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What makes ice climbing hard?
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By sanz
From Raleigh, NC
Nov 29, 2012
One of my first trad leads, on Ooga Chocka at Crowder's Mountain.

I have never done any real ice climbing. I have done some fairly easy mountaineering but the challenge was always endurance on long slogs. I am also not trying to be a hater or a troll; this is a legitimate question.

So, what makes ice climbing hard? It seems like with two wicked ice tools and climbing-specific crampons, you could just float up. The objective danger definitely seems higher than rock, but is the movement actually challenging? Do you get pumped when you're always holding onto two handlebar jugs? Is it technically hard to place your tools and crampons well? What holds someone back from climbing harder grades on ice?

From watching videos and common sense, it is much more obvious to me why mixed climbing is hard, especially the overhanging stuff. But when you're strictly on water ice, what is actually hard about it?


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By csproul
From Rancho Cordova, CA
Nov 29, 2012
Summit of Wolf's Head with Pingora in the background

Not so much to answer your question...but last year a buddy of mine asked the same question before we headed to an ice festival. Now he is a STRONG rock climber IMO and climbs sport in the 12+/13- (usually in a few tries, not projecting over a long time) range and trad in the 11's pretty competently. It didn't take too long to have his question answered. He did very well, but it wasn't quite as easy as he thought it'd be.

To partially answer your question: yes, you have jugs to hold onto, but imagine that even on a rock climb that hold the same jug in the same position can get tiring. Now imagine that you have to swing over and over again to get that "jug" to be good and take some effort to remove said "jug" and repeat.

Now, it is true that you have potentially good feet, but it is much more difficult (compared to rock) to feel when those feet are good and fully trust your feet and keep your weight on them. Just like with rock, the more you don't fully weight your feet, you default back to hanging on your arms.

Ice is not a perfectly flat uniform surface either. Just like with rock climbing, there are features and some are easier to stand on and some take better sticks with your axes, and some features just fall apart when you hit them. There is skill to efficiently picking the right places to step and to swing...not all that unlike choosing the most efficient line while rock climbing. And just like with rock climbing, there is a skill to using balance and position to optimally use the available features.

Finally, ice changes! A route with new, soft, thick, sinker ice will climb differently to beat up, hard, brittle ice. Conditions matter and will change the very same climb from one time to the next.

Try it, I bet you'll like it!


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By Bill Sacks
From Sacramento, CA
Nov 29, 2012
Chapel Pond

Screaming barfies.


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By Buff Johnson
Nov 29, 2012
smiley face

It's a different medium and can be completely counter-intuitive to rock climbing. In some ways you move away from the ice instead of with the rock, but the newer tools offer you more to moving with terrain. It's not so much that you can grab tools but that you can progress with power and balance. Ice is also always steeper than it looks, it's variable, and scary as hell sometimes to lead on.

It's a different kind of difficulty. Cold Fear is a great way to put it; as the Cody site offers.


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By Dave Bn
From Fort Collins, CO
Nov 29, 2012
Dreamweaver

It's all about the pump, brah.

That and the fear of falling on an ice screw, I guess.


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By reboot
From Westminster, CO
Nov 29, 2012

It's not. I hope that's the answer you are fishing for.

The logistics (gear buying, driving, approach, staying warm) are way hard than the actual climbing, which is why I and many of my friends have gotten out of it.


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By Cale Hoopes
From Sammamish, WA
Nov 29, 2012
Profile Icon

My 2 bits?

- You are a bit more anxious: no falling.
- That anxiety makes you grip harder sometimes.
- The screaming barfies are real.
- The objective danger is right in front of you (think this - every time you swing some of the WALL comes off?!@, not a rock issue)
- A 6 foot fall on crampons can shatter your ankles.
- Confidence is a steeper wall than rock IMHO - confidence in your placements, your technique, etc.

ICE sure makes you feel alive. I love it. Of all the climbing sports, it's actually my favorite sport. It's so rewarding to me. Very interesting to attack climbs. Good stuff.


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By sanz
From Raleigh, NC
Nov 29, 2012
One of my first trad leads, on Ooga Chocka at Crowder's Mountain.

Interesting points all around. Thanks yall. I'd like to try it some day, but like reboot said, it is crazy expensive!


