Course overview

Our intro to ice climbing course is designed for folks trying out the sport for the first time, regardless of their climbing background.  This two day course focuses on five main learning outcomes:

  1. How to stay safe and warm in winter climbing conditions
  2. How to choose the right ice climb based on conditions and grade
  3. Fundamental ice climbing safety systems (single pitch)
  4. Fundamental ice climbing technique
  5. Sport-specific Leave No Trace (LNT) practices

These lessons are accompanied by toprope climbing on a variety of moderate ice climbs in the Bighorn Mountains.

Wyoming Mountain Guides are all local professional climbing instructors with extensive experience and in-depth knowledge of climbing areas across Wyoming, including the Bighorn Basin, Bighorn Mountains, and Vedauwoo in southeast Wyoming

Lesson 1: Staying safe and warm in winter conditions 

Proper preparation goes a long way in terms of mitigating risk and making winter climbing more enjoyable for everyone.  Risk management is an involved topic, but for this course we’ll focus on properly gearing up and using our layer system, how we eat, and how we navigate hazardous terrain on the approach and base of climbs.

A) Gear list for ice climbing:

In the order they go into your pack (bottom to top):

  • First Aid kit
  • Emergency tarp or bivy
  • Gear rack:
    • Double and quadruple length slings
    • Cordelette
    • Quickdraws
    • Locking quickdraw
    • Extra locking carabiners
    • Plate belay device with dedicated lockers
    • Rock rack if needed for mixed climbing
    • Emergency kit – ascending device, knife, v-thread tool, rated steel quicklink
    • Rappel tether
  • Ice screws
  • Bastard file
  • Gloves: thin for hard pitches, medium for climbing, thick for belay – keep your medium weight gloves out for the approach and the majority of the climbing
  • Layers: full zip mid layer, insulating layers (light insulating layer and belay layer), waterproof hard shell
  • Harness: keep at the top of the pack so it’s easily accessible
  • Hot drinks: easier to drink than cold water
  • Food – Fuel up before (think “trucker’s special”) and pack lots of snacks that won’t freeze (Oreos over bananas)
  • Helmet
  • Ice tools and crampons on the outside of the pack
  • Lid of the pack: sunglasses, food, sunscreen, chapstick, multi-tool, Allen wrench, headlamp, emergency communication device, cell phone
  • Other necessities:
    • Wool socks
    • Extra gloves to switch out when wet
    • Extra clothing articles for day 2 if they get wet
    • Lunch and extra snacks
    • Bring boot/hair drier to dry out boots at night!
Wyoming Mountain Guides lead ice climbing guide Zach Lentsch approaches Ten Sleep Falls in February 2019

B) Staying warm:

Staying warm is one of the biggest challenges faced by beginning ice climbers.  Although the cold can seem like a major barrier to entry, it also can be quite manageable.  Here are four rules we follow to help us stay warm while ice climbing:

  1. Stay dry: Sweat as little as possible, stripping down as much as you can for the approach, climbing in your medium layers, and bundle up for long belays.  Switch out gloves and socks when they get wet.
  2. Dress for the next 15 minutes:  Anticipate what you’ll feel like in the near future.  Just because you’re cold at the car doesn’t mean you shouldn’t de-layer for the approach, and just because you’re warm after a climb doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put on your puffy and mittens for the belay.
  3. Keep your core warm to keep your extemities warm
  4. Stay fueled: Eat like a trucker beforehand, snack often, bring a hearty lunch, and refuel right after you’re done climbing
Ice climber bundles up to stay warm in cold winter conditions

Lesson 2: Picking the right ice climb

A) The science of ice

Waterfall ice is understudied compared to glacial ice and snow science.  Ice climbers primarily rely on lots of experience climbing ice (as they should), but an empirically informed understanding of the physical qualities of ice can help us in our decision making and risk management.  The Petzl Foundation recently commissioned a four year long study of various aspects of the life cycle of waterfall ice.  Here are some useful takeaways from the study:

