How Ice Climbing Works

Ice Climbing Equipment

A Colorado ice climber plants his ice tool in the ice.
A Colorado ice climber plants his ice tool in the ice.
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Ice climbing requires different equipment from regular rock climbing. Today's specialized ice climbing gear evolved from traditional climbing tools to allow more flexibility and safety on ice and snow. There are tons of tools to choose from -- depending on your skill, your terrain and your personal preference.

Ice tools are the most important and most expensive pieces of equipment an ice climber needs. When climbers talk about their ice tools, they're referring to what people often call axes. An ice tool does in fact act like an axe. You swing it into the ice and then use it as a grip while you push yourself up with your legs. The head of the tool is double-sided, with a pick on one side and an adze, a chisel-like tool used for chopping holes in ice, or hammer on the other. There are two varieties of ice tools -- traditional and leashless.

A traditional ice tool includes a leash that you wrap around your hand to help you keep hold of the tool. It's quite easy to drop a tool, and your tool does nothing for you if it's lying 20 feet (6 meters) below you on the ground. A leashed tool also comes in handy if you lose your footing and need to hang from the ice until you regain it. Of course, your rope and belay will also hold you, so your ice tool is not your sole protection.

The leashless ice tool, on the other hand, is less awkward, and it's easier to switch out tools when you're not tied to your gear. Leashless tools are becoming more popular among experienced climbers because of their flexibility. Ice tools come in all different weights and sizes, and many climbers carry several tools, depending on what sort of climb they're doing. Prices for ice tools run anywhere from $100 to $350.

Crampons enable ice climbers to get a foothold. Crampons enable ice climbers to get a foothold.
Crampons enable ice climbers to get a foothold.
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As we mentioned earlier, crampons are necessary for a climber to gain traction on snow and ice. Like cleats, crampons are sharp metal spikes that protrude from the bottom of your boots and dig into the ice as you climb. You may clip or strap crampons to the bottom of your boots, or wear boots with the crampons built-in. You also need to decide if you want to use mono-point or dual-point crampons. Crampons generally have spikes that stick out in the front of the shoe and usually make first contact with the ice. Mono-point crampons have a single point in front, whereas dual-point crampons have two points in front. Each type has its advantages. Mono-points tend to be more flexible for mixed climbing, when your terrain varies from ice to rock over the course of the climb. Mono-points provide better ice penetration, and dual-points offer more stability but less ice penetration. Some crampons also feature heel spurs.

Ice climbers protect themselves from falling by utilizing ice screws and ropes. Climbers call this process protection. As you progress through a climb, you place ice screws in strategic areas and clip in a rope, which will save your life if you fall. Well-placed screws can support hundreds of pounds of force. But remember -- ice screws are only as strong as the ice in which you've screwed them. We'll talk more about ice climbing safety measures later in this article.

Don't forget your helmet! You'll need it to protect your head and eyes from falling chunks of ice. And of course, appropriate cold weather clothing and gloves are necessary.

Now that you have your equipment, let's learn how to climb.