Ice Climbing Advice
The European and Norwegian icefall climbing scene is becoming more popular with Brits on account of cheap flights, reliable conditions and more accessible information. The average trip from London to the Continent is faster than the drive to Scotland, so opportunities for fun in the sun even over a long weekend are endless! Most of this climbing takes place on accessible icefalls draining the sides of alpine valleys in fantastic settings, but this alpine arena and the qualities of the routes themselves present unfamiliar challenges to climbers used to the Scottish winter scene. This article aims to provide an overview of the European Ice experience and some useful ice climbing advice for the first time visitor.
If you are keen to get into ice climbing or the first time, learn new techniques, or simply enjoy a great climbing holiday – then take a look at some of the alpine ice climbing courses that we offer.
Where can you go?
In winter the Alps are riddled with frozen waterfalls and – not surprisingly – there are many excellent climbing areas. Several have gained popularity and worldwide acclaim due to a combination of quality climbing and ease of access. Geneva is served by a wide range of low budget airlines, and can be used as a springboard for Chamonix, Cogne (through the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy), and Kandersteg (just up the Rhone valley and through the Kandersteg tunnel). La Grave and the Argetiere La Besse region both lie on the fringes of the Ecrins National Park in the southern French Alps, and can be reached on cheap flights via Lyon, Grenoble or Torino. All these areas offer world-class ice climbing, are cheap to visit (especially Italy) and are covered by a range of quality guidebooks available in the UK. And then there’s Norway, Canada…! If you’re considering some skills training and instruction, then look at an alpine ice climbing course.
When should you go?
In very good years the season can start in November, but normally December, whilst the most reliable conditions are usually found in January/February. Towards the end of Feb into March the longer sunny days and increasing temps can turn icefalls into mush, and you really don’t want to be there. But choose a high north facing slope in a good season and you can climb safely right into April. Just as we have Scottish conditions websites, so the Alps have their own for icefalls, alpinism and ski-mountaineering. The following are all quite useful, depending on how many language degrees you have:
Ice Climbing Links
OHM Route Book – conditions postings for Chamonix and elsewhere (in French)
Camptocamp – good French site – postings and database (in French)
Gipfelbuch – best Swiss site for postings + conditions (in German)
Gulliver – Italian conditions posts
Ice-fall – French guiding site based in the Ecrins with conditions info (in French)
North East Ice – good info and conditions site for climbing in Canada (in English)
Alpine Guides – webcams, weather and avalanche forecasts
How does it compare to Scotland?
Its tricky to use this as a bench mark, as there are few routes in Scotland to compare to the sustained flows of water ice found overseas and the quality of the ice is often very different. A lot of the ice encountered on Scottish routes is snow ice (or has a big snow ice melt/freeze content), whilst waterfall ice is often harder and more brittle resulting in hard won placements. Temperature plays a big part in this however, and warmer days can result in chewy first time placements that make you feel like an Ice God! European water ice grades range from 1-7 and are offset from Scottish grades by roughly one notch, hence a solid technical 5 in Scotland equates roughly to grade 4. On easier routes good weather and chewy ice make life feel great, but as soon as you hit French 5 you’re on Scottish 6 terrain and need a cool head plus total confidence in your tools.
What do you need?
The ice gear revolution has brought the barriers of steep ice climbing crashing down (!). Technology exists to make life easier and to give us greater security in more impressive situations – and that’s what it’s all about. The modern ice fall climber will wear stiff yet comfortable leather boots or lightweight plastics, to reduce weight and increase sensitivity, and lashed to these a pair of crampons with long vertically orientated front points (eg Petzl Lynx etc) for deeper, more secure penetration.
Hands are kept warm by dextrous gloves, for easy screw placement and firm grip, with padding to protect the knuckles from hard ice bulges and shoddy technique. At the business end two well sharpened technical tools with curved shafts offer a comfortable grip position, and give clearance on bulging or cauliflowered ice for more secure placements (eg Petzl Nomics etc).
