The frozen wall cracks under my ax. Ice flakes hit my rosy cheeks. I don't mind, I'm too fired up to notice the cold. I know I can't stay in one place for too long, I must move on, keep a clear head, not give in to my fears, and face whatever surprises may lie ahead. After all, it is in extreme conditions that we get to learn more about ourselves.
First, a few technicalities
Frozen waterfalls, or simply ice falls, are the most sought-after, graded from WI 1 (low angle, can be attempted with one ax) to WI 7+ (quite rare and pretty extreme). These are vertical by nature, sometimes overhanging, and require a certain level of skill and experience. This type of ice is often brittle, prone to breaking into pieces climbers call “dinner plates.” When rock and ice meet, ice falls require mixed-climbing skills.
Alpine ice, found at higher altitudes, is the result of frozen precipitation and melted snow, more compact and longer-lasting than waterfall ice. And then we have glaciers, providing walls of fat, plastic ice, excellent for beginners.
Ice climbing on the Matanuska Glacier, Alaska
In some ways, ice climbing is similar to rock climbing. You can practice top-roping (climbing tied to a rope that runs through the anchors at the top of the route), and longer lines are divided into several pitches (usually the length of your rope). But this is pretty much where similarities end. When lead climbing, you have to place your own protection, ice screws to catch falls and secure belays. Screwing them can be very pumping, therefore easy to make mistakes.
Ice climbing in Vail, Colorado. Photo by Boone Speed
Ice is unpredictable, an ever-changing environment where huge blocks can be dislocated without warning. The sharp tools can severe ropes and safety equipment. This is why, as a first-timer, you shouldn't attempt climbs without a guide or professional to assist you.
Ice climbing in Iceland. Photo by sidetracked.com
First and foremost, you need warm, waterproof, lightweight clothes, a pair of gaiters to keep the snow away, and some reliable gloves. A pair of goggles will also come in handy. Boots will support your feet, weight, as well as crampons. They must be warm, waterproof, not too tight, and of course crampon compatible. A pair of long, breathable socks is also essential.
A helmet is absolutely required when ice climbing! And you can't go ice climbing without the proper tools, can you? The ice axes and crampons are the most expensive. Luckily, you can rent them until you decide whether this sport suits you.
Beginner-friendly ice climbing destinations
Climber on Standard Route, Frankenstein Cliffs. Photo by Ian Maclellan
With short routes for rookies to train on and longer ones for climbers to sharpen their skills, it's no wonder Frankenstein Cliffs in New Hampshire is a beginner's icy paradise. First-timers can top-rope at Trestle Slabs, and A Walk in the Forests offers steeper, soft grades. When practice is over, why not try your hand at classics like Standard Route, Pegasus, Dracula and Chia, in the WI 3 and WI 4 zone.
Ice climbing in the Adirondacks
From late November until mid spring, the ice covered cliffs and frozen waterfalls of New York's Adirondacks provide plenty of roadside half-day climbs beginners are guaranteed to have fun with. There are over 140 routes near Lake Placid. With its fat ice, Cascade Pass is the most popular and crowded spot, great for top-roping and learning to lead climb. Chapel Pond, with its plastic ice, is also a favorite.
Ice climbing in Vail, Colorado. Photo by Boone Speed
Often referred to as the “Switzerland of America,” Colorado has more than 14 distinct ice climbing areas, from the frozen waterfalls of Vail and Rifle to the ice walls of Ouray.
Ice climbing in Ouray. Photo by Boone Speed
In the San Juan Mountain range, the Ouray Ice Park is the world's first of its kind, with hundreds of man-made routes, all free and open to the public. Between December and March, Ouray houses some of the best easy to intermediate routes. This is also where America's biggest ice festival is held each year, the Ouray Ice Festival.
Climbing Iceland's Northern Fjords
If you wish to make serious progress, head to the one place where you can find ice all year round -- “The Land of Ice and Fire,” Iceland is where you can learn the basics and test your limits on glaciers, ice-covered walls and ice caves, in all four corners of the island.
Climbing Iceland's Solheimajokull Glacier
Solheimajokull Glacier is a good place to start. Located to the south of the island, it receives milder weather, making it excellent for beginners. Close by, Múlafjall offers a 1.5-mile long cliff with varied grades. For a taste of extreme, head to Iceland's Western and Nothern Fjords and show 'em what you're made of!
Alpine ice climbing retreats
Cascade Falls. Photo by Colin Wells
The towns of Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Nordegg in the Canadian Rockies are starting points for long and challenging multi-pitch ice climbing routes of varied difficulties, best attempted between February and March. Seasoned climbers can kick off their trip with classics like the WI 6 Weeping Pillar or the 2,300-foot high Polar Circus, or the hard climbs on the Terminator Wall. Rookies can tackle the more accessible 1,000-foot, Cascade Falls.
