly under someone climbing ice, you’re asking for a bloody lip. Communication is hard enough in summer, let alone in howling snow storms with toques on, have a system. Wear a belay coat and have an extra pair of warm gloves for belaying. Don’t clip the gloves onto your harness, they will fill with ice. Stuff them in a pocket or pack.

6. Leading: If you’re on lead, get some gear in early. Warn your belayer of incoming ice by yelling, “ICE!!” Never fall ice climbing, the screws are more mental jewelry than anything. Find good stances to put screws in and shake the pump out before committing to steep terrain. Learn about ice conditions. Brittle ice can be time consuming and dangerous, have sharp screws. The best ice is soft and “plastic.”

7. Screaming Barfies: The barfies happen when your hands are near the ice and your fingers begin to “freeze.” The warm blood re-entering them can lead to a pins and needles sensation. Sometimes it feels like burning, which gives you a stomach cramp. You won’t barf, but it is not a good feeling. To have or to witness the barfies can be the most memorable part of the day. Here are a few tips from Kelly Cordes on how to (hopefully) avoid the screaming barfies:

8. Top-out: Topping out can be dangerous, the final bulge can present a number of cruxes. From thin ice to umbrella ice to cornices. Take your time and get a screw in before making the final moves. If snow is deep, have anti-ballers on your crampons. They prevent snow from sticking to your boot, which can nix the point of crampons and send you for a slide. Have enough material to belay, whether it’s off screws or trees.

9. Descent: Know your descent, is it a walk-off or rappel? If you’re rapping, is it off bolts, trees or V-threads. If you’re new to ice climbing, travel with someone experienced for this part. Bring enough cord for all of your V-threads. Double them up if you question the ice quality. There are cases of them failing and people dying. Once you’re down, pull the ropes quickly so they don’t freeze in. Know where your headlamp is for the walk out.

10. Chips: Have food waiting for you in the car. Chips are good because they don’t freeze. A thermos of hot water or coffee always impresses everyone.

Do your research and have fun. Winter climbing is fun, but it’s all about preparation. Research your climb, the area, climb with experienced people and if you’re new to ice climbing then consider taking a course. If you’re looking for the best new book to help you learn about ice climbing, check out How to  Ice Climb! below.


Lead photo: Tim Banfield