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By sanz
From Raleigh, NC
Nov 29, 2012
One of my first trad leads, on Ooga Chocka at Crowder's Mountain.

chufftard wrote:
the only thing easier than aid climbing is ice climbing.


So what's the equivalent of A4 on ice? Like that video where the dude is climbing a slushy river and the whole thing sheets off right after they toss him the TR?


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By JCM
From Golden, CO
Nov 29, 2012

reboot wrote:
The logistics (gear buying, driving, approach, staying warm) are way hard than the actual climbing, which is why I and many of my friends have gotten out of it.


This is totally true. When I used to climb ice (in New England), it seemed like the ratio of logistical BS to pitches climbed was usually pretty poor, and least compared to climbing on rock.

A hypothesis: Ice climbing has more difficult logistics, a shorter season, and more fickle conditions than rock climbing, and thus it is harder to rack up sufficient mileage to really get good at ice climbing. As such, ice climbing seems hard just because most people aren't very good at it, just because it is so difficult to get adequate practice.

Still, ice climbing is actually hard, just not in the sense that rock climbing is hard. When we call a rock climb hard, we mean that it is difficult to get up successfully, and easy to fall off; we mean that it takes a high level of skill. Ice climbing is not hard in this sense, it is more hard in the sense of being arduous. Ice climbing is not hard because you feel like you will fall off, if is hard becuase you are cold and tired and your hands hurt, and you are scared. Just a different sort of difficulty.

(For these reasons, I drastically prefer rock climbing. People who prefer ice are an odd breed.)


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By Sam Lightner, Jr.
From Lander, WY
Nov 29, 2012
The Shield

Its the medium. You really cannot fall. Endurance is much more than you think (I once spent 2 hours leading a single pitch of Curtain Call). If its vertical ice, you are not in a vertical plane with your body... you are overhanging as you lean back out. Above all, its fear. Like aid, you have to factor in the danger with the grade, not just the difficultie.

I've known a number of 5.13 limbers who said "Its no harder than 5.11", but none of them really pushed the ice standards. Its a lot harder than that.


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By JCM
From Golden, CO
Nov 29, 2012

Sam Lightner, Jr. wrote:
(I once spent 2 hours leading a single pitch of Curtain Call).


Your poor, frozen belayer...


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By Sam Lightner, Jr.
From Lander, WY
Nov 29, 2012
The Shield

A4 can be an 80 foot pitch of ice that is 4 inches thick in most places and only a few stubbies go in, or it can be a 150 pitch of thick, perfectly smooth ice that you have to go fast on to make it before you fail. Putting in a screw 25 feet above your last screw, when you are really pumped in both your calves and arms, can be harrowing. Your facing a 50+ footer with bladed instruments in your hands and spikes on your feet that will likely catch on the way down. Like A4 or A5, you just can't fall.


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By Sam Lightner, Jr.
From Lander, WY
Nov 29, 2012
The Shield

Jon Moen wrote:
Your poor, frozen belayer...

You know it. At first he was yelling at me, then he followed and was glad I'd led. I must have dug 20 feet of curtain ice out of that thing... actually had to make a groove to go up. I was soaking wet at the end of it.
Not gonna do that again.


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By DannyUncanny
From Vancouver
Nov 29, 2012

Imagine doing chin ups on the easy jugs on a hang board, but after every chin up you have to grab a hammer and nail the hang board back onto the wall or it will fall off.


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By Sir Wanksalot
From County Jail
Nov 29, 2012

F--K ICE CLIMBING! Just not worth it too me. I can find a whole lot better shit to do with my time.


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By Nathan Stokes
Nov 29, 2012

The feet are "easier" in that you "always" have a foot hold (kicking your crampon point into the ice), but that foot hold normally the same position (balanced off your toes). There is also the kicking aspect of setting your feet every time, you are lifting and swinging a fairly heavy amount of gear over and over. So imagine climbing a jug haul using balanced only on the tips of your toes wearing 2lb ankle weights.


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By Martin le Roux
From Superior, CO
Nov 29, 2012
Stairway to Heaven

Apart from stamina and endurance, one of the things that makes ice climbing hard is that there may not actually be climbable ice. Sometimes one only discovers this half-way up a pitch.