Ice climbing Kandersteg
Because it's only around 3,300 feet, ice may not be as reliable in Kandersteg as in other parts. But when these waterfalls do freeze, they provide some of the world's premiere ice climbing routes in the mid to higher grades. In the heart of the Swiss Alps, the Sunnbüel waterfalls are perfect for rookies, while the Oeschi Forest is famous for its classic routes that will challenge even the most skilled climbers. Kandersteg is home to some of the world's toughest mixed climbing routes.
The Alps are a synonym for winter sports. Between January and March, the ice falls and glaciers on the Chamonix Valley become an ice climbing hotspot.
Glacier ice climbing in Chamonix. Courtesy of lanatase.com
Beginners can try out the Argentiere Glacier, more precisely the mellow angle, La Crèmerie. Advanced climbers can test their axes on La Dame du Lac, a classic 600-foot tall route graded WI 6+ in Aiguille du Midi. Also, check out Cogne Valley in Italy a premiere ice fall destination with over 200 multi-pitch routes.
The Ceillac Valley in France's Ecrins Massif offers routes in the WI 7 zone. You can't go wrong with Fournel Valley, Briançonnais, one of Europe's best ice climbing destinations with more than 250 waterfalls, or the vertical ice of Freissinières Valley.
Ice climbing in Stubaital Valley. Courtesy of tyrol.tl
The Austrian state of Tirol is a ice climbers paradise, with frozen waterfalls, glacier walls, towers and ice caves. Areas like Stubaital, Zillertal, Ötztal, Pitztal and Kaunertal offer over 100 routes each and some badass classics: the 1,000-foot tall WI 6 Monsterline, the five-pitches long Krönung, and the very popular Burgsteinfall. Ice fanatics will be thrilled to find they can climb all year round on the Pitztal Glacier, where ice caves offer spectacular overhanging routes.
Badass Ice Falls
Will Gadd climbing frozen Niagara Falls. Photo by Christian Pondella
In January 2015, Canadian climbers Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken climbed Horseshoe Falls, the biggest and most powerful of Niagara's three waterfalls. The 150-foot tall and 30-foot wide overhanging climb, estimated at WI6+, might be a one time thing. Officials say it was the first time Niagara froze over, and who knows when it'll happen again.
Helmcken Falls. Photo by Christian Pondella
Luckily, the world's steepest, most extreme ice climbs are available each winter at Helmcken Falls in British Columbia, more precisely in the ice-covered cave behind the 463-foot waterfall. No WI 8 or WI 9 routes have been climbed yet, but these ice-sprayed walls are home to the world's first, and only WI 10 and WI 11 routes, Spray On and Wolverine.
Ice climbing in Valdez
The seemingly endless blue ice waterfalls in the narrow Keystone Canyon draw climbers from all over the world to Valdez in Alaska, often described as America's best ice climbing destination. The annual Valdez Ice Climbing Festival gathers athletes at popular sectors like Mineral Creek, Solomon Gulch, Keystone and the 17 Mile Wall, with spectacular multi-pitch routes that take less than a day to complete. For seasoned climbers, Keystone Greensteps and Bridalveil Falls are classic not to be missed.
Ice climbing in Yosemite
Yosemite, in California, is home to some of the world's best ice climbing routes. The Widow's Tears is the longest continuous ice climb in the US. Almost 1,000 feet high, it is graded WI 5, takes around 18 hours to complete, and rarely sees climbers repeating the ascent. Silver Strand Falls, a 570-foot drop, and Upper Sentinel Falls, a 500-foot drop, are more accessible.
It should come as no surprise that the world's tallest, longest-lasting frozen waterfalls are found in Norway. Rjukan, found in the south of the country, is strategically set on the bottom of a valley that doesn't see much sun during winter. It is the ice capital of Europe, with six distinct sectors and lots of variation, the Krokan Gorge being the most popular. The guidebook describes over 170 waterfalls up to 17 inches long and 2,600-foot high, most of them in the WI 2 to WI 5 range.
Ice climbing in Rjukan. Photo by Vidar Moløkken
I'm sure you've all found yourselves walking on thin ice at some point in your lives, but have you tried climbing on it? It may look as though you need a lot of brute strength to handle those sharp tools, but ice climbing is all about technique, which you can only acquire through practice. Since most of these places don't stay frozen all year round, you can be sure you'll never climb the same ice twice. That's the beauty of it, conditions permanently change and you never know what to expect.