  1. Ice growth is asymptotic – “Vertical ice structures grow rapidly at first by aggregation of stalactites. After this initial phase, the volume of the ice structure reaches an asymptotic value. Water continues to flow inside the structure. The ice insulates this water from the outside temperature, thereby preventing it from freezing.  Cracking due to the passage of a climber may cause a new flow of water outward and resulting in a new growth phase of the waterfall ice.”
  1. The color of ice matters – “If the ice is white when the grains are small, it means that it has formed suddenly, after a sudden cooling, which has caused a large number of small air bubbles to be trapped inside it. If the ice is black, it means that it has formed slowly, under stable temperature conditions, so it has little or no trapped air bubbles, and therefore it is very transparent.”
  1. Ideal “hot” ice conditions – “a succession of fairly mild days, up to about 5 ° C maximum, interspersed with relatively cool nights (a few degrees below 0° C) to prevent the detachment seems to be a rather favorable situation: “hot” ice will behave in a “plastic” way which is not conducive to the propagation of fractures: it is the “sorbet ice”.”
  1. Poor “cold” ice conditions – “If intense cold is conducive to the formation of waterfall ice, it is not necessarily conducive to climbing. Brutal chills generate stress in the structures (thermal contraction of ice) that can trigger their collapse, especially free-standing. In addition, cold ice will be brittle, which leads to the propagation of fractures, with the possibility of a collapse triggered by climbers themselves.”
  1. Big temperature fluctuations can lead to sudden collapse – “The mechanism of contraction / expansion due to temperature variations within the ice, however, is the most important and most dangerous factor!  The ice expands when it warms, and contracts when it cools. A free-standing column, under the effect of a substantial cooling, will tend to become shorter, which is impossible because of the attachment points at the top and bottom. The resulting vertical stress of the entire structure may be sufficient to trigger the sudden collapse of the waterfall!”
The base of Ten Sleep Falls in lower Ten Sleep Canyon

B) Ice climbing grades

Ice climbing grades reflect both the physical difficulty of completing a climb (what it feels like on toprope) and the “headiness” of leading the climb and placing protection (if there is any).  That’s why following WI5 can feel a lot easier than leading WI3. Sure, ice climbing grades may seem pretty relative, yet they should be taken very seriously. 

Ice climbing grades are relative because of the variable nature of ice.  Like rock grades, ice grades can vary from place to place due to the variable nature of human egos.  But unlike rock grades, ice grades can change throughout the season (and even throughout the day) and as climbs see more traffic.  The grade listed in a guidebook should be a consensus grade based on ideal or average conditions, but in some cases it may just refer to the grade of the first ascent.  Just because the climb is WI4 in the guidebook doesn’t mean it will be WI4 in the early season or in lean conditions. The difficulty of an ice climb can also change as it’s climbed repeatedly – a “hooked out” WI5 may feel easier than an unclimbed WI4.

The physical aspects of ice climbing grades are only part of the equation.  Leading ice is a very serious undertaking no matter the grade because of the difficulty of placing ice screws with one hand and the terrifying consequences of taking a lead fall.  Even if the screw holds, your crampons will likely catch, break your ankles (if not bigger bones), cause you to invert and plunge headfirst down a series of rock hard ice ledges. Even more so than rock climbing, your ice climbing ability is your most important safety mechanism.  This is why we recommend toproping extensively (100 pitches at least) before you think about leading ice.

There are different grading systems for alpine, mixed, dry, and Scottish ice climbing, but for now we’ll just focus on the fairly ubiquitous waterfall ice (WI) grading system:

  • WI1 – very low angle ice, French technique and a single tool will do
  • WI2 – rolling low angle ice with steps and bulges, some frontpointing and two tools needed
  • WI3 – moderately steep ice with decent feet, some rests, and plenty of screw placements
  • WI4 – sustained close-to-vertical ice or some steeper sections of ice, good screw placements
  • WI5 – very sustained vertical ice or columns (often chandeliered) strenuous screw placements
  • WI6 – very steep ice (pillars, daggers, etc.) with poor or no screw placements, rated R or X by default (no bailing on the climb)
  • WI7 – extremely hard and somewhat mythical grade, often downgraded to WI6
  • WI8 – overhanging spray ice in caves protected by bolts
Climbing a hard pillar on Melody Falls in Cottonwood Canyon, near Lovell Wyoming

Lesson 3: Ice climbing safety systems for single pitch ice

A) Belaying

Partner checks:

