Ice Climbing

The world of the ice climber embraces all the forms in which ice exists. In the high mountains, snow and other frozen precipitation endures pressure and heat over time to become the alpine ice of glaciers, icefields, and couloirs. This alpine ice is sometimes seen as blue ice, a hue born of its exposure to very low temperatures during formation. Blue ice is good for climbing and placing protection. Black ice is another alpine variation— old, hard ice, mixed with dirt, pebbles or other debris, often found in gullies and couloirs, and very difficult to climb.

When water freezes, the result is water ice. It can be as dramatic as a frozen waterfall or as common as verglas, the thin, clear coating that forms when rainfall or melting snow from upper cliffs freezes on rock. Verglas is difficult to climb because crampons have little to penetrate. Water ice is usually harder, steeper, and more brittle than alpine ice, but at high altitudes and low temperatures, the two may be indistinguishable.

Rock also comes in various forms, but is very stable when compared with ice. Yesterday's crack and slab problem will likely be there next year, but this morning's ice route may be only wet rock by afternoon. The ice climber learns to anticipate the ever-changing character of the climbing medium.

Ice-climbing techniques vary depending on steepness of the slope. You can walk without crampons on flat ice fairly easily, especially if rocks are embedded in the surface. On short slopes, you can use an ice axe to chop steps, but longer sections call for crampons. French technique—"flat-footing"—works well on steepening ice, up to a limit. But the steepest routes require the German technique of front-pointing.

This chapter will use some descriptive terms in referring to the approximate steepness of ice slopes. Here's roughly what they mean, in degrees of angle:

• Moderate: 30 to 45 degrees

• Extremely steep: 60 degrees and over

• Vertical: 80 to 90 degrees

• Overhanging: Over 90 degrees

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