The biggest barrier to ice climbing is getting the gear. Well that, and seasonal weather patterns. (Winter is coming!) As with any sport, If you don't have the right gear you will get less from the experience. The specific gear you need is dictated by your specific type of activity. Ice climbing is a broad term that covers a wide range of adventure. On one end of the spectrum you have Alpine Mountaineering, attaining large summits by tackling glaciers and snowfields. On the other end you have Technical Ice, scaling actual walls of ice that can be vertical or even overhanging. Depending on your objective, your needs can be more alpine, more technical, or a mix. Either way you should know what gear serves what purpose so that you are best prepared for your objective. Below is a very basic run down of the types of ice gear that you might find and a brief description of their uses. For pictures you can follow along with this slideshow that I created when giving this presentation to the MN Rovers.
Boots: Hard Shell vs Soft Shell
Hard shell boots offer more support than soft shell boots. This can be an advantage because it can create a stronger connection to your crampons. The double-layer design also can keep you a bit warmer than certain soft shell, single-layer boots. They are heavy though and can be clumsy to work with. Soft shell boots have become much more popular over the last few years because of their overall comfort and flexibility. They are lighter weight and ideal for technical ice climbing. The also look cooler.
For more info on boot and crampon selection, check out this Rock and Ice article.
Crampons: Three Variables
Points- Glacier vs Technical- Glacier crampons are identified by their flat, downward curving points. they are more flexible because they are designed for hiking long distances They have non replaceable points and are usually the ones you get when you rent crampons from a local outfitter. They work for technical ice but technical crampons work much better. They have points like ice tools so they penetrate ice for better foot placements. They have replaceable tips and are usually stiffer for better boot connection.
Connections- Step in vs Strap on- Step in crampons require a special boot with a ledge of hard rubber on the front and back so that the "bail"(hard metal wire), has something to lock into. This operates a lot like a ski boot: step in and snap the binding shut. More modern designs of crampons are using a strap on system using a rubber strap on the toes to secure the boot to the crampon. This works with more styles of boots but arguably gives a softer, less effective connection.
Configuration-Dual vs Mono- Like camels, some crampons have one point,some have two. Dual point is the more common configuration for beginners. It gives the climber more stability when it comes to ankle rotation. Mono point is the single point configuration. It offers more flexibility and rotation on the toe of the crampon and also deeper penetration as the kicking force is not split between two points. This is often used by dry toolers as the pick on the crampon can fit in the same places as the tool pick does.
For more info on crampon selection, REI did a nice job putting this article together.
Tools: Mountaineering vs Technical
Mountaineering tools are designed for stabilization, self arrest, and anchoring on the vast glaciers and slopes of bigger mountains. They are not designed for vertical ice. The long shaft makes for a slow swing and the straight handle would be incredibly difficult to hold on to with a downward pull. As climbers have pushed into more technical routes, tools have become shorter, lighter, and more aggressive. A technical tool has a curved shaft and ergonomic handle to make swinging and hanging on easier. While they are not the workhorse tools that mountaineering tools can be, they are specifically designed for speed and accuracy when swinging. Leashes were introduced to help climbers keep a grip on these shorter tools, but as handle design improved, technical ice climbers have cast off their leashes for the improved maneuverability that leashless climbing offers.
Outdoor Gear Lab put together a nice buying guide for mountaineering tools and Rock and Ice has review page for more technical tools.
Extra: T and B Rating?
Both picks and shafts have a circled T or a B rating stamped right on it. What does it mean? The B stand for Basic which means it can withstand less force than a shaft or pick with a T (Technical) rating. So is the T rating better to have? I actually prefer B rated picks for ice because they are thinner an give better ice penetration than T picks. But when I am dry tooling, I would go for a T pick every time. The forces exerted on a pick why dry tooling are intense and I can feel my B picks flexing in ways that make me uncomfortable. This is a nice summary of the B and T pick dilemma.
Which gear is the best to get? Just choose the right tool for the right objective.
Climb Smart MN is a grassroots approach to climbing education based on community and charitable giving. For information on donation based climbing lessons visit ClimbSmartMN and follow us on Facebook. With over ten years of climbing instruction, coaching, and guiding experience, Chris Hesselbein strives to better the climbing community through personalized technique and safety education.