What is Ice Climbing? Equipment, Best Season, Top Spots

Ice climbing is a lot like rock climbing – on ice. Rather than climbing on rocky surfaces, ice climbers use crampons, picks, ropes and other equipment to climb on ice. 

For years, ice climbing was just another part of rock climbing and other mountaineering activities. Whenever climbers reached an icy section on the mountain, they had to traverse the ice in order to continue upward.

Eventually, the thrill and challenge of climbing on ice caught on, and ice climbing was born. Nowadays, rather than being an obstacle on the way to the summit, climbing on ice is an adventure in and of itself.

Ice climbing can be practiced independently or as part of a mountaineering expedition. Glaciers and frozen waterfalls are by far the most popular ice climbing venues. Many versatile ice climbers also practice mixed climbing – a variation of ice climbing that involves climbing on ice, rock and snow.

Much like in sport climbing, ice climbers typically work together in pairs. One partner serves as an anchor while the other climbs, and vice versa.

Due to the conditions in which ice climbing typically takes place, it is considered an extreme sport. In addition to being outdoors in sub-zero temperatures for extended periods of time, ice climbers may be exposed to inclement weather conditions, avalanches and crevasses. For those who choose this sport, however, such risks only add to the thrill of climbing on ice.

If you want to get on the ice but climbing is a bit too extreme for your taste, glacier trekking is a great alternative.

What is the best time of year to practice ice climbing?

As you would imagine, the winter months do tend to provide better conditions for ice climbing. Contrary to popular belief, however, you can ice climb all year round.

Rjukan ice climbing private guided day tours
Ice climbing in Rjukan, Norway. Photo by Pawel Karczmarczyk.

That’s right! You can even ice climb during the summer months. Glaciers provide an ideal setting for ice climbing in all four seasons. Additionally, mountaineering expeditions to high altitude peaks often involve both ice and mixed climbing.

Alternatively, many ice climbers practice rock climbing during the off-season. This is a great way to stay in shape during the warmer months as the strength and skills you acquire rock climbing will help you on the ice as well.

What equipment do you need for ice climbing?

As you would expect, ice climbing requires some technical gear. You will need the proper equipment, both to shield you from chilly temperatures and to actually climb.

Ice climbing in the High Tatras, Slovakia. Photo by Miki Knizka.

Ice climbing equipment checklist: 

  • Insulated ice climbing boots
  • Climbing harness
  • Climbing helmet
  • Crampons to fit your boots
  • Ice axes
  • Belay device
  • Carabiners
  • Ice screws
  • Rope
  • Quickdraws
  • Gore-Tex gloves
  • Eye protection (optional)
If you will be climbing with a guide (recommended), s/he may provide some or all of the equipment you need to climb. In other cases, you may need to rent your own gear. Either way, you’ll want to be fully prepared for this icy adventure.

Why should you hire a guide to go ice climbing?

A knowledgeable local guide adds immeasurable value to any mountain activity. Given that ice climbing is an extreme sport, the presence of a seasoned guide is also important for safety reasons.

Ice climbing course in El Chaltén, Argentina. Photo by Alberto del Castillo.

A qualified guide will take the necessary precautions to keep you and fellow climbers safe on the ice. Among other things, ice climbers need to be acutely aware of freezing temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, avalanches and crevasses.

At Explore-Share, you can find ice climbing trips and courses for beginner to advanced climbers. Many of the host guides are IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) certified and have completed a rigorous, internationally recognized training program. You can count on these guides to lead you confidently on the ice.

Many of our wintertime mountaineering trips also include ice climbing. This is a great way to get experience on the ice while simultaneously learning about other elements of mountaineering.

Top 10 ice climbing destinations in the world

Our top 10 list includes ice climbing classics as well as few unexpected locations.

Ice climbing in Slovenia. Photo by Gregor Kofler.

1. Cogne, Italy | There are more than a hundred frozen waterfalls in this ice climber’s paradise in northern Italy.

2. Norway | There is ice climbing for all levels in Rjukan and dramatic landscapes of mountains plunging into the sea in the Lofoten Islands.

3. Banff, Canada | This world-class ski area doubles as a top 10 ice climbing destination.

4. Japan | It turns out that Hokkaido is not all about skiing! Scenic gorges provide the ideal backdrop for ice and mixed climbing.

5. Slovenia | Combine ice climbing with a ski trip, or do it as a stand alone activity. Kranjska Gora is a great starting point.

6. Colorado, USA | Breckenridge and Vail are also top-notch ice climbing venues for the whole family.

7. Kandersteg, Switzerland | This gem in the heart of the Bernese Oberland is one of the best places in the Alps to practice ice climbing.

8. Ecrins, France | The multi-level climbing available in the Ecrins is not to be missed.

9. Slovakia | Push your ice climbing boundaries in the High Tatras, located on the Polish border.

10. Iceland | This list would not be complete without the land of ice. The Icelandic fjords provide an almost otherworldly ice climbing venue.

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