How Ice Climbing Works

Choosing Your Ice Climb

How solid is this ice? An ice climber at Wicked Wanda in British Columbia, Canada
How solid is this ice? An ice climber at Wicked Wanda in British Columbia, Canada
Jimmy Chin/Getty Images

If you're new to ice climbing, there are dozens of climbing clubs that offer guidance and lessons on how to select safe terrain. Seasoned climbers, however, are always searching for that untouched and private piece of ice. North America has many ice climbing destinations -- Alberta, Colorado, Ontario, Alaska, New Hampshire, Montana and more. Across the pond, people flock to Norway, the French Alps, Iceland and Greece to climb ice. Anywhere you find water and low temperatures, you find ice climbs.

In the mountains, ice forms two ways: Alpine ice starts as snow and over time consolidates into hard-packed ice, sometimes called blue ice. Water ice, which forms anywhere you find runoff or seepage, is more varied. It may melt and freeze, form over snow, create large bumps and ridges and turn into icicles. Climbers like to fantasize that the ideal ice for climbing would start to form in the autumn, and the water source would be a rivulet seeping out of a rock wall. As the temperatures drop, the ice would become stronger and stronger and finally bond itself to the rock wall, creating an extremely strong surface on which to climb. Ideal temperatures to form ice for climbing is between 14 and 30 degrees F (minus 10 and minus 1 degree C). Colder temperatures cause more ice to form more quickly, but it will take a while for the ice bonds to become strong.

How do you know if ice is safe to climb? Ice can go from hard to brittle to slushy all in one day. Hard ice is very cold ice, packed with gravel and dirt, and a climber must use a lot of strength to penetrate this ice with the pick. When temperatures are well below freezing, you may encounter brittle ice, which tends to break off in plates when you swing your tool into it. Climbers call this unwelcome phenomenon dinner plating. Sometimes you can prevent dinner plating by using a light tapping method with your tool to gently get your pick into the ice. But if plating is inevitable, you may want to swing into the ice with force to clear everything in one go. When temperatures are near or above freezing, the ice will feel more like plastic. Your pick will sink in quickly and stay there, making climbing easier and faster. If temperatures are warming to above freezing, however, ice will become slushy and soft. Obviously, slushy ice won't support your pick or protection very well.

A good climber should be able to climb well on any type of ice, especially since you may encounter different kinds of ice on a single climb. Sometimes you can spec out the ice just by looking at it. Solid ice tends to look blue or blue-green and it may be stained yellow from minerals. White ice is usually full of air -- it's easy to climb but it may not support your ice screws. Chandelier ice is actually hundreds of fused icicles, and it's difficult to climb safely because it's not solid enough for ice screws.

When choosing your climb, use these cues to choose the safest area and look out for hanging icicles or unstable ice that could fall on you as you climb.