TOP TIPS FOR YOUR EPIC FIRST TIME ICE CLIMBING
I love winter. Really. I do. But, sometimes it can be hard to remember why when we’re in the thick of it. These prolonged periods of deep, dense cold. The days are short and dark, and the wind. Oh, that snarling, biting wind.
But then, the Hills become freshly coated with a layer of soft, airy snow and the sun breaks through the thick wall of clouds. It awakens us from our winter slumber and invigorates us to dust off our tired bodies. It moves us toward adventure.
It was one of these very types of days in January that moved me toward a new winter
My friend, a professional climber and guide in Montana, came to town and invited us out to ice climb Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon.
The part of my soul that craves fresh air and new challenges had been dormant for months. It was suddenly revived by the idea of trying something new, by the opportunity to go ice climbing for the first time.
I’m not very athletic, and I’ve never had a competitive side. But, I’ve always gravitated toward adventure sports and outdoor activities. In fact, my parents will probably tell you that they’ve known I was a daredevil even before I could walk when I decided to bust down the baby gate and use it to surf down our stairs. I’m sure my skydiving stint while studying abroad in New Zealand only reaffirmed their beliefs.
I just love the personal challenge of being right at the edge of my comfort zone and doing things that test my limits and widen my horizons, like snowboarding, rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking. Those are the things that fuel my soul.
What To Wear
As the coffee brewed in the kitchen, I layered up for the day. This is the most crucial step. Ice climbing requires being outside, in the dead of winter, for prolonged periods. Usually, you’ll be in the shade because that’s where the best ice forms.
The forecast projected clear skies in the canyon, but the weather can be unpredictable. As long as I wasn’t freezing my butt off, I knew I’d enjoy whatever this new challenge brought my way.
Plus, I’m from Minnesota. Layering is in our DNA.
Although I don’t have any expensive, technical ice climbing gear, the hiking and snowboarding apparel I have was more than sufficient. I wore a warm base layer, picked out my thickest wool socks, and grabbed a thinner pair for the ride home. Having an extra pair of clean, dry socks is a lifesaver. I also threw in my heavy-duty mittens to keep my hands toasty between climbs. I wore a pair of durable and stretchy hiking pants that would allow my legs to move freely. I made sure to choose water-resistant outer layers because the last thing I wanted was to be wet and cold from playing in the snow and ice.
I laced up my insulated winter hiking boots, stuffed my pack with the essentials―water, a multitool, chapstick, sunglasses, phone, headlamp, and some snacks―filled my mug with coffee, and embarked on the day.
Tools of the Trade
We headed out of Rapid City engulfed in dense fog and frost. As we entered Spearfish Canyon, the sky gave way to the most epic bluebird sky. The sun warmed my legs as it beamed through the windshield. I turned up the radio and continued through the bends and curves of the canyon.
We made it to our destination―Bridal Veil Falls. After parking in the pullout, we gathered our gear and carefully crossed Highway 14A. The short climb down to the creek was steep and snowy. From there, we cautiously forged our way across the rushing water with the help of a few downed logs.
We set up camp at the base of the frozen falls. Our friend brought all the technical equipment for our climb: ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons, climbing helmets, harnesses, and the other basics for climbing. It was time to gear up, so I grabbed a harness.
I stepped through the waistbelt and into the leg loops of the harness, then shimmied it up just above my hipbones. After tightening the waistbelt and leg-loop buckles, I yanked down to make sure it was tight enough. We made sure there weren’t any twists in the waistbelt or leg loops and that all of the buckles were double-backed. Good to go.
Techniques & Tips
Having done some rock climbing previously―mostly on top rope climbing walls, with forays in outdoor climbing―I felt comfortable in a harness, belaying, and navigating the physical and mental challenges a route may present.
Having a climbing guide with extensive knowledge and familiarity with the terrain gave me the confidence to take on ice climbing. There are lots of great options for local climbing guides to get you started off on the right foot, too.
As I laced up the mountaineering boots nice and tight and secured the crampons, my friend went over the basic techniques of ice climbing.
The movements are simple—kick, swing, stand, kick, repeat.
Your foot placement is the most important part of ice climbing, which is similar to rock climbing. You’ll be resting your body weight on the sharp points on the front of your crampons, so it’s essential that you make secure footholds.
To secure your feet, face the slope of the ice. Give your toes a good strong kick into the wall, planting the front points of your crampon at a slight angle. Repeat the same motion with your other foot. Then extend your legs to stand up. Make sure your knees are loose and not locked when you stand.
Take a moment to check your form. You’ll notice that your heels want to be parallel with your toes. This may cause the front points of your crampons to pop out of the ice. Make sure your heels are lowered below your toes, leveraging the front points further into the ice. It will also help avoid slipping.
My friend suggested looking for holes left from his foot placements because it would be easier to kick my feet into those spots. This works when placing your ice axes, too.
I practiced getting my foothold secure at the base so I could get comfortable with the motions while getting some pointers on my form from my friend.
Next, we went over using the ice axes. My friend stressed that they are great tools to assist with maintaining your balance and making contact with the ice, but the feet rule supreme. You climb with your feet and not the ice axes, so you don’t want to rely on them to move you up the wall.
Hold the ice ax near the bottom of the shaft. The ax’s ergonomic design makes holding it feel incredibly natural. You hardly need to apply any pressure to your grip for a solid hold. Swing the ax overhead with one fluid motion hinging off your wrist. You’ll get the most direct and secure placement when your shoulder, wrist, and ax are aligned. Plant the pick firmly, but carefully, into the ice. You don’t need to swing the ax too hard or you may tire your arms out faster. Repeat with the other tool. Then it’s back to your foot placement.
Take It Slow
As I carefully went through the motions I had just learned―kick, swing, stand, repeat―I found myself making my way up this giant frozen waterfall. Woah!
My friends at the base were cheering me along the whole way and talking me through each motion.
When I got up the wall, I was really starting to feel it. My breath was getting short, my calves were cramping, and my hands felt weak. I thought to myself, “Well, you made it halfway up this thing. You should be pretty proud of yourself. Why not just call it good here and head back down?”
My friend encouraged me to take a little break so that my arms and legs could rest. So, I did.
I secured the ice axes, dropped my hands below my waist, and shook out my hands and arms. It felt good to get the blood flowing, after constantly having my hands above my head.
I needed to give my legs some relief to, so I used my ice axes to hang from the wall. I bent my knees and straightened my arms to rest.
With reenergized limbs, I pushed on with the rest of the climb. Before I knew it, I’d made it to the top!
I sat there for a moment taking in my surroundings and appreciating the moment. The serene beauty of Spearfish Canyon amplified the feeling of self-accomplishment from conquering my first ever ice climb.