For protection modern screws are now stronger and easier to place than ever thanks to precision-engineered teeth and crank handles (Petzl Laser Sonics, Black Diamond Express etc). Modern skinny ropes complete the set-up by providing very low impact forces in a fall, reducing the shock load on screws placed in poor ice. Your Scottish winter helmet and clothing system is fine, and of course your old Scottish hardware is also up to the job, you just won’t have quite as much fun!
Looking after yourself
The alpine arena presents its own special challenges – and that wonderful sunshine can also be your worst enemy. Late in the season, especially on south facing routes, the sun can transform ice from the brittle cold of early morning, through brilliant and chewy, to waterfall hell all within a few hours. This conditions awareness becomes even more important later in the season when the sun causes entire routes to collapse, so chose the aspect of your climb carefully! Early starts are essential not only for conditions, but also to be first on your route as falling ice from parties above can be more than unpleasant, especially on gully type routes. Belaying well out of the firing line at the side of the route will give some protection from debris (including your mates), but its best to avoid climbing under other teams if possible.
Managing Avalanche Risk
Most routes are fed by springs, streams, snowmelt or a combination of each – so it’s no surprise that the catchment area can be avalanche prone. Large snow bowls above climbs are quite common and can create huge avalanches after bad weather. In north facing bowls that see little sun these conditions can persist for a while, so seek local info on avalanche conditions and weather history. If in doubt chose a different route.
…your belayer is snuggled in a belay jacket, well out of the firing line to the side of the flow. You start the pitch and climb smoothly with accurate kicks, using features on the steep ice like a rock climber to ease your calves and keep the weight off your arms. Holding your tools at the very bottom, you swing back from the shoulder and with a well-aimed flick of the wrist, get first time sticks in hollows of softer white ice. Lost in concentration, the ground recedes; time to place a screw.
From below you spy an ice boss, climb up to and stand on it with one foot sideways, the other bridged to a fluting – perfect. You drive your hammer directly above your head, to prevent barn dooring and hang straight-armed from it, then clear the rotten ice surface at waist level with the adze in your right hand. Quickly you chip a small hole to act as a starter for the screw, then place the axe at head level and let go – you’re climbing leashless, but have each tool attached to a tether system just in case.
You unclip a screw from the ice racking system (a large upside down mounted biner) on your harness and jab it in the hole at waist level to get some weight behind it. Two turns and it’s seated, so you flick the handle out and spin it in to the hilt. A quickdraw comes easily off the bandolier at your chest and the runner is on, you grab hold of your axe again you’re ready to go. This takes just a minute and your confidence is soaring further.
Soon you are at the belay – a well-trodden ledge at the side of the ice flow – and pleased to find the bolts promised in the guidebook. The tat looks old, so you equalise the bolts with a sling and clip in. A magic plate goes on to the sling so you can do a direct belay, relax, take in the view and have a quick nibble whilst bringing up your mate. Several pitches later, the sun kisses your face as you pull the final bulge with the first rays of the morning and top out on a brilliant route.
There’s a path descending through the trees, but you have two ropes and decide it’s quicker to abseil straight back to your sacks at the foot of the route. The final belay bolts have been knocked flat by a long gone avalanche, so you decide to make the first drop from an Abalokov thread: On clean solid ice you drive in a screw at 45deg to the surface, then take it out to leave a hole. 10cm away you make another well-aimed hole at the same angle with the same screw and the two thankfully meet to form a thread in the ice.
You blow down the hole to clear the debris and unclip your ‘get out of jail free kit’; a small stuff sack containing 8mm cord, a sharp knife and a wire threader. Chopping off 80cm you feed it down the hole and using the wire threader, hook it and pull it out the other side, tying a double fishermans to form a bomb proof thread.
You clip into this thread with your cows tail (a sling larks footed through the tie in point of the harness with a screwgate biner on the end), and prepare the ropes for descent. With a screw backing it up, the heavy guy goes down first to test the thread and comfortably reaches the bolts of the next stance. Taking the backup out, you follow.
Soon you are back at your sacs, time for a vin chaud and pizza in the bar, then maybe another route after lunch…?