The unencumbered rock climber moves freely over good rock, like an ape swinging through the forest. At first glance, the differences between the nearly naked rock climber and the bundled and spiked ice climber are glaring. To achieve a totally "pure" experience, the rock climber, if he or she so desires, might reject all took—even clothing and shoes. One is obliged, though, to use tools to climb ice. Those who choose the pleasures and challenge of frozen waterfalls or alpine ice slopes must be equipped with specialized hardware and clothing that would seem to dictate a less direct encounter with the environment.

But humans have evolved beyond the simple joys of the ape, and today most of our knowledge of our world and universe comes to us indirectly, through extensions of mind and body—through tools. Just as a powerful hand glass allows us to see clearly that the flakes of falling snow are far more intricate and exquisite than they appear to the naked eye, an ice axe and crampons wielded with skill and concentration can magnify the climbers appreciation of existence. The ice climbers sensitivity is amplified by tools, and a new being is created that revels amidst awesome, seemingly impossible terrain.

The purity of the ice experience lies in learning to use the minimum number of aids in the most efficient manner possible. The first-ever climb of Canada's Takkakkaw Falls took six days, the climbers ascending by means of aid slings clipped to their ice axes and returning to base camp each night with the help of a long series of ropes fixed to their high point. In contrast, the second ascent was accomplished in seven hours by climbers who had pared their tools and attitudes to the essentials.

By carefully selecting simple, well-designed, versatile tools, combining them with the proper skills and experience, and matching all this to an appropriate climb, it is possible for the ice climber to drink deeply of a heady wine. The surreal beauty of a belay situated in a cave with translucent blue walls and a ceiling of a hundred icicles is more otherworldly than anything in the rock climbers experience. And ice climbing has always appealed to the person who loves adventure more than gymnastic exercise.

Yet there are similarities in the rewards offered by the two types of climbing. On a winter icefali, the weekend recreational rock climber who has made the transition to ice can find the same relief from the ennui of everyday life as can be found

11 T

on a sunny crag. The extremist, in these times of vertical waterfalls and thinly iced mixed climbs, can push technical and physical limits as far as imagination and vision allow. Another benefit to the rock climber who learns ice technique is that some of the finest rock in the world—the great granite free climbs of Mont Blanc or the big walls of the Karakorum, for example—becomes accessible.

There is one main difference between rock and ice climbing, and that is the nature of the mediums themselves. While the quality of rock runs the entire spectrum from crumbling sandstone to iron-hard granite, given sections of rock usually do not change a great deal from week to week, or even from year to year. Ice, on the other hand, exhibits daily, even hourly, mutations. A ribbon of hardened water may exist only in the morning hours after a hard freeze,- by late afternoon, the only remains might be a wet streak on the rock, An icy couloir can be scoured and pitted by the rockfall that starts as soon as the sun hits that side of the mountain. A serac could collapse just as you decide to cross beneath it. The ice climber, besides attaining a degree of technical proficiency, must also develop a "feel" for these ever-changing conditions.

Ice climbing is a craft that must be further subdivided to give a clear understanding of the modern scene. The traditional terrain for ice climbing is found only in the high mountains—on glaciers, ice fields, and couloirs. The ice types in these locales, including Scottish rime ice, vary widely, but all have one thing in common: the ice begins as some form of frozen precipitation and, through time, pressure, and heat, metamorphoses into something identified generically as al/>ine ice. In the last two decades, another kind of ice has grabbed the spotlight. Water ice can be found wherever water and freezing temperatures coincide. It is generally much more brittle than its alpine cousin, and often much steeper, providing a welcome challenge to today's climber. With greatly improved gear and without the psychological burden of the unknown—thanks to a wealth of guidebooks and greater general knowledge of ice conditions and techniques—modern ice climbers make light of all but a few of the hardest alpine routes.