  • Use checklists every single time before belaying to stave off complacency 
  • 2 safety checks: physical and mental
  • Physical checks:
    • Belayer checks climber’s waist belt and leg loops for buckles
    • Belayer checks that climber’s knot is passsed through two hard points
    • Belayer checks that climber’s Figure 8 has 20 strands of rope, is properly dressed, and has enough tail
    • Climber checks belayer’s waist belt and leg loops for buckles
    • Climber checks that belayer’s locking carabiner is clipped through the belay loop, the rope and the belay device
    • Climber checks that belayer’s locking carabiner is locked
  • Mental checks:
    • “On Belay?” – “Belay On!”
    • “Climbing?” – “Climb On!”

Backup belaying:

  • Gives new belayers more confidence and security
  • Close the system with a stopper knot at the end of the rope
  • Stand on the dominant brake hand side
  • If managing multiple groups, tie CAT knots every ten feet or so

Lead belaying:

  • 3 life saving principles: 1) never let go with the break hand, 2) make sure the break hand is in a position of strength, 3) body position/ground anchor
  • Step 1: Close the system by tying stopper knot on the back end of the rope
  • Step 2: While climber is getting ready, stack the rope in a nice spot out of the way that allows you to easily feed slack
  • Step 3: After first clip, reposition and make sure you’re not belaying too far away from the first piece
  • Step 4: Feeding slack with assisted braking device – standard belay motion works well in addition to moving body in towards the wall to give a bit more slack
  • Step 5: Feeding slack for a clip – place brake hand near the gri-gri, index finger under the lip and thumb on the cam to allow for taking out more slack
  • Step 6: Jump into a fall to provide a softer catch
  • Step 7: Redirect the brake strand while lowering

Ice-specific belay positioning:

  • Belayer should be positioned OUT OF THE FALL LINE – e.g. in a cave, off to the side
  • Belayer should often be anchored into the ground to prevent being pulled into the fall line or up into the ice
  • Communication may be difficult, so it is very important to make a plan for how the climb will go so the belayer knows exactly what to do (helpful to tell a “story” of what will happen)
  • Verbalize your belay check to make sure all systems are closed, harnesses are properly fitted and double backed, carabiners are locked, belay is set up properly, and knots are properly tied and dressed

Ice-specific assisted braking technique – the alpine gri-gri:

  • PROs – uses a simple guide-style device to provide assisted braking function that’s safer than using a gri-gri on wet and icy ropes
  • CONs – adds danger of unclipping the wrong locking carabiner and hard to release for lower of the climber is waiting the rope 
  • Setting up – clip a locking quickdraw to your belay loop, clip other end of draw to put your climber on belay (clipping both the rope and the belay device just as you would when belaying directly off your belay loop), then clip the nose of the belay device to your belay loop to put the device in guide mode
  • Releasing for lowering your climber – good idea to back up the brake strand with a third hand, ask your climber to unweight the rope, then unclip nose locker from your belay loop

B) Knots and hitches

Rethreaded Figure 8:

  • Strongest and most secure, self-tightening knot for tying into the rope or tying off trees for anchors
  • Step 1: Make a bite two or so feet from the end of the rope and give it two twists, then pass the end of the rope through the bite to create your initial figure 8
  • Step 2: Pass the end of the rope through both the bottom and top (in that order) hard points of your harness
  • Step 3: Retrace your initial figure 8 following on the outside of the skeleton to create a well dressed knot
  • Tightening: Pull each strand (one at a time) of the figure 8 to tighten the knot

Clove Hitch – Handshake Method:

  • One-handed method of tying the clove hitch – lets you grab onto the anchor, increasing security
  • Step 1: Grab the rope like you’re shaking hands
  • Step 2: Make a half-twist in the rope, twisting toward you
  • Step 3: Grab the belay-side strand of the rope as in step 1, then repeat step 2
  • Adjusting: Pull right side of the hitch to shorten, left side to lengthen (gate facing right)

BHK (Big Honkin’ Knot)

  • Great for toprope anchor extensions and master points
  • Step 1: Make a bight, then another (doubled) bight out of the first bight
  • Step 2: Tie an overhand, figure 8, or figure 9
  • Step 3: Clip/flip the original bight
  • For extended toprope anchors, 3 ovals on a BHK work well to reduce friction

