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Ice Climbing

An ice climber looks down and places his ax in the ice.

Ice climbing can take place on a variety of formations and usually involves many of the techniques and terms used in rock climbing. The types of ice climbed can be broadly divided into two categories: alpine ice, and water ice. Alpine ice exists in a mountain environment, and typically requires an approach to reach. It is usually climbed when attempting to summit a peak. Water ice is more often found on a cliff or outcropping under a water flow. Alpine ice is frozen precipitation, but water ice is a frozen flow of water, like a waterfall or drainage.

Water ice is climbed for its technical challenge, while alpine ice is less technical, but still requires the use of climbing equipment, like crampons and ice axes. Both types of ice vary in consistency and are influenced by weather change. Ice can be soft, hard, brittle, or tough.

A grading system, much like rock climbing, is used to rate the difficulty of the routes. The biggest difference is that the difficulty can change with the weather, or even after the first climb. Ice is not rock. The first climb tends to clean off the ice and create "hooks," pockets formed by the pick of the ice axe, which makes the route easier for the next climber.

An ice climber on belay

The rating system starts at W12, which means that it is low-angled and can generally be climbed with one ice axe, and advances through W17, which requires expert skill. A W17 is extremely rare because of the difficulty; it is basically an overhang of ice with no rests.

In a good year climbers can find as much technical climbing as they want throughout Idaho. The Snake River Canyon is well known to local climbers because of the variety of formations and accessibility, or approach. It's not far from civilization, so climbers can find a warm bed and a hot meal at the end of the day.

Ice climbing can be a dangerous sport, even when a person is experienced. Again, ice is not rock: it moves. The use of specialized gear and equipment is crucial. Ice axes, crampons, helmets, ropes, and ice screws for protection all help guard the climber from a fall or injury; but accidents can still happen. If you are interested in learning how to climb ice, find a guide or an experienced climber to teach you. And never go ice climbing alone.

For more information on where to find ice in Idaho visit the North American Ice Climbing Project website.