This book is a personal celebration of the slippery game as it has evolved and is played throughout the world. It is a radically revised and greatly expanded version of The Ice Experience (Contemporary Books, 1979) and the ice chapters in Climbing (Bell and Hyman, 1986), both of which have long been out of print. The scope of this book is the entire ice world, from waterfalls to Himalayan ice faces. A selective history of alpine-style and waterfall ice climbing (Icy Roots, Crystal Blossoms) sets the stage for stories from my own experience (One Man's Frostbite). This is followed by a thorough discussion of clothing, equipment, and techniques (Accoutrement and The Cold Dance Review), illustrated with photos by Ian Tomlinson. lan's photos were shot specially for this book in the Canadian Rockies (showing techniques for alpine ice, with my wife, Teri Ebel, as my student) and in Colorado (showing techniques for water ice, with Bird Lew as my student). Finally the book concludes with a general guide to the ice world (The Hard Water Guide), with sixteen outstanding climbs singled out for detailed treatment, accompanied by elegant topos drawn by Richard Ross iter.

A couple of notes: Newcomers to the basic methods of ascent should seek competent instruction from an experienced friend or professional before attempting to use the information in the technique chapters. In making the transition to ice, even climbers thoroughly familiar with rock techniques often discover a pitfall or two. The technique chapters were written with a certain amount of technical knowledge and experience assumed.

Throughout this book you will find gradings associated with the climbs described. In the interest of consistency, all grades are in accordance with the system proposed in the following section. Wherever I am not certain of a grade, 1 have included a question mark along with my estimate of the difficulty.

Although I have striven for historical objectivity and geographical diversity, you wit! be aware of my personal bias. I make no excuse for that. The value of the ice experience lies not in faceless absolutes, but rather in its effect on each individual.

The legendary British climber Joe Brown maintained that if a climb is easier with crampons than without, it could rightly be considered an ice climb. This is the only definition comprehensive enough to account for the entire spectrum of activities that are generally included under the heading of ice climbing. In the Alps and Canadian Rockies people are climbing the iced-up chimneys of winter and spring, as well as the classic faces of alpine ice. In Colorado they are venturing out onto steep faces and buttresses of verglassed rock. In places as diverse as Scotland, Vancouver Island, New Zealand, and Patagonia, the attraction is rime ice and snow-ice. Mount Kenya's Diamond Couloir has a frozen waterfall headwall that provides the African parallel of an experience that can be replicated in the Caucasus, Norway, Italy, Peru, Japan, Korea, cheTatra—in fact, anywhere in the world where cold temperatures, steep hillsides, and running water coincide. The ice world is fascinating, challenging, ever-changing, ethereal, bold, scary, fun, beautiful, elemental, varied, mind-opening, and, for me, totally captivating.

Ail ice cliff tan be quite stable and reasonably safe to climb or unstable and dangerous, like this me. (Photo: Jeff Lowe)


Ice for climbing is variable stuff, with different qualities depending on how it was formed and where it is found. Alpine ice and rime ice are forms of frozen precipitation that have undergone metamorphosis under the influences of time, pressure, heat, and so on. Water ice has frozen from a liquid state, although it may have originated from Snow or alpine ice just before it became liquid. The following comments should help you to better understand the medium.

Terrain Features, and Types of Snow and Ice

The lists below include the main types of terrain and ice encountered in ice climbing. Of course, there are infinite variations on these themes.


Glacier: a body of permanent ice slowly flowing downhill under the pull of gravity Bergschrund: the crack that develops at the base of steeper slopes and that separates the moving glacier from the stationary ice higher up Mm): the crack between permanent snow or ice and the containing rock walls StrdC.' a tower or block of glacier ice that is separated from the mass kefall: the broken surface of a glacier where it flows over steep, rough underlying terrain—like a rapid in a river, but on a grand scale Cm>(tssf: a crack in the glacier,- sometimes hidden by snow cover Snowbridg?: a formation that spans a crevasse

Hanging ijiiKier a glacier above a rock cliff he cliff: the broken edge of a hanging glacier Accumulation zone■ the area that feeds the glacier, where each year's snowfall builds on that of previous years, accumulating faster than it can melt Ablation zone: the elevation below which snow melts faster than it is deposited Couloir: a natural concave groove between steeper walls of rock; usually wider than a gully Ice face: a broad slope of ice

Cornice: a buildup of snow on ridge crests, overhanging the leeward side and created by wind Flulintfs: aretes between avalanche runnels on an ice face

Smm cupS: scooplike formations on the surfacc of ice or old snow, created by direct exposure to the sun's rays

