Ice Climbing - Introduction to Waterfall Ice


A climber top ropes a steep and chandeliered curtain of ice in the Ouray Ice Park.

A climber top ropes a steep and chandeliered curtain of ice in the Ouray Ice Park.  AAI Collection

Ice climbing is now a vital part of any alpine climber's quiver of skills. The equipment and clothing has advanced enough that the sport has become much more accomodating. These advancements are allowing climbers to push the limits of their abilities and to test the limits of possible routes. Ice climbing is an incredibly rewarding pursuit. Nearly all of those that give it a try wind-up hooked. Many even become "ice climbing junkies."

Water ice is unique from Alpine Ice in that it forms from running water not from compacted snow. This type of ice is formed from frozen waterfalls and seeping water in/on cliff-faces. Hence, climbs occur in many different venues throughout the country and can be very accessible compared to their alpine counterparts. In fact, Ouray is a man-made ice park that is literally minutes from your hotel room. You couldn't find a better location for maximizing climbing time and focussing instruction. 

Ice Climbing - Introduction to Waterfall Ice


Introductory Level Program

Graduates of this course should feel comfortable in a single-pitch ice setting when climbing with a more experienced mentor.

Curriculum for this program includes, but is not limited to:

  • Design concept and selection of ice axes & second hand tools; reverse, classic, steeply drooped, & tubular picks; & crampons
  • Design concepts, selection & placement of ice screws & other ice anchors for protection and belays
  • Ice climbing grade system and guidebook interpretation
  • Ice axe & second hand tool placement techniques; third tool technique
  • French, German & American cramponing styles & combinations
  • Tool and foot progression sequence, staggered versus parallel
  • Top-rope system establishment and management
  • Ice crag hazard assessment and safety management protocols
  • Extensive climbing, including continuous pitch ascents
  • Leave No Trace climbing & travel skills

Ice Climbing - Introduction to Waterfall Ice


Two elements are required to create good ice conditions. First, there must be a consistent flow of water and second, there must be reliably cold conditions.  Both Lee Vining and Ouray have these elements and consequently amazing ice climbing opportunities.

Lee Vining - Sierra Nevada, California

Climbing perfect ice in Lee Vining Canyon.

Climbing perfect ice in Lee Vining Canyon.  Seth Hobby

The climate in the Sierra Nevada meets each of the above prerequisites. Indeed, the range does a great deal more than that. Cold weather and typically clear, blue skies combine to not only create great climbing conditions, but also to provide the best waterfall ice climbing in the American West. The ice found in Lee Vining Canyon and in June Lake comprise to make an absolutely phenomenal venue for ice training at all skill levels.

The Lee Vining climbing area is in a deep box canyon below 13,057-foot Mt. Dana. With walls up to 2000 vertical feet high on either side, the shadowed reaches of the canyon stay consistently cold and yield ice that is almost always in excellent condition. June Lake provides a variety of lines at a more moderate angle with a shorter approach. It is an excellent place for beginners to cut their teeth and for more advanced students to study the art of leading and to develop skills for mixed climbing. When the two locations are combined in a single program, their diversity and quality create one of the finest naturally ocuuring winter ice playgrounds in America.

Ouray, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Ice is a constantly changing and always interesting medium. A climber negotiates a very featured section of climbing.

Ice is a constantly changing and always interesting medium. A climber negotiates a very featured section of climbing.  AAI Collection

Ouray is a mecca for winter activities in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The small town of Ouray nestled at the foot of Red Mountain Pass provides climbers and skiers access to some of the best routes and terrain in the Rockies. The backcountry skiing in the area is top notch and Ouray is home to  America's first ice climbing park.

The greatest draw to the town of Ouray in the winter is the Ice Park and the annual Ouray Ice Festival, which brings in climbers from all over the world. The Ice Park is home to literally hundreds of routes from easy beginner climbs to advanced level test-pieces. Most ice climbing locations don't have a lot of variety and climbers are often stuck with a handful of climbs at a given difficulty. This is absolutely not the case with Ouray, there are enough climbs at enough levels to keep a climber engaged for months! The best way for a climber at any level to improve as an ice climber is to get mileage, and there is perhaps no better place than the Ouray Ice Park.

The one disadvantage to the ice park is that most of the climbs are single-pitch endeavors. And while this may be a disadvantage to the park, it's not a disadvantage to the area. In the Ouray Ranger District backcountry just a short distance from the town, there are dozens of multi-pitch climbs.


Ice Climbing - Introduction to Waterfall Ice

Cost and Details

Private Rates

Half-Day Courses & Climbs:

  • $300 - Private
  • $190 - (per person) 2 people
  • $140 - (per person) 3 or more people


Full-Day Courses & Climbs:

  • $340 - Private
  • $235 - (per person) 2 people
  • $190 - (per person) 3 or more people


Multi-Day Courses & Climbs:

  • $300 - (per day) Private
  • $210 - (per person, per day) 2 people
  • $170 - (per person, per day) 3 or more people

Available for Beginner, Intermediate, and Master's level courses.

Public Course Rates

  • Intro to Ice: 2 days, $350/person, 2 person minimum.
  • Intro to Ice: 5 days, $850/person, 2 person minimum.


AAI's Winter Comprehensive Progression

This Waterfall Ice Climbing program may be combined with our winter mountaineering program and our backcountry skiing programs in the San Juan Mountains or in the Sierra Nevada. When taken together, or pieced together over a season or two, these programs combined make up our "winter comprehensive curriculum." Here are the links to the other two programs in this progression:

Ice Climbing - Introduction to Waterfall Ice


The American Alpine Institute offers a series of two-day and five-day ice intensives in the San Juan Mountains and Sierras every winter. These courses are taught at three distinct levels, Introductory, Intermediate, and Advanced. The first climbers to enroll on a given date will determine the level of the program. Outside of our scheduled dates, courses and climbs may be arranged as private appointments as well.

Ouray, CO

  • December 20 - 21, 2014
  • January 3 - 4, 2015
  • January 10-11, 2015
  • January 24 - 25, 2015
  • February 7 - 8, 2015
  • February 21 - 22, 2015
  • March 14 - 15, 2015


Lee Vining, CA

  • December 17 - 18, 2014
  • January 3 - 4, 2015
  • January 22 - 23, 2015
  • February 5 - 6, 2015
  • February 19 - 20, 2015
  • March 5 - 6, 2015
  • March 19 - 20, 2015

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