Is Ice Climbing Dangerous?

Last Updated on February 8, 2021 by Daleria Kristy

Even from a watching distance, without engaging in it, I can bluntly tell you that Ice Climbing is an “extremely dangerous” sport. To me, it is arguably one of the most dangerous forms of climbing and the risks involved in the act are enormous, well beyond the sport itself. Ian Perkins, an outdoor fanatic, a very experienced and accomplished climber, who has ice climbed for several years throughout the U.S said “It’s easy to worry about hypothermia and pack extra clothes, but people don’t often consider the effects of being cold, tired and hungry. The mental hiccups that occur in decision making, risk management, and other basic moment-to-moment tasks are probably the most dangerous part of the sport.”

Regarded as a sporting activity that is exclusively reserved for the rugged and brave hearted, Ice climbing by nature is a very difficult sport that can appeal only to tough people. Due to the difficulty and toughness of this sport, it is usually taken on by only the most experienced mountaineers. This is because you will require a high level of fitness to accomplish a moderate to long climbing session. You must be very fit to engage the obvious and dynamic situations that you will encounter. These are factors that constitute the high level of risk involved in the sport. It presents the danger of falling ice, avalanches and the sharp tools climbers need to use can cause injury or severe ropes and harnesses. In all honesty, Falling is not what you wish for anybody, it’s actually not an option.

Falling on ice is totally forbidden. Kelly Cordes, an Elite alpine climber and author of the book The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre once said. “It isn’t like sport climbing, where falls are a regular part of the game in pushing yourself. With crampons on your feet and sharp objects flying, falls on ice usually entail injury, sometimes catastrophic injury”. That’s because if you fall, crampons can catch on your legs which can lead to serious and life threatening injuries.

To avoid falling, you can use belays as a steady safety measure. If you use fixed belaying, you need to have a harness complete with a rope attached which will save you from falling too far in case you slip off. Most climbers usually have a partner who stays on the ground and keeps the rope tight and steady. If you are climbing in group, you should use running belays. As the lead climber goes up the slope, he or she will put in screws and then climb up using them as a safety check from falling. The one who follows will remove them as they progress and so on. In other words, all of you will be climbing together up the slope while reaching out for each other.

Despite the major risks associated with ice climbing, climbing enthusiasts, novices and professional mountaineers alike throng the various climbing destinations all around the globe to ice climb year after year, searching out for bigger challenges and tougher terrain. These destinations include the Ice Factor in Scotland, Ouray in Colorado, the Ice in Johnston Canyon, Banff, Alberta, Rjukan in Norway, and the ice mountains scattered around southern Iceland to mention a few. I think it’s a case of following your passion and doing what makes you happy regardless of the risk associated with it.

When quizzed on why he loves ice climbing despite the risks involved, Cordes replied by saying, “As for my opinion on the risks, I think it’s simply part of the continuum of risk and reward in life,” He said. “Some people find fulfillment doing things that entail little physical risk, whereas for others it’s an accepted part of the adventure of life itself.  “I loved the challenge of self-control amid a beautiful and chaotic environment, found it incredibly empowering and indescribably beautiful…it’s so unusual to climb something so ephemeral, something that might form one day and be gone the next”. “To be out in the forests and mountains in winter, surrounded by beauty and silence, snow blanketing the landscape and sunlight glistening off the surface, well, all of that makes for a special experience”.

In support of Cordes argument, It’s always, undoubtedly, an amazing experience for both the climbers and those at the site to watch. I went to a climbing site some years back to have a live view of this difficult, but beautiful sporting event. I observed that the climbers were passionate about it, without bothering about the risks involved in the sport. There and then, I realized that it is more of finding fulfilment in your chosen sport, than the risks attached to it. The mental and physical challenges combined with the fascinating beauty of the natural world are the biggest factors that draw them to the vertical ice.

