Ice Climbing For Beginners: Expert Tips To Help You Get Started

Max Lurie is an AMGA certified Rock and Alpine Guide, as well as an accomplished alpinist. Max has been climbing since 2004 and traveling to the world's greatest mountain ranges in pursuit of his passion.
Written by
Max Lurie

Are you looking to extend your climbing season into the winter months or start tackling some bigger alpine peaks? 

Well, Ice climbing is a necessary skill for those pursuits. 

It might seem like an intimidating sport to take up because of the equipment, knowledge and harsh environment - but fear not.

This article will address all of those issues and more to help give you a better understanding of where and how to start ice climbing near the top spots around Denver.

What You Need To Know Before Going On Your First Ice Climb

Ice climbing can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience for those who are physically and mentally prepared for the challenge. 

However, before embarking on your first ice climb, there are some essential things to consider.

Firstly, it is important to have a good level of fitness and basic climbing skills to ensure that you can handle the physical demands of the climb. Having previous experience with summer rock climbing will help you learn the rope systems faster. 

Ice climbers with Alpine to the Max

You will also need to invest in specialized gear and equipment, such as ice tools, mountaineering boots and crampons, and be familiar with their use.

It is highly recommended to have an experienced and certified ice climbing guide to accompany you on your first climb to provide guidance and support. 

Finally, setting realistic goals for yourself. By taking these key factors into account, you can ensure a safe and successful first ice climbing experience.

Key Differences Between Rock and Ice Climbing

Key Difference #1: Terrain

Rock climbing is a very tactile sport - meaning that your hands and feet are touching the rock itself. This gives feedback about our connection with the mountain. 

In ice climbing it is a very mechanical sport that requires the use of crampons and ice tools to interact with the ice. This can translate to a feeling of insecurity when we are unfamiliar with this equipment. 

A good analogy is the difference between running and riding a bicycle. Eventually riding a bike will feel second nature, but it takes some time.

Key Difference #2: Technique

While any previous experience with climbing or moving in the vertical world will certainly give you a head start, ice climbing technique is very different from rock climbing. 

With rock climbing we are constrained by the surface texture and specific holds we can wrap our hands around. With ice climbing we can bash away at the ice until it is either all gone or a good tool placement presents itself.

In ice climbing the movement is actually quite repetitive, but nuanced. You try to keep your feet level about shoulder width apart. Swing your tool as high as you can towards your midline. Move your feet up into a crouching position. Remove your lower tool, stand up and repeat the process.

Key Difference #3: Environment

Unlike rock climbing which can take place in a warm comfortable environment, ice climbing by necessity must happen in a cold wintery environment. 

This means that having the appropriate clothing, gloves, equipment etc… to stay warm is essential.

Besides just the harsh winter environment, ice is inherently unstable. When climbing ice we back our tools and crampons into it which is constantly dislodging chunks of ice. This means that standing underneath someone who is ice climbing is a very bad idea. 

Getting hit in the face with a small piece of ice while climbing or even hitting yourself in the face with a tool is not that uncommon. Sometimes it is even worn as a badge of honor until it heals.

How To Prepare For Your First Ice Climbing Experience

Alpine to the Max frozen waterfall climb

Learn the basics

Before trying to tackle a frozen waterfall by yourself there is a lot to learn. 

Ice climbing happens in a harsh winter environment, consists of many technical skills and requires constant decision-making with minimal room for mistakes. Hiring a certified Alpine Guide is a way to jumpstart your ice climbing career.

A quality guide will be able to teach you the basic movement principles of ice climbing. Set up the rope so you can practice without suffering the consequences if you fall. Show you how the rope systems work and keep you safe throughout this new experience.

Dress appropriately

Being warm and staying dry will make your first ice climbing experience infinitely more enjoyable. Many people come to ice climbing with most of their winter experience being skiing at a resort. Which is a very different activity.

While ice climbing we are often standing around while waiting for our turn. This is punctuated by short periods of intense activity. 

So I like to think of my ice climbing clothing as a sort of action suit. Something to protect me from the elements and keep me warm while climbing, but nothing more. 

We don’t want baggy clothing while swinging ice tools overhead. So this may consist of a light fleece, vest and softshell or hardshell jacket. 

When I am not climbing I’ll wear an enormous down puffy jacket over my action suit to trap all the heat I generated from being active during the climb. Bonus points if you have full side-zip insulated pants to wear while belaying.

Lastly, having multiple pairs of gloves is important. If your gloves get wet while climbing you can put on another pair. It is also nice to have a warm pair for belaying and several thinner pairs for the actual climbing itself.


While rock climbing certainly does require upper body strength to ascend difficult routes. Ice climbing is done through a tool with an ergonomic handle. 

It should be just as easy as climbing a ladder, right? Wrong! 

Even though you have a nice big handle to grab onto, ice climbing is some of the more sustained climbing.

Because of the nature of how ice forms it rarely has a specific crux or hardest part like most rock climbs do. Instead it is consistently difficult from beginning to end. Offering little reprieve along the way. This means that climbing ice can require significantly more brute strength than finesse.

Taking Your Ice Climbing Skills To The Next Level

If you're an experienced ice climber looking to take your skills to the next level and tackle more challenging climbs, there are a few essential skills you need to learn. 

These skills are crucial for climbing more technical routes and for tackling more extreme conditions. Ultimately, mastering these skills will help you reach your goal of climbing iconic peaks like Mt. Rainer.

One essential skill is crevasse rescue. Knowing how to perform a crevasse rescue is essential for climbers who are tackling glaciated terrain, as a fall into a crevasse can be catastrophic. 

ice climbing course with alpine to the max

Learning how to self-rescue and how to rescue others from a crevasse can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. For more info, check out our crevasse rescue course.

Final Thoughts

Another important skill is avalanche training. Understanding how to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain is critical for safe climbing in snowy and icy conditions. 

Avalanche training teaches climbers how to assess snowpack and weather conditions to avoid potential hazards and how to respond in case of an avalanche.

In addition to crevasse rescue and avalanche training, other skills to focus on include improving your ice climbing technique, learning how to lead climb, and honing your route-finding skills. These skills will help you tackle more technical routes and more challenging conditions, and will help you stay safe while doing so.

At Alpine to the Max, we offer comprehensive crevasse rescue and avalanche training courses for climbers of all levels. 

Our courses provide a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on practice in real-world situations. 

Whether you're a beginner or an experienced climber looking to take your skills to the next level, our courses can help you achieve your goals and climb safely.

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