Other useful knots:

  • Bowline (with safety knot, preferably Yosemite finish) – good for tying off trees for anchoring while ice climbing, also easy to untie even if wet or frozen
  • Double Figure 8 (aka Bunny Ears) – great for making equalized anchors off using just the rope; tie a figure 8 on a bight but don’t pull the bight all the way through, flip back end of the bight over the knot
  • Water knot – good for tying loose webbing to make/replace rappel anchors
  • Flat overhand (aka EDK) – great for tying two ropes together for double length rappels or topropes

C) Anchors

Two bolt toprope anchors:

  • Best practice is to not toprope through fixed hardware, but it can be used for a single lower
  • Method 1: Clip quickdraws (opposite and opposed) on bolts behind existing hardware to prevent crossloading – good for short-term toproping
  • Method 2: Same as method 1 except one quickdraw has two lockers
  • Method 3:  Use double length sling and clip into bolts with 2 non-lockers, then tie master point with an overhand (inserting non locking carabiner into the overhand to help with untying) or a figure 8 on a bight, clip 2 locking carabiners opposite and opposed into master point (add one non-locker in the middle to reduce friction)
  • Method 4 – Quad:  Good for toproping multiple lines off of one anchor or equalizing bolts at different heights; double the sling, clip into non-locker, then tie overhands ⅓ and ⅔ of the way down the sling, clip other end and adjust the overhands, clip 2 different strands of the sling with 2 locking carabiners (opposite and opposed)
  • Method 5:  Allows for safe and easy cleaning – good for people who don’t know how to clean an anchor; thread the rope through the chains, then add locking carabiner above the chain and clip the rope (taking friction off the chains), clean by simply unclipping the locker

Building Anchors with the Climbing Rope:

  • Quick to set up and works well for switching leads, but does not allow for leading in blocks
  • Method 1: 
    • Step 1: Tie Double Figure 8
    • Step 2: Adjust each loop to length and tighten
    • Step 3: Use shelf (clipping three strands) for belay device/anchoring in
    • Shorten tie-in by clipping into a clove or bight
  • Method 2:
    • Step 1: Tie into a clove hitch, pull a few feet of slack on the back of the clove, tie another clove hitch
    • Step 2: Tie a bight in the middle of the two cloves, use as master point

Three-piece anchor:

  • Method 1 – Cordelette:
    • Step 1: Clip cordelette into each piece, tying a clove hitch near the knot to keep it out of the way
    • Step 2: Clip locking carabiner into each strand and pull them down in the direction of pull
    • Step 3: Tie all strands off in an overhand, figure 8, or figure 9 (to elevate the master point), making sure each piece is sharing the load
    • Step 4: Clip master carabiner into three of the four strands
    • Alternative method of raising the master point: instead of clipping the third piece, pass a bight through and down, tying off all strands with a figure 8 or figure 9
  • Method 2 – Double length sling:
    • Much more limited in terms of length, but provides a nice high masterpoint
    • Can clip lowest piece directly into high master point
    • If pieces are close enough together, can clip each piece into the sling and tie off as in Method 1
  • Method 3 – Two slings:
    • Step 1: Equalize two of the pieces with a single length sling, using a magic X with stopper knot on the longer side of the X (to limit shock loading potential)
    • Step 2: Equalize third piece and the other two equalized pieces with a double length sling, tying off with a bight

The Quad:

  • Self-equalizing with limited shock load potential
  • Separate clip in points – prevents belayer and second from pulling on each other
  • Step 1: Quadruple the cordelette
  • Step 2: Clip in all strands into one piece, then tie two overhand knots about ⅓ and ⅔ of way down the cordelette
  • Can also be tied with a quadruple (or two doubles) sling
  • Triple quad – double the cordelette, equalize two pieces, then tie and overhand and finish the rest of the quad

Replacing old webbing/cord on anchors:

  • Cut and remove all old material
  • Evaluate bolts/pins, tighten and reinforce if needed
  • Thread 7mm cord through quicklink, through the first bolt, back through the quicklink, through the second bolt, tie double fisherman’s knot with two loose strands, then tie off all strands in figure 8 or figure 9

Placing ice screws:

  • Place both tools to allow for resting each hand
  • Place screw near hip level and in line with your body to allow for maximum torque
  • Make sure ice is not detached or hollowed
  • Look for a depression/concavity over bulge/convexity
  • Angle the screw so the head is slightly down or perpendicular from the ice
  • Feel for constant resistance and avoid large air pockets
  • Screw in until the hanger is flush – driving past that point will strip the threads
  • Placing screws in existing holes:
    • Try to place a longer screw than the existing hole
    • Also will work if the hole has started to melt over

Ice-screw anchors:

  • Two-screw or three-screw anchor: In good ice, a two-screw anchor is acceptable
  • Place longer screws
  • On a steep slope or multi-pitch route, clip into first screw for protection
  • Second screw should be offset vertically and horizontally
  • Equalize so the belay device is sufficiently high – preferably with a quad

V and O threads:

  • Pick a spot with a lot of convexity to make room for the hangers
  • Step 1: Using longest screw (21cm), place screw at a 45 degree angle into the ice and then remove screw taking care to remove all the ice from the hole
  • Step 2: Measure one screw length horizontally over from the original hole and place the screw, using the original screw hole to sight in the angle for the second screw placement
  • Step 3: Thread cord and tie off in a double fisherman (for V thread, best for extreme cold or wet ice) or thread the rope through (for an O or naked V thread, best for dry ice and moderate temperatures)
  • Step 4: Back up the thread with a higher screw before rappelling
Zach Lentsch belays a young ice climber up on Lower Canyon Creek ice climb

Lesson 4: Ice climbing techniques

The bionic feel of climbing with crampons and tools can seem strange at first, but we find that ice climbing technique is quicker to learn than rock climbing technique.  It’s not really feasible to have a beginning rock climber climb 5.11 – there’s too much muscle memory and fine motor skills required to climb rock at that grade – but with a decent fitness background and good instruction a beginning ice climber can toprope some challenging ice grades.

Technical differences aside, basic body position for ice climbing is comparable to that of rock climbing.  This is why the best off season training for ice climbing is rock climbing. Most of your weight should be on your feet, your hips should be as close to the wall, and you should try to maintain three points of contact as much as possible.  You should also treat natural variations in the ice like you do features in the rock, standing (and resting!) on natural foot ledges.  

Here are the three fundamental components of ice climbing technique we will focus on in this course:

A) Using crampons:

  • Low angle terrain: engage as many crampon points as possible with feet perpendicular to the slope, using natural features like rock climbing footholds (and kicking out your own features as needed)
  • Frontpointing:
    • Drop your heels when you kick so your frontpoints are perpendicular to the slope
    • Kick as many times as you need to get a good stick
    • Keep your feet LEVEL and WIDE enough to stem
    • Move your feet twice as much as you move your tools
    • Small steps – try not to step above your knees
  • Increase security and reduce calf pump: even when frontpointing, use natural features, engage secondary points, and kick out steps where you can rest on your heels as much as possible

B) Swinging tools:

  • Motion: similar to throwing darts (good practice for the offseason!) – wrist, elbow, and shoulder should all be in a single line
  • Grip: try to loosen your grip so the front of the handle is between your first and second finger knuckles – often people try to overgrip the handle 
  • Swing: swing high, pivoting the tool off your pinkie (for straight shafted tools) or index finger (for offset handles)
  • Placement: try to get your sticks in concave features rather than convex bulges, swing as many times as you need to get a good stick (no wobbles!), and test the placement before trusting it
  • Cleaning: thrust upward rather than side to side
  • Don’t grab too high on the tool – increases the likelihood that it will pull out

C) Tracking movement (aka the “triangle of power”): 

  • Basic stance for swinging – wide and level feet, hips into the wall, shoulders out from the wall, then place a high tool
  • Moving feet up – look down, hips out from the wall, arms hanging straight off the tools, then move both feet up (opposite foot from high tool first) so they are wide, level, and squarely beneath the high tool 
  • Try to move feet up between boot top and lower knee – avoid moving feet above knee height
  • Move back into swinging stance – move hips back into the wall and lock off on the high tool, pull upward on the low tool, move shoulders back, then swing

Putting it all together: watch this cool video of Jeff Mercier’s superb ice climbing technique

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