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Ice Climbing Equipment Buying GuideIce climbing is a constantly changing sport because ice routes change over time, unlike mountain climbing where the terrain stays the same. The adrenaline rush that accompanies scaling freezing walls of ice keeps outdoor enthusiasts coming back for more. To conquer the elements, the ice climber needs a variety of equipment, including ice boots, harness, and ropes. To optimize performance in frigid conditions, primary and backup equipment are important. Ice climbers should know about the special equipment needed to master snow-covered peaks, including crampons, ice axes, ice screws, and other accessories as well as how to buy the right ones for their particular expedition.

Overview of Ice Climbing Equipment

Wherever water and cold weather combine, ice climbing is enjoyed. Ice climbing is popular in Alaska, Canada, Colorado, Norway, the Andes Mountains, the French Alps, and of course the Himalayas. Depending on the steepness of the terrain, ice climbing is accomplished with special shoes that have spikes, called crampons, and ice axes. The climber swings the axe overhead, lands it in the ice, and pulls himself as he sinks the crampon into the ice. Step by step, axe pick over axe pick, the climber ascends.

Finding good footholds is important as more weight is supported by the feet than by the axe and arms. As the climber ascends, he plants screws in the ice and ties a rope to it in case of a fall. The rope connects to the climber at the harness. Usually, ice climbers go in pairs with the lead climber planting screws while the following climber removes the lowest screws, and together they make their way to the top.

Mixed climbing or mountaineering is when the terrain changes from ice climbing to rock climbing. For mountaineering, most of the same equipment is used, except for the crampons and ice axes. However, in these conditions, climbers will need even more equipment, especially shoes.

Types of Ice Climbing Equipment

Consumers looking for ice climbing gear must have warm and waterproof clothes, usually skiwear, and special equipment made especially for ice climbing. Manufacturers have created a variety of crampons, ice axes, harnesses, and ropes to choose from. It is important that buyers know the scope of equipment required for ice climbing before committing to the sport.


The crampon is a foot claw with metal spikes that is either slipped on the boot or built into a boot. The spikes come in two main designs: the mono-point and the dual-point. The mono point has one sharp spike at the front of the boot, and the dual-point crampon has two spikes at the front. Choice is a personal preference; however, for mixed climbing, the mono point is often used, as it penetrates ice better. The dual-point is useful when stability is desired over ice penetration. The front spike can be horizontal or slightly vertical. Some crampons feature spikes on the underside of the boot and heel spurs on the back.

The device ranges from rigid to flexible, with a spring center bar. Older rigid designs have yielded to semi-rigid crampons that fit a wide variety of boots. They are easy to adjust with a center bar and a steel spring. Consumers should look for pairs of crampons with a left and right foot orientation.

Crampons are made from aluminum or steel. Steel is better for mixed climbing, as steel is strong and durable. Stainless steel offers the advantage of being corrosion resistant. Consumers looking for crampons should keep in mind that the weight of the crampon is important, as every step takes energy. Aluminum crampons weigh less than steel, but they are not durable for rock climbing.

Mountaineering Boots

Climbers have moved away from plastic boots to insulated leather boots, as they are more rigid. Consumers looking for boots, either with or without crampons, may be able to find used plastic boots for a reasonable price. Boots without crampons should be stiff and crampon-compatible. Any good hiking or snow boot will usually do, but it must provide good ankle support, as the ankle and feet support the majority of the climber's body weight during the ascent.

Ice Axes

The ice axe is a vital piece of equipment, and the climber usually has two, one for each hand. A leash is often used to carry the axe. An ice axe with a removable leash provides flexibility in case the climber is stuck and must untangle himself from the leash. The sharp front of the axe, called the pick, is either curved or straight. Straight axes are better for mountaineering, while curved axes are better for sinking into ice.

On the other side of the pick is the adze, which is a blunt protruding end used for carving ice. Alternatively, the climber can grip the axe at the adze. At the top of the axe, holes appear for a leash or carabiner. If the climber rarely uses the adze, in some models, the adze is exchanged for an ice hammer. The axe grip, in newer models, is ergonomically designed for hand comfort. Some axe shafts are completely covered with leather or rubber to provide gripping traction at any point. Climbers may obtain special tape or athletic tape to improve gripping. Or, gloves with leather palms may improve grip. Climbers should, however, be advised that the diameter of the shaft also determines gripping action, and anything that adds to the diameter like tape or gloves may actually decrease gripping potential.

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