Ice vs Rock

What's tough about ice climbing?

Some of my climbing buddies were asking how ice climbing compared with rock. I figured I'd write a quick note describing what makes a particular ice climb easy or tough, at least according to my very limited experience.

The climbs we did in Ouray were not complete beginner climbs, but then they were not expert routes either. They were rated at WI 3 and WI 4. WI stands for water ice... I think there are different grades for packed snow and mixed rock/ice routes. I'd compare these routes to rock routes in the 5.6 to 5.8 range. Ice is a lot like rock in that what makes a climb tougher is the angle of the wall, the availability of "holds", and any danger involved in the climb.

Ice climbs are usually less than vertical since ice doesn't easily form in an overhang. Really tough ice climbs might involve climbing tapering columns or free hanging icicles, but most overhangs in ice climbs are limited to short bulge sections. Most really tough ice routes are mixed rock and ice, so the rock sections might be overhanging.

As for the availability of holds, it is rare that you can plant an ice tool or crampons just anywhere on a face. You need to plant a tool where it won't shatter the ice, and you need to sink it deep enough so that the ice will support your weight. Convex bulges will generally break off when hit with the ax, concave areas are generally stronger. But if an area is too concave, it can be hard to sink the ax without smashing your knuckles against the ice. Ax placements are like climbing holds in that a lot of the time they are only solid when pulling on them at a specific angle. As you move upward or traverse sideways, the ice can fracture or the tool can slip out of hole. Actually, tool placements seem to be much more sensitive to that sort of thing than typical rock holds. You can choke up on the handle of the tool or even put your hand on the head of the tool as a way of keeping the tool in the ice as you move up.

As for foot work, it is very similar to rock foot work as far as balance goes. You want to use natural features for foot holds where possible, or at least use features that help you get a good purchase into the ice. Unlike rock, you typically can't edge and flat foot smear type moves are more difficult, so footwork is more demanding of your calf muscles. It is a little like trad leading where you have to spend a lot of time on your toes rather than continuously moving past foot holds. Ice that is thinner, more rotten, or more brittle all require more delicacy than a thick strong, "plastic" sheet of ice. In some ice you can just sink the tool as hard as you want and hang a truck off it. In other ice you have to delicately hook cracks and holes. If your holds are delicate and balancy, it can be hard to get a good swing of the ax or kick of your crampon without that movement making you fall. So balance is just as important in hard ice climbing as it is in hard rock climbing.

A lot of ice climbing is conservation of strength. If you are planting your tools inefficiently, you wear your self out more quickly than if you can make a good tool placement in 1 or 2 hits. And the more tired you get, the harder it is to sink the tool quickly and accurately, so the more tired you get, the more work you have to do. You also don't want to plant an ice tool deeper than you have to in order to make the placement. It is like over gripping rock, but harder to judge. If you sink a tool too deeply, you waste energy placing it, and then it can also be much harder to free the tool. Plus when freeing it, it can throw your balance if you are cranking on the tool and it suddenly pops free. As far as the danger of a climb... you WILL knock ice loose while climbing.

Climbs where you can knock loose big blocks require more delicacy and care. Unlike most top rope rock climbs, it can still be unnerving to fall on an ice top rope. If you have a swing you have lots of pointy things that can jab you, or a crampon or tool can stick when you fall which would make your fall less graceful. We climbed on static ropes on our top ropes to keep the rope stretch from causing a us to fall farther, especially since the routes were pretty long. But if leading you absolutely wouldn't want a static rope, in fact ropes that ice leaders use generally have more stretch than rock ropes.

So there you have it, that is my impression of ice climbing vs rock climbing. My apologies to the real ice climbers out there. I'm sure I've made some incorrect assumptions and observations, and I wouldn't want to make enemies of people who regularly carry axes, and wear spiked boots.

Back Last Updated: September 28, 2001