Lending credence to this argument also, is Ian Perkins, who believed that when you have extensive training in both ice climbing and first aid, coupled with sound knowledge of the risks involved, then you should not allow fear to hold you back. He further said “There’s an addiction to climbing, it challenges both the body and the brain and provides a huge boost in confidence,” Perkins said. “Every day is a mini expedition with ice climbing.  It’s not an easy sport to participate in; I love that it’s so much more involved than a basic climbing day; there isn’t a bad moment for me with ice climbing.” It is very dangerous, but a beautiful sport.

The anxiety you experience when climbing an ice-covered mountain can be exhausting, but it’s all worth it when you get to the top. If you are a beginner, you should start slow and build up strength with time. The feelings of accomplishment and reward for passion when you get to the top of the ice are the beauty of the sport and that’s what makes it so thrilling. If you have got the gut, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. From the few things I learn while watching, I will provide answers to some frequently asked questions in this article below;

What Are The Rules Of Ice Climbing?

Every sport has its own rules and regulations that all the players must strictly adhere to. Ice Climbing is not an exception, as there are laid down rules that all climbers are expected to follow. The rules are highlighted below;

1. Don’t lead a grade higher until you can comfortably maintain a conversation while climbing at your current grade.

2. The leader must never fall.

3. Keep your heels low

4. Always swing one tool, move both feet. Swing, kick, kick, swing, kick, kick

5. Tools should be swung narrow, never any wider than your shoulder blades

6. Generally you should place ice screws at your waist, not higher.

What Are The Dangers Of Ice Climbing?

What differentiates ice climbing from other challenging sports, even resemblant ones such as rock climbing, is the fact that you need to accomplish challenging bodily activities while dealing with large natural hazards. There are many other sports that are energy sapping or more physically demanding than ice climbing. The level of physicality needed varies and It depends on where and what you climb. As a matter of fact, ice parks exist, where it’s majorly sport ice climbing, and safe. Though, if you venture to big mountains, or large waterfalls, expect more danger. Climbers always start their climbing sojourn with some waterfalls, before top-roping at ice parks.

However, what makes ice climbing so risky is all of the other factors involved in the sport: the cold, the remoteness, the fall danger, the ice quality, and so forth. To go ice climbing, you need to place yourself in a fairly precarious situation by wandering out into the wilderness in freezing cold temperatures. Already this presents some dangers surrounding navigation and hypothermia. When you’re out there, you need to make several judgment calls concerning these factors: the quality of the ice, the placement of your protection (to catch you if you fall) and the likelihood of being hit by a falling rock or an avalanche. You need to decide whether or not you’re good enough to climb a route.

Underrating or ignoring the dangers that are associated with this activity is like having to choose between life and death. Just because it gives you an adrenaline rush and get you excited doesn’t mean you should grab that ice axe and head to the nearest ice covered cliff. Doing so will put your life in great danger. You should ask yourself this question ‘am I strong enough to do this?’ or ‘will I have to train before I go?’

Then, once you start climbing, you need to deal with the ‘no-fall zone’— the fact that you cannot afford to fall while ice climbing because of the disastrous consequences of doing so. This can affect your mental strength and make you get in your own head. Sometimes, being scared can cause you to stiffen up and actually make mistakes, which could be costly and can lead to a fall.

Why Is Ice Climbing Difficult?

Ice climbing can be very hard or impossible if you are not ready. Being ready in the sense that your body has been trained to endure this rigorous sport. So, in summary, there are three main things that make ice climbing so difficult:

Physical Challenges: Ice climbing requires a high degree of physical strength to perform the moves safely. If you are not physically fit, then the sport is not for you. The physical aspect of ice climbing is the one that most people are probably going to think of when they consider how hard the sport is.

There are two types of physical fitness you need for ice climbing; strength and stamina.

They are the raw power you need to execute the moves on the ice climb. These include being able to hang your entire bodyweight onto your axes, pulling yourself up using your back and your legs, and keeping your core activated so that you stay on the wall.

Mental Challenges: You need to be able to keep a cool head in stressful situations to avoid falling.

Natural Hazards: Ice climbing is performed in the wild, where lots of things are going to be out of your control.

How To Prevent And Manage Fall While Ice Climbing

Falling is the mother of all risks in Ice climbing. In fact, it’s the only style of climbing where falling is never considered as an option. The reason for this is that, in the rare event of a fall, crampons can catch on the ice and cause serious leg damage.

