Best Ice Climbing Techniques

Ice climbing techniques

Fig 1 - The Triangle Position, 138 kbThe Four Elements of Ice Climbing Technique

The core technique used for climbing steep ice is called front pointing. There are four main elements used in this core ice climbing movement technique. Combined together they allow the climber to move efficiently up their chosen ice climb.

  1. Placing crampons
  2. Placing tools
  3. Centre of Mass (body position)
  4. Weight Transfer

All the elements are combined together using Agility, Balance and Co-ordination or ABC* which are defined as:

  • Agility: is the ability to change body position efficiently
  • Balance: is the ability to control the body's position, while either stationary or moving
  • Coordination: is the ability to integrate agility, balance, flexibility, ( + strength, power and endurance) so that effective movements are achieved.

Fig 2 - Side view of the Triangle Position, 101 kb*Based on the FUNdamentals Of Climbing

Newbie ice climbers find the use of ice tools and crampons off putting at first, mostly due to how difficult they find understanding the feedback that comes from the tools and crampons. A key part of ice climbing is learning to 'feel' what your ice tools and crampons are doing. By 'feel' I mean knowing when your tool placements are good, bad, or indifferent or when your crampon points are securely placed in the ice and how your Centre of Mass and Weight Transfer is affecting these tool and crampon placements. The good news is it does not take long to start developing a practical 'feel' for how your ice tools and crampons are behaving.

Core Ice Climbing Technique – The Triangle Position

At the centre of efficient ice climbing technique is the Triangle Position (Fig 1 and 2 shown below). This is the start and finish of a simple movement sequence involving the climber placing their ice tools and crampons. The climber's centre of mass (CM) is the 'glue' that binds the crampons and ice tools together and it's essential that the climber's CM is at, or close to the centre of this triangle to avoid the climber 'barn dooring' on steeper ice. To begin I'll discuss the overall movement pattern then analyse each discrete section.

Fig 1 - The Triangle Position
© George McEwan Collection
Ice Movement Progression, 87 kbFig 2 - Side view of the Triangle Position
© George McEwan Collection

Ice Climbing General Movement Pattern:

  • The climber's start point is feet apart – around shoulder width apart – knees slightly bent.
  • The climber's hips are brought slightly forward (think clenched butt!) until they can feel their weight is evenly distributed on their feet.
  • The climber's ice tools are placed above their head (in a target area roughly about beach ball sized and in line with the climber's belly button), each tool staggered i.e. off set on the vertical plane.
  • To move up the climber hangs, straight armed, from the highest ice tool and brings their feet together underneath the highest tool.
  • The climber then moves their feet up in a series of short steps until their shoulder is about level with the lowest tool.
  • At this point the climber steps both feet out into a bridging position (shoulder width apart - at least) such that their 'belly button' (Centre of Mass) is in a vertical line with the highest ice tool and their weight is evenly distributed on both feet.
  • The climber's hips are brought slightly forward (think clenched butt!) until they can feel their weight is evenly distributed on their feet and their knees are slightly bent.
  • The lower tool is loosened out of it's placement and re-placed above the climber's head (in a target area roughly about beach ball sized) and the sequence is repeated.
Ice Movement Progression
© George McEwan Collection

Aljaz Anderle climbing on Finnkona icefall on Senja Island, Norway., 116 kbI should stress that this is the core movement pattern. In practice you will find that this pattern has to be adapted to suit the ice conditions (brittle ice vs plastic), nature of the ice (featured vs uniform sheet) etc. But I would suggest you need to have the basic pattern sorted before you can adapt it for the many and varied conditions you are sure to encounter when climbing ice.

That proviso aside we'll look at the individual components in detail.

Placing Crampons

As in rock climbing, good footwork is the key to success in ice climbing. The more effective you are with your feet the more you will reduce the load on your arms thereby preserving the energy in your arms.

You can use your crampons in several different ways. You can kick the points into the ice such that they bite securely or you can place them on any edges, pockets etc in the ice. Similar to how you would place your rock shoes on rock edges.

When placing your points into the ice two principles are particularly worth considering:

Your body positioning (Centre of Mass) directly affects the load that is transmitted down through your legs and onto the front points.

LOOK at where you are placing your front points.

To illustrate the importance of your body positioning try this little exercise (with or without crampons. If using crampons it works well if you can place the points in the ice on a short steep step just of the ground. If need be use your axes to give you a couple of handholds).

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your eyes closed.

The heel in the correct position, 155 kb Heel too high, 160 kb Isi Oakley shaking out and contemplating the steep crux on Camilla WI3, Rjukan, 110 kb Perfect Ice, 239 kb

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