How Ice Climbing Works

Ice Climbing Techniques

Laurence Gouault competes in the women's ice climbing competition at the ESPN X-Games. Notice her triangle-shaped form as she climbs.
Laurence Gouault competes in the women's ice climbing competition at the ESPN X-Games. Notice her triangle-shaped form as she climbs.
Mike Powell/Getty Images

For basic climbing techniques, you'll need to refer to "How Rock Climbing Works". Here, we'll teach you about methods specific to ice climbing -- from how to correctly use your crampons to perfecting the swing of your pick.

Based on the terrain, ice climbers alternate between two basic techniques. The French technique, or flat flooting, works best on low-angled slopes. You open your feet up and walk like a duck, which keeps all crampon points flat on the ice. As a slope's angle increases, this technique will become harder on your ankles, so you should switch to sidestepping. But sidestepping can be tricky because it's easy to snag one foot as it passes over the other. The German technique known as front pointing works best on very steep or vertical terrain. You kick your front crampon right into the ice and then step up.

Your mental picture of an ice climber may be a figure dangling from a glacier. But ice climbing also includes low-level walks in crampons. If you're walking on level or low-angle ice, you probably don't need your ice tool. But if you're doing a vertical ice climb, you'll need it. It's more difficult than it looks to properly swing an ice tool. Bad swings may cause ice to break off, and your energy will be sapped because you'll have swing multiple times for one stick. The only way to improve a swing is practice. Keep the elbow high and align it with both the hand and the tool. The straighter the swing, the more precise. With a good stick, the tool makes a satisfying "thunk" sound, as if it's been planted in concrete. You want a stick that will support your weight in case you lose your footing. If the tool doesn't feel planted correctly, pull it out and try again. Aim for spots where the ice looks strong -- convex-looking ice will usually plate and shatter. Sometimes dinner plating your way through bad ice can reveal stronger ice beneath. As the shattered ice falls, you'll be thankful for your helmet.

When you do a vertical climb, you'll go through the following motions: Find good footing, swing your tool into the ice, step up with both feet, swing higher, step up again and so on. Each time you land your pick in the ice, you should move both feet up. Placing your feet is as important as placing your ice tool. You'll usually have to kick your crampons into the ice a few times to achieve solid placement unless the ice is soft. Your feet should always support more weight than your arms, so finding good footholds is paramount. Keep your body in a triangle shape, with your legs shoulder-width apart and your pick at the center. Keep your heels down as much as possible. Other ice climbing techniques include:

  • Cane: using your ice tool like a cane when traversing relatively flat terrain
  • Cross-body: used in conjunction with sidestepping, where you turn your body sideways to the slope
  • Low dagger: pushing your pick into the slope around waist or chest level, holding it by the head
  • High dagger: pushing your pick into the slope up above your head
  • Anchor: similar to high dagger, but you hold your axe at the bottom and pull yourself up by working your way up the shaft
  • Traction: used for very steep ice and with two tools, swinging them overhead and planting one at a time, as you make your way upward

With practice, you'll find which techniques work best for the terrain you face. Climbing up a vertical piece of ice is about as dangerous as it sounds. So let's learn about safety and protection.