Far from the niche sport on display in adventure magazines and TV specials, ice climbing is one of the fundamental skills of alpinism. A full quiver of skills will enable a climber to cross heavily crevassed glaciers, pass bergschrunds, and link up small flows with pitches of rock-climbing in pursuit of a summit. Keep reading to learn more about alpine ice, waterfall ice, and the different challenges they present to alpinists.
Skills Instruction for Climbing Alpine and Waterfall Ice
The sport of ice climbing can be broken into two sub-disciplines: alpine ice and waterfall ice.
Alpine ice forms from compacted snow. It persists through the summer in high snowfields and gullies, and on glaciers. Glaciologists sometimes refer to alpine ice as "bubbly ice" because it contains tiny air bubbles left over from the compaction process. Snow that accumulates in snowfields and couloirs in the alpine zone will consolidate and harden over the course of the summer season, forming a firm surface that mountaineers call firn (from German) or névé (from French). The process of consolidation continues in subsequent seasons; it takes about three years for snow to transform into true alpine ice. Both glaciers and the perennial "snowfields" found in the high alpine zone have cores composed of alpine ice.
Mountaineers seek out alpine ice routes year-round, but especially in the summer season, when cool nights and warm days produce enjoyable climbing conditions and the ice itself is generally plastic, providing easy, solid tool placements and allowing rapid movement past obstacles.
Waterfall ice, on the other hand, freezes directly from dripping or running water. It normally forms at lower elevations only in the winter season, when air temperatures are consistently below freezing. "Water ice" can exhibit a very wide range of conditions. In very cold weather, it can be highly brittle, shattering into "dinnerplates" that spall off when struck with an ice tool. In wet conditions, hollow spaces behind the ice can impound meltwater that bursts out unpredictably. These challenges make water-ice climbing an exciting mental, as well as physical, sport.
Water ice climbing skills are useful not only in winter on waterfalls and icicles at lower elevations, but also on summer alpine routes where the daily freeze-thaw cycle produces flows of meltwater ice. Routes that follow gullies or that access high snowfields may require stretches of water-ice climbing, even in mild conditions.
In addition to these two main forms of ice, there are a few others that figure mainly in more advanced climbing.
Rime ice forms directly from moist, supercooled cloud or mist, usually on the windward side of rocks. Rime ice plays an important part in ice climbing in cold, maritime climates like Patagonia and Scotland.
Verglas, or black ice, is a thin layer of water ice that coats rock after rain or during a melt-freeze cycle; it can turn an ordinary rock climb into a difficult alpine route. Thin smears of verglas sometimes force the use of special techniques to link up otherwise straighforward flows.
Lastly, sometimes the ice runs out, leaving an ice-climber with bare or snow-dusted rock for short stretches. Dry-tooling is the use of ice tools on bare rock. Picks can be cammed into cracks and crampon points can be used to gain purchase on narrow edges.
A seasoned alpinist will frequently encounter many kinds of ice on climbing trips, and needs the skills to cope with all of them.