Ice climbing typically brings to mind frozen waterfalls. Here, a climber works his or her way up vertical ice with 2 axes, crampons toe-in to the ice.
Climbing alpine ice, though, can also include walking flat-footed with crampons and a single ice axe. A glacier is a larger and more variable beast than most winter-only waterfalls, so you need to use different techniques for changing ice conditions and slope angles.
First, we'll look at how you use your feet on the ice.
French technique: Also known as flat-footing on ice, this is the preferred technique for low-angle to moderately steep ice (slopes up to about 40°). All crampon points but the very front are kept in contact with the ice for traction. This is the most efficient way to travel over hard snow or ice. On lower-angle ice, climbing is simply a matter of pointing your feet uphill and planting them solidly, including your heels. As the slope angle increases, climbing requires greater ankle flexibility. It is easier to turn your toes outward to walk ducklike in order to keep the feet flat. On steeper slopes, you can progress diagonally up a slope with all points in, but with toes pointing across the slope or even slightly downhill.
Eventually, it becomes necessary to sidestep up the slope. To do this, plant your uphill foot solidly, then cross your lower foot over it and plant solidly. This cross-over upward progression requires care, as it is easy to catch your crampon points on the opposite boot, gaiter or crampon straps. It is important in the French technique to plant all points except the front 2. It is tempting to try to "edge" into a slope, placing only the inner row of points and leaving the outer points in the air. This is easier on your ankles, but your crampons can skate over the ice, allowing you to skate down the slope.
German technique: This is more commonly known as front-pointing, due to the fact that only the front-facing crampon points come in contact with the ice. It's commonly used on slopes of about 45° and up. The climber faces the slope and kicks his toes in to plant the 2 or 4 front points. It is the most direct way to ascend a steep slope but also the hardest on calf muscles since only the crampon frames support your feet. Unlike French technique, which takes some practice to get the footwork down, German technique is fairly straightforward. Kick, plant the front points, stand. Your body weight must rest on the few sharp points of your crampons and tools, so secure footholds are essential.
Combined technique: One way to make climbing moderately steep ice more comfortable is to mix the German technique (or toe-in to the slope) with flat-footing. This combination technique is known as the "3 o'clock position" or "pied troisieme" and is usually less tiring than straight flat-footing. It involves planting the front points of one foot while keeping the other foot splayed out to the side, sole flat against the slope.
Two common mistakes:
Walking on level or low-angle ice does not necessarily require the use of an ice axe. In fact, it's a good idea to practice your flat-foot technique (with and without crampons) without relying on your ice axe(s) so you learn the "feel" of the ice underfoot.
Of course, you carry and eventually use ice axes or tools on any ice climb. Longer mountaineering axes are often paired with shorter ice tools on alpine routes which involve both snow and ice travel. On steep, technical ice routes, 2 short tools are typically used, one with a hammer and one with an adze. The adze is used for clearing the ice before placing ice screws or for chopping steps or belay ledges. A hammer is used for pounding in ice pitons.
This section covers basics of using axes or ice tools on ice.
For low-to-moderate-angle ice (up to about 45°) using French technique:
For steep ice (45° and higher) using German technique:
Ice routes are frequently mixed with rock. Dry tooling is using your ice tools as protection in cracks or other features on the rock. You can place the pick in a crack or torque the hammer head into a rock feature and then work your way up with your tools as you would if they were in ice. Some hammer-heads are even designed with different angles on each side to fit into various-size cracks like a cam or chock.
Just as with rock climbing, you need to place protection as you go to protect yourself in case of a slip. Anchors allow you to belay your climbing partner and to rappel back down from a climb. This section covers some of the tools and methods that ice climbers use for protection.
Natural anchors can be used on an ice climb if you can find them. On waterfall ice, it is common to find sturdy ice columns around which you can put a runner. On mixed climbs you may find natural rock features such as horns to tie a runner around. Some ice climbers make use of cracks between ice and rock by tying off an ice screw with webbing, placing it in the crack and turning it 90° to create a chockstone.
Pound-in protection is useful in certain situations where screws would fracture the ice. Hook-style pitons can be placed in cracks, between ice features such as icicles or into old tool placement holes. Use the hammer on your ice tool to pound them in.
Named after the Soviet climber who first devised it in the 1930s, the Abalakov V-thread anchor is simple in design, yet very strong. It's well suited to rappels or top-rope setups, assuming that the ice in which it is made is of good quality.
The ice bollard is another rappel anchor that is cut out of good-quality ice (i.e., hard ice with no cracks). It consists of a downward-pointing, teardrop-shaped trench in which your climbing rope rests, with an upper lip that prevents the rope from sliding off.
These techniques of ice climbing are just the basics. For more in-depth information and to gain competence, read available books or take a course from a reputable guide or club in your area.
Ice climbing photo by Julie Eiselt.
By Julie Eiselt
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Last updated: 10/11/2013
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