When I first started ice climbing I thought I would NEVER go ice climbing. Why would anyone want to hack away at a wall of ice in freezing cold weather? That did not sound like a good time at all. It sounded like a lot of work in uncomfortable conditions. The next season, a guide I was working with twisted my arm and had me come along to set up anchors and manage clients. At least I was getting paid to be cold. When the clients were exhausted they put me on the rope. Turns out, it WAS a lot of work and I was in fact cold. So, no surprises there. What I didn't expect was the fantastic pump and the increased level of challenge I encountered on the wall. So, I did what any reasonable climber would do. I bought all the gear right away.
Even though I very much enjoyed the experience there are a few things that I wish I would have known at the time. Here are some very obvious but important tips for getting the most out of your first time ice climbing.
1. Ice is actually water in disguise!
Ice climbing can be remarkably damp. If you are climbing a live flow during the day you are almost guaranteed to get wet. It sneaks up on you. Just a little bit here and there starts to add up. If your clothes get wet, you will not get dry. If you are not dry, you WILL get cold. If you get cold, you will not be happy. If you are not happy, you will not have as much fun. If you are not having fun, you will not get invited to the bar afterwards. So, stay dry if you want to party with townies. Wear as many layers as you need to stay warm, but the outermost layer needs to be waterproof, especially your gloves.
2. You are actually thirsty!
Winter outdoor activities dehydrate you quickly without you noticing. You don't feel hot so you don't want to drink water. After a while you may start to feel tired, woozy, or not quite with it. That is exactly where mistakes start to happen. Go for your Nalgene. What's that you say? It's frozen? Oh. I didn't see that coming... How about bringing a heat source or an insulated bottle so that your only source of life giving water doesn't turn into the most boring popsicle ever? Food also freezes! *Pro tip: Drive around for 20 minutes to defrost bagels on your dashboard!
3. Ice explodes!
Hitting a frozen substance with a metal pick right next to your face is a terrible idea. It tends to explode. Wear eye protection. Just do it. It doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be there. Grab your favorite shop glasses, snorkeling goggles, or welding mask and get to work. Actually I prefer sunglasses on a sunny day for protection from both ice shards and reflective glare. On cloudy days, a good pair of clear racquetball goggles does the trick. Also, if you have any composure on the wall, aim for the concave (indented) areas in the ice. Convex(bulging out) ice formations will almost certainly blow up in your face because...science.
4. Just come down!
I know you really want to get to the top because it would make you win climbing. But there is a very good chance that on your first time you may not get there. Falling is very common and I wholeheartedly encourage people to get back on that wall and push their limits. However, beginners have a tendency to hang on the rope for a long time, not knowing that they are actually spent. Your best chance of sending a route is when you are warm and well rested. With each attempt your pump builds on the pump that was there before. Every minute you are on the wall, your hands are getting colder. Push your limits but know that you have a much better chance of succeeding if you come down, warm up, and rest.
5. Your rental gear sucks!
Ever rent any gear from anywhere? Chances are it sucks. The edges aren't sharp. It doesn't fit well. It might not even be the exact gear you need for the situation. But how would you know? My first time on ice was with mountaineering crampons and straight-leashed tools. There is very specialized gear for different types of climbing. You can read all about it in my post "Ice Gear 101" At least go into it knowing that the gear you are renting may be making this much more difficult than it should be. Don;t let crappy gear make you feel unsuccessful. I encourage you to learn about the correct gear for you to rent and also to borrow good gear from friends to see what works the best for you. It is a poor carpenter who blames his tools...but c'mon! have you seen these lousy crampons?
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.