Nive pmilatiei: sun-created towers of ice larger than sun cups and often larger than a person Jcf cap: glacier-covercd summit of a peak or broad plateau jVlixfii rock and ice: self-explanatory


Summits: self-explanatory

Feeder slopes: slopes of snow or ice that provide the meltwater that can be frozen into water ice formations

Avalanche slopes: see information on avalanches in the chapter The Cold Dance Review; The Basics of Climbing Ice gully: an ice-filled depression between rock walls too wide to stem

Above: Alpine ke terrain: (1) glacier (2) bergschrund (3) kefall (4) crevasse (5) hanging glader (6) ice cliff (7) accumulation zone (8) ablation zone (9) ice face (10) cornice (11) flutings (12) mixed rock and ice <13) ice aréte (not shown: moat, serac, snowbridge, couloir, ice cap, sun cups, nevé penitentes) (Photo: Jeff Lowe)

Below: Water ke terrain: (1) summits (2) feeder slopes (3) avalanche slopes (4) ice gully (5) ice wall or frozen waterfall (6) mixed rock and ice (7) approach gully (8) approach slopes (9) tree-covered slopes (not shown: valley bottom, ice chimney, free-hanging curtain, supported curtain, free-standing pillar, ickle, cauliflower cone, hollow ice tube) (Photo: Jeff Lowe)

J« wall or frozen waterfall, self-explanatory

Ice chimney: an ice-filled crack in the rock between one and five feet in width Free-hanging curtain, self-explanatory Supported curtain: a curtain of ice hanging free of a rock but supported by contact with a ledge or the ground

Free-standing pillar: column of ice that stands free of the rock, attached at top and bottom /deft; a "stalactite" of frozen water Cauliflower cone: a "stalagmite" of frozen water, building from the ground up Hollow ice tube: a hollow pillar formed by ice freezing around a running stream of water Mixed rock and ice: self-explanatory Approach gully: self-explanatory,- avalanche danger often exists

Approach s/opis broad slopes that can be an avalanche hazard

Tree-covered slopes: less dangerous than approach slopes but not always 100 percent safe ValÎQ' bottom or canyon floor: self-explanatory


♦ Soft snow (any snow that takes a footprint one inch or deeper)

♦ Corn snow (frozen ball bearings in the morning; slush in the afternoon)

♦ Windpack/wind crust (if thick enough to sustain weight, climbs like névé)

♦ Atmospheric icing (rime ice)

* Frost feathers (collapse at a touch)

•* Snow-ice (more substantial wet, frozen snow or consolidated rime)

♦ Andean cheese ice (very steep, aerated snow-ice, wet or frozen)

♦ Packed cornice/serac/crevasse snow (hard snow that can be climbed with step-kicking or crampons, picks, or shafts)

♦ Granulated glacier ice (poorly bonded, ball bearinglike surface)

Ih winter tfce wtsl side of Wyoming's Grand Tele« is wwfcw coated with a tfckk «Mew of rw ke nor« typkd of Scatkad or

Patagwria. (Pbm: Grog Lowtl

Ih winter tfce wtsl side of Wyoming's Grand Tele« is wwfcw coated with a tfckk «Mew of rw ke nor« typkd of Scatkad or

Patagwria. (Pbm: Grog Lowtl

♦ Compact glacier ice (homogeneous and cold)

♦ Porcelain ice (névé polished and hardened by time and spindrift; squeaky and friable)

♦ Metamorphosed gully/ice face/black ice (old, hard, brittle)

♦ Winter alpine ice (cold and brittle)


♦ Verglas (less than one-half inch thick)

♦ Frozen spray (instantly frozen to rock; usually very thin)

♦ Thin hollow ice (detached ice up to six inches thick)

♦ Laminated flow (successive freezing of thin layers)

♦ Solid pillar (well frozen, cohesive)

♦ Rotten pillar (melting, chandeliered, or cauli-flowered)

♦ Cauliflower (resembles its namesake)

♦ Small pillar (less than one foot in diameter)