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By Jay Karst
From Golden
Nov 29, 2012
me <br />

Randy W. wrote:
F--K ICE CLIMBING! Just not worth it too me. I can find a whole lot better shit to do with my time.

Like spraying on climbing forums cuz "Its Too Cold Outside"

Unforgiving environment, Everchanging Ice Conditions, sever cosequences for falling & manditory skillset to climb high in the greater ranges. Ice climbing has taken me to some of the most amazing vistas!


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By AnthonyM
Nov 29, 2012
Maroon Bells-Bell Cord Couloir

Screwing in an ice screw on lead and having it open a faucet/hose and channeling the water down your shirt, pants, etc. (My first Ice Lead)... This makes you cold (duh) but also really helps you realize what you are climbing on.

The last couple winters we would ice climb in CCC for the first half of the day and then hit Tabletop to rock climb for the last half of the day... Complete shock everytime we put on the rock shoes-completely different and a bit of an adjustment after ice climbing for the first half of the day. Try it!

Ice is a whole different monster.


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By J Antin
From Denver, CO
Nov 29, 2012
First morning at Indian Creek!!!

Jay Karst wrote:
Like spraying on climbing forums cuz "Its Too Cold Outside" Unforgiving environment, Everchanging Ice Conditions, sever cosequences for falling & manditory skillset to climb high in the greater ranges. Ice climbing has taken me to some of the most amazing vistas!


Jay - Ice tomorrow? Got the day off~!


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By Michael C
From New Jersey
Dec 3, 2012
Base of Main Flow, The Narrows.

sanz wrote:
It seems like with two wicked ice tools and climbing-specific crampons, you could just float up. ...but is the movement actually challenging?


I think once you master sticking your crampons and tools movement becomes a lot easier.

But kicking crampons while on overhanging ice is definitely hard work because I feel like you can't hang on tools as much as you have to be pulling on them and maintaining body tension to work your feet up and place them.


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By T Howes
From Bozeman, MT
Dec 4, 2012

Ice climbing is hard because it is scary.


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By nicelegs
From Denver
Dec 4, 2012

It seems that no-one here has read the excellent essay that Will Gadd wrote in R&I about "Spray On" in Hemleken Falls. In that, he comes clean about grades and says that either he was as good as the best ice climbers in the world at 17 years old, or ice climbing (difficulty, not danger mitigation) just isn't that hard.

Spray on is 45 degree overhanging ice, not mixed, and with it there is truly hard to climb ice. WI10.

The vertical "hard" WI4/5/6 isn't challenging to a fit climber with sharp tools. Sure your hands get pumped and swing quality begins to suffer as you get tired but it really isn't hard. I agree with the other people in that fear and conditions are the worst part. Compare a WI6 to even a 12a sport route. The little ol' 12a has way wilder moves, usually more endurance, and requires a lot more strength. And kids warm up on it.

When we push into the 13's sport or trad, we're talking movement and fitness that prior to Hemleken were completely unheard of for pure ice.

I've always considered WI5/6 to be about mid 10 to 10+ moves with a pump you just can't seem to shake. It's uncomfortable and definitely scary but it's really not that hard.


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By Keenan Waeschle
From Bozeman, MT
Dec 4, 2012
on top of the RNWF <br />June 2012

a 10+ that if you fall you're going to break your legs.


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By Ben Brotelho
From Albany, NY
Dec 4, 2012
Epic free solo with a pack on

If you're trying to validate why people ice climb, and why you should try it from a purely physical standpoint: "that's hard, that's not," then you're missing the point of ice-climbing, at least what it means to me, which may be quite different than the next guy's (or girl's) take on the "sport."

Ice climbing just flows so much differently than rock climbing for me, it is more of an experience in meditation and calm management of risk than it is a purely physical challenge for me. I feel "at one" with the medium while ice climbing much more than on rock, and it's a great feeling.

Of course, everyone comes into climbing and its different sub-categories from different standpoints, but climbing for me has always been about being with nature in the purest sense, separating the filth from my mind and concentrating on the now. Ice climbing, along with its requisite cold weather survival, risk recognition and mitigation, and 'toughness' has always been able to strip away the extraneous bullshit in life out of my head, much more than rock climbing is able to...I feel cleansed almost after ice-climbing.

Except of course when I shit myself from being scared.


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