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Ice climbing is an extremely popular recreational activity that involves climbing on formations such as ice covered cliffs, frozen waterfalls, glaciers, etc. The key to ice climbing is to have stiff, crampon compatible boots, crampons, and ice tools. An ice tool is a pointed axe designed specifically for climbing on ice. The climber kicks to embed the front points of the crampons in the ice, and then whacks and embeds the axe into the ice above their head. By repeatedly kicking and using the axe higher and higher, the climber goes up. This is known as front pointing. In areas where this sport is actively pursued, the ice is of such a consistency that it supports even very slight parts of the axes and crampons.
(It is important to note that this "front pointing" type of climbing on vertical or near-vertical ice is what ice climbing is all about. Although many people climb icy slopes, that is generally considered a routine part of winter mountaineering.)
While well-known ice climbers (such as author Jon Krakauer) risk life and limb on routes such as Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, or Devil's Thumb in Alaska, you are just as likely to find a troop of Boy Scouts on a modest ice-covered rock in Ohio with about six times as many safety lines as they actually need. While the sport was once solely the domain of the extreme enthusiast, it has now become something of an everyman's sport. Having said that, the true enthusiasts quickly move past the safe, tame routes and on into more adrenaline-pumping territory. In the words of David Harris, found numerous places on the net, "I's not like anything else. When it's perfect it's better than the best combination of drugs and sex imaginable. When it's bad, you die."
The Allure of the Ice
What is it about ice climbing that seems to take hold of otherwise sane people? Like any type of climbing, it is mostly about the challenge. But unlike rock climbing, where routes are invented, rated, named, and conquered, ice climbing has no such permanence. Ice, like water, flows (however slowly) -- and no route is ever the same twice. Furthermore, a climbing route that may "go" for the first climber could be a rime of mush for the second climber. Temperature, humidity, sunshine, wind, rain, snow...all shape the ice both inside and outside. Add in the dangers of collapsing columns, hypothermia, sudden snow squalls, and a host of other winter surprises, and it's kind of clear that part of the "rush" is the fact of facing the unknown. Climbers may drive hours on weekends to tackle a few dozen vertical feet they heard about in a blog. They occasionally drive hours to find that a brief thaw the day before left no ice at all on the route. Enthusiasts are constantly on the lookout for new and better axes and crampons.
So at one extreme, you've got the church group of all ages and abilities. At the other, the fanatic. One thing they certainly have in common is that they are both participating in one of the most exhilirating and dangerous things (albeit at different levels) they will ever do.
If you are interested in the sport, whether as a full-fledged enthusiast, or to just rope up once on a winter vacation, How to Ice Climb! by Craig Luebben is a terrific book to help you get started. That link goes to Amazon.com, where they sometimes even have used copies that you can pick up for a couple dollars.
Two ice climbers through a telephoto lens, on the flanks of Mt. Willey in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, December 2004.