The Spirit of Alpinism

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Ice Climbing Courses

Skills Instruction for Climbing Alpine and Water-Ice

Far from the niche activity on display in adventure magazines and TV specials, ice climbing is one of the fundamental skills of alpinism, enabling a climber to cross heavily crevassed glaciers, pass bergscrunds, and follow thin smears of verglas over steep rock in pursuit of a summit. Keep reading to learn more about alpine ice, waterfall ice, and their differing challenges.

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Ice Climbing

Skills Instruction for Climbing Alpine and Water-Ice

The discipline of ice climbing can be broken into two sub-disciplines:  alpine ice and waterfall ice. 

Alpine ice forms from compacted snow  and persists through the summer in high couloirs and on glaciers.  Glaciologists sometimes refer to it 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, becoming firn (german) or neve (french). The process of consolidation continues in subsequent seasons; it takes about three years for snow to transform into alpine ice. Both glaciers and the perennial "snowfields" found in the high alpine zone have cores composed of alpine ice.

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, and can exhibit a very wide range of conditions.  In very cold weather, water ice can be dangerously brittle, shattering into "dinnerplates" that spall off and threaten those below.  In wet conditions, hollow spaces behind the ice can impound meltwater, bursting out unpredictably.  These challenges make water-ice climbing an exciting mental, as well as physical, sport.

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.

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