Kitty Calhoun’s Best Tips for Better Ice Climbing

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The renowned alpinist, ice climber, and resident badass dishes her best advice for climbing efficiently on steep ice.

At the 20th annual Bozeman Ice Festival, two women whispered by the trailhead: “I think that’s her,” said one of them. “I think that’s Kitty Calhoun.”

Known for putting up first ascents and first female ascents around the world, once summiting an 8,000-meter peak with an elbow severed in an avalanche, and pushing the limits of alpinism when she was one of the only female climbers in the game, South Carolina native Kitty Calhoun is a force of nature with a reputation for outperforming her male counterparts, especially at altitude, and tenacity that only seems to toughen in bad conditions.

Kitty Calhoun on a 1996 attempt of the North Face of Thelay Sagar. | Photo by Chris Noble

At the Ice Fest, she patrolled the parking lot with a clipboard and a dead-serious squint. She wore fresh mascara and a spray of yellow bangs under a fleece hat with its own pink pigtails.

“Where’s my girls?” she drawled with her signature twang, peering around the snowy parking lot for the missing members of her Women’s Steep Ice Clinic. She’s like the camp counselor you always wanted and the crowd favorite by far. I was psyched to be one of "her girls."

As we headed up to the base of the Genesis 1 Wall in Hyalite Canyon, I tripped and body-slammed my coffee into the snow. Calhoun asked if I was okay, and I was so starstruck I could barely answer. I'm sure we were both wondering what kind of climbing such clumsiness might herald, but when you're under the wing of someone who's been guiding since 1985 for Exum, the American Alpine Institute, and Chicks Climbing & Skiing, it doesn't really matter. Kitty Calhoun can make just about anyone look good, even a second-season ice climber like me.

Here are our clinic's minutes, with some of her best tips for beginner to intermediate climbers looking to polish form and maximize efficiency.

1. Build the Iron Triangle

More so than most rock climbing, maximum efficiency while ice climbing often demands doing the same move over and over again. Kick, kick. Swing. Kick, kick. Try to establish a rhythm. Swing above your head and square up your feet underneath the higher tool until they are in line with one another, wider than shoulder-width apart. Then swing with the other hand and move up and sideways until you’re standing squarely under that one. Rinse and repeat.

2. Aim for Concavities

When you’re swinging, keep your hips to the wall and lean your head and shoulders back to open up your fields of reach and visibility. Aim for divots and dips in the ice, and get a stick above and in line with your shoulder whenever possible. Try to keep your tools staggered—one above the other—to reduce your total number of swings and therefore save energy. Think about the efficiency you’d lose if you matched on every hold while rock climbing or joined your feet on every step while ascending a flight of stairs.

3.Use Your Legs

“Just like in rock climbing, you’ll find your strength is in your legs and your hips,” said Calhoun. “You’ve got power in your thighs here, and it’s big power,” she said. Hang from straight arms to conserve your energy while you move your feet up. When your legs are at a 90-degree angle, stand up.

“Pretend you’ve got a dime in between your glutes,” said Calhoun, and use that power squeeze to push your hips into the wall, keeping steady downward pressure on your tool without pulling up, and start planning your next move.

4. Step Strategically

“It’s important to size up the climb and figure out where the natural places to rest and regroup are,” said Calhoun. Before you swing a tool, make sure you’ll have concavities, cauliflower heads, or clean vertical ice to kick into beneath and slightly to either side of your tool placement. A little planning goes a long way toward saving time and energy.

5. Kick with Care

Hanging from straight arms, sit back so you can see your feet and kick with the toe of your crampons, not the toe of your boot. You’ll want the plane of your foot perpendicular to the ice, hinging at the knee to save energy and maximize swing. When your front points stick, drop your heel to engage your crampon's secondary points. Think about pressing the secondary points into the ice to stabilize you before working on the next foot.

6. Remember to Breathe

“Breathing connects your mind and your body. It’s key to climbing,” Calhoun said. “If you don’t focus on your breathing, you forget to breathe. You lose your peripheral vision, and you aren’t able to see all the potential possibilities.” Standing still without breathing is a good way to get pumped.

“It’s important to realize you’re solid on your feet, and as long as you’re solid on your feet, you’re not going to fall. So relax and do what you know to do,” Calhoun said.

7. Take Time-Outs

Not breathing? Balance your feet, find a rest, and take deep, slow breaths until your heartrate slows and the blood starts flowing back into your hands.

At good stances, wiggle your fingers on the tool handles to make sure your grip is relaxed. Contrary to popular belief, screaming barfies is often a result of poor circulation rather than just pure cold. Over-gripping for long periods of time with your hands above your heart is a surefire recipe. Hang from one tool and shake out, swinging your arm back and forth to force blood back into your fingertips. Then shake out the other. Keep alternating until both hands are warm and the forearm burn has begun its retreat. Then: push onward.

8. Practice One Thing at a Time

Instead of fixating on getting to the top, Calhoun recommends focusing on one movement skill per climb and measuring your success by your progress in that skill. That can be anything from getting your feet higher to remembering to take rests more often.

“It takes the pressure off of you, so you climb more efficiently and learn more quickly,” she said.

Learn more: Chicks Climbing & Skiing, the 18-year-old, Ouray-based guiding service Calhoun now guides for exclusively. (Sorry, boys; it’s ladies only.) Learn more at chickswithpicks.net

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