Sky Pilot Ice Climbing

Left: Ale* Lowe on the first completely free ascent at Sky Pilot in the Canadian Rockies, a climb thai exemplifies the attraction and challenge of free-standing pillars IPkoio; Jeff Lowe) Center: A d««i< pillar and cauliflower ton« ci water ice (Pholo: Ufflowl Right: Virgin) and thin ice riln otter some ol the mast delicate ice-climbing terrain. (Photo: Brad Johnson)

Left: Ale* Lowe on the first completely free ascent at Sky Pilot in the Canadian Rockies, a climb thai exemplifies the attraction and challenge of free-standing pillars IPkoio; Jeff Lowe) Center: A d««i< pillar and cauliflower ton« ci water ice (Pholo: Ufflowl Right: Virgin) and thin ice riln otter some ol the mast delicate ice-climbing terrain. (Photo: Brad Johnson)

• Pencil chandeliers (early-season or warm-weather condition on pillars}

Roof chandeliers (large icicles hanging from bosses ol ice)

Aerated water ice (lots of bubbles or melted interstices,- whitish)

Plastic ice (warm ice, but not rotten^ doesn't shatter)

Mineralized ice (often brown, orange, or yellow,-brittle)

Blue/green ice (usually well Irozen,- can be brittle) Old dry ice (very durable, stubborn) Mushrooms (like their namesakes) Exfoliation flakes (partly detached blades or fins) Lens over snow (a sheet of ice over snow, sometimes weight-bearing)

Rating Ice Climbs

Many climbers feel that rating ice climbs is an undesirable and even futile activity, given that a large parr of the beauty of ice climbing lies in its appeal to the adventurous spirit, and that conditions, and therefore exact difficulties, vary constantly. But on well-known climbs the adventure ol discovery is already gone, and after years of climbing all over the world, repeating climbs in the same and different seasons, ! have found that rating a climb for the conditions under which it is normally climbed can provide a very good guideline as to what can be expccted. 1 hts is especially useful for climbers with limited time who are traveling to a new area and who want to do climbs commensurate with their abilities. Most of the climbs in this book have been given a rating, which helps to compare them,

In Tie ice Experience 1 introduced a rating system for ice climbing that has been widely adopted in America and is designed to describe climbs throughout the world. Basically this System uses a grading that was developed to describe the overall difficulties of rock climbs in Yosemite Valley. Length, continuity, and commitment (which includes such factors as objective hazards, possibility of escapc from the route, availability and possibility of rescue, and so

Di« lower-angle «est of thts hollow lube is loo thin to climb, which hat forced the climber onto the steeper—but thicker—vertical ke mi if; flunk. (Photo: Mike Lowe)

forth) are all taken into account in a scale of Roman numerals from I to VI. A grade I climb has an easy approach, seldom has more than a few rope-lengths of actual climbing, and requires only two or three hours to complete. Most grade Vis require two or more days and 2,000 feet or more of hard climbing, although today's best climbers can sometimes complete such routes in one day. To this six-grade scale I have added a seventh, which is necessary to describe the biggest and hardest Himalayan alpinestyle climbs, with their greater size, altitude, and commitment.

In addition to the overall grade, another rating, the technical classification, describes the hardest section of the route, thus helping to differentiate between long climbs of moderate difficulty and short climbs of great technical challenge that may merit the same overall grade. For technical classifications it is convenient to start with the Scottish grades of 1 to 6, which were originally intended only to convey a sense of overall difficulties similar to the Yosemite ratings, but for ice climbs. Over the years, however, the Scottish system has sometimes been misused to describe individual move and pitch difficulties. It is this bastardized version that I have found useful in describing the technical problems that one may expect on a given climb under "average" conditions. Once again, seventh and eighth classes have been added to the technical scale to accommodate todays hardest mixed climbs. A class 1 pitch is snow up to about 50° or ice up to about 35°, while a class 8 climb includes overhanging gymnastic moves comparable to 5.12 or 5.13 rock climbing.

A rough comparison of rock and ice technical classifications is included here, The type of ice to be found on a climb is designated by the letters A/, indicating alpine ice, or WI, indicating water ice, preceding the technical classification. When the primary difficulties of a climb are on mixed rock and ice climbed with crampons, the classification is preceded by an M, The relative technical challenge of climbs rated WI5, AI5, or M5, is the same, only the climbing mediums differ slightly. If there is any aid involved on rock or ice, that is indicated with a classification of AO-5.