To prevent this, most beginner climbers start by doing much top-roping. Through this, they get familiarized with the feel of the ice, and they learn to interpret what good ice is, what is stable, what is risky, and when and where to trust tool and foot placements. Once they have climbed a lot of ice they can move on to leading, where the climber ascends carrying the rope to the top. Most people won’t do so until they are comfortable climbing a full pitch with no stops or interruptions.

The moment you fall, your safety depends on the last anchor you’ve made. This needs to hold the weight and ensure you don’t fall to your doom. Typically, ice is rock solid when it is clear, making a perfect ancor. But sometimes the ice isn’t perfect and can break under the weight of your fall. Bearing this in mind you know it can go wrong and this thought will haunt you during the climb.

Fortunately, the risk of falling is manageable. The most effective way to manage fall risk is top roping. This is where the rope extends from the ground, to an anchor and back down to the climber. In the event of a fall the climber will only drop a third of a metre. Hurting yourself on top rope is possible, but challenging. To make it even worse, you have two lethal objects in your hand and spikes on your shoes. These can seriously hurt you when you fall.

In short the risk is low if you are responsible and careful. You might not get to the raddest of places, but it shouldn’t put you off giving it a try. As always hiring a certified guide is an excellent way to have someone with the appropriate experience help you manage that risk, or teach you how to work around it.

Here are just a few issues that you need to consider before taking up that ice axe and heading for the nearest ice cliff:

It Can Be Touch On The Body 

You have to prepare your body to be able to withstand the intensity of this difficult sport. There is a reason seasoned ice climbers look fit, healthy, and, in some cases, absolutely ripped. Remember, you are hauling yourself as well as your gear, so your body should be strong enough to take that burden all the way to the top. Getting regular exercise that includes squats, pull ups, step ups, overhead press, and deadlifts should help you get in the best shape for ice climbing.

The Surface Is Not Even Or Rugged 

Ice may look smooth, but it is far from being flat or smooth for that matter. Some areas may be easier to stand on, but others can simply collapse from beneath you without warning. More so, it is always changing under your weight and gets weaker as the temperature rises. Having fellow climbers with you can be a lifesaver.

Severe Injuries Are Not Abnormal

Unlike sport climbing where falls are quite common, falls on ice can result in serious and life threatening injuries. With crampons on your feet and sharp pieces of ice and rock falling around you, climbers have been known to break limbs and get deep lacerations. To forestall this, you must maintain absolute concentration.

Frostbite Is An Impending Threat

If you are not bundled up against the cold with appropriate thermal climbing gear, frostbite can build up within minutes. Imagine getting numb fingers and toes when you are climbing up a slippery and icy waterfall. To avoid this, you must b fully kitted with appropriate gears.

Falling Debris Is Frequent

Ice is constantly changing especially when the weather warms up. As the temperature changes, it starts to behave differently. When you are climbing, you can knock off pieces of new ice and send it falling down on the climbers that are following you up. While you cannot prevent pieces of ice falling off as you hack at a icy slope during a climb, you can make sure you are well out of the way as it falls. If you are not the leader, stand around the corner or under an overhang. If impact is unavoidable, your helmet should protect you sufficiently.

Avalanches Can Occur Without Warning

As mentioned before, ice is ever changing and if you are climbing up an icy cliff, chances are you may find yourself at the nasty end of an avalanche. Shifting snow can trigger a snowball effect and you may not even know it is coming unless you know which signs to look out for. If you are swinging your tools for the first time, chances are you will not find yourself in the middle of an avalanche because you may not be high enough to encounter one. Avalanches typically occur above tree lines or on spots that have multi-pitch routes so you can avoid them if you are careful. However, always carry an avalanche beacon and a small shovel with you should you end up being buried underneath one. With experience you will realize which weather conditions can trigger one and how to tell the ice won’t give out on you as you climb.

In conclusion, it is not advisable to engage on an Ice Climbing mission when you are yet trained, I mean proper training in the sport. If you do so, then you are endangering your life.

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