With this system it is possible to compare the overall challenge of climbs on both rock and ice throughout the world. The following table gives a rough (debatable) approximation of the relative difficulty of rock and ice free climbing.

Ice Rock



(Al, WI, orM)

1 Up to 50° snow or 35° ice

1st to 3rd


2 Up to 60° snow or 40° ice

4th class

3 Up to 80° snow or 75° ice


4 Up to vertical snow or 85° ice


5 Overhanging cornices or 90° ice


6 Very thin or technical 90°+ ice


7 95° ice or overhanging mixed


8 Technical overhanging mixed


Free climbing on ice, as it has

been defined in

Colorado since about 1970 and has come to be accepted in Canada, France, and elsewhere by the leading climbers, means that no ice or rock protection is used either to pull up or stand on for progression or to rest. The common practice of hanging from tools by a daisy chain on a harness is considered aid (AO).

A final piece of information is necessary for some climbs that are difficult to protect adequately. If protection takes considerable skill to place and long run-outs are mandatory (fifteen to thirty feet above protection), then an S (for Serious) rating is added to the normal notations. If reliable protection is impossible to arrange even for a skilled climber and very long run-outs are required above questionable placements, then a VS (for Very Serious) is given. And if there is simply no protection possible at all and a fall would most likely result in death, an X rating is appropriate, meaning, "Cross this climb off your list."


Overall Grade

Technical Classification (preceded by ice-type designation: AI, WI, or M)









Wiley's SBd«, Frankenstein Cm, Crawford Notch, Now Hampshire

Standard Route, Mont Blanc du Tacui, France

Guide's Route via Camp Muir, Mount Rainier, Washington


Comb Gully, Ben Nevis, Scotland






Gervasotti Couloir, Mont Blanc du Tacul, France

Liberty Ridge, Mount Rainier, Washington

West Rib,




Spiral Staircase, Vatt Colorado

Green Guly, Ben Nevis, Scotland






HorthFace, Triolet, France

West Ridge, Mount Hunter, Alaska


DracvlOr Frankenstein CRH, Crawford Hotel, New Hampshire

Lauise Falls, near Lake Louise, Canadian Rockies

Hadrian's Walt Ben Nevis, Scotland

Orion Face Direct, Ben Nevis, Scotland

Coma« / Devaille, Les Droites, France

Northwest Spur, Haunt Hunter, Alaska

West Face, Gosherbrum IV, Korokoram, Pakistan


Drapline, Frankenstein CKff, Crawford Notch, Hew Hampshire

Glacenost, Haute Maurienne, Fiance

Repentance, Cathedral Lodge, North Coiway, New Hampshire

Slipstream, Snow Dome, Columbia ice-9eld»,(e«e6eB Rockies

Bouchard Route, (hacraraju, Peru

South Face, Ama Dablam, Nepal

Northeast Face, Ama Dob lam, Nepal


The Fang, Vail, Colorado

Shiva Ungham, Argentlere Glacier, France

Bridalveil Fells,



Weeping Pillar, near Columbia Icefields, Canaifian Rockies

Super Couloir Direct, Mont Blanc du Tacul, France

Direct North Buttress, Mount Henter, Alaska

Hungo Face,




Secret Probation, Voll, Colorado

L'Aventure C'est

L'Aventure, near

L'Argentiire La Beset; France

Sea of Vapors, Mount Rundle, Canadan Rockies

Riptide, Mount Patterson, Canadian Rockies

Hind Faltkr Tête de Gramusat, France


Octopussy, VaH, Colorado

Ach*« ib» Bolfcxir fait of Mow« To »»on. New ZcolooA TW loliour fete. dmM hi 1971, h comporobl« I» lb« Orion Fact Dircct so B«o Ntvii. Scotland, which hod iH Ritt a«««t b 1960. (Aw* topi*» MJ


Octopussy Ice Climb Jeff Lowe

Icy Roots, Crystal Blossoms


Mont Blanc Tacul Drawing

Ancient peasant myths \ N held that there were snow dragons lurking among the summits.!Drawing by H. G. ^ Willink, originally published in Dent's Mountaineering)

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment