Ice climbing—scaling up frozen waterfalls or icy cliff faces—isn’t a sport for wimps.
There’s no margin for error when it comes to tying in, placing your ice screws, or judging where to plant your axe. You’ll likely be whapped in your helmet by chunks of ice the size of dinner plates. Plus, you’ll get wet and cold as the ice forces the blood to leave your hands and forearms. (Not to mention the blood’s stabbing painful return as you warm up, dubbed “screaming barfies” by the climbing world.)
But if danger and extreme conditions don’t turn you off? You have to try it.
The best way to learn is to hire a guide who really knows his stuff, and we recommend heading to Estes Park for some of the sweetest ice columns you’ll ever ascend. “It’s different altogether [from rock climbing]—it requires a lot of gear and is a true destination sport,” says Zach Zehr, outdoor gear specialist, backcountry guide and Estes Park, Colorado climber for more than 10 years. “You have to go to the flow, but the element of danger makes it thrilling.”
Here’s where to climb and how to get in shape for it. If you can handle the intensity, we promise—you won’t regret it.
WHERE TO CLIMB
Estes Park, Colorado is headquarters to Rocky Mountain National Park. And at a 7, 522-ft. altitude, it has some of America’s best natural ice columns to climb. From mild routes for beginners to challenging ascents for experts, this is the place to do it. Colorado Mountain School, Estes Park’s sole concessionaire technical guiding company, will take you to the best areas all over the park. Here are three of our favorites:
Jewel Lake—Access via the Glacier Gorge trailhead, 3.5-mile approach
Jewel Lake isn’t very tall, but it’s wide, which is ideal for beginners trying a bunch of lower, mildly-inclined routes. Once you get the hang of it, you can graduate to more difficult courses right on the same hunk of ice.
Hidden Falls—Access via the Wild Basin trailhead, 1.5-mile approach
Hidden Falls is popular for ice climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park because it has a fairly short hike up, and tons of routes ranging from easy to hard (50-90 feet in height).
Loch Vale—Access via the Glacier Gorge trailhead, a 2.0-mile approach
Loch Vale is famous for its mixed climbing terrain—it has both ice and rock—to keep your climb freshly challenging. Climbers generally use ice-climbing gear over the combination of surfaces to reach the top.
GEAR YOU NEED
Like any sport, give ice climbing a trial run before you invest in a bunch of expensive gear. Colorado Mountain School rents out the equipment you’ll need to get you started. To ensure safe equipment, guides will check functionality and fit you properly before you hit the trail. In addition to all your warm winter layers and snow apparel, you’ll need: a harness, helmet, boots, crampons, ice tools, pack, belay device, and a few locking carabiners.
HOW TO TRAIN
Training for ice climbing requires two main things: cardio and strength. And just getting to where you need to climb is half the battle. Unless you live next to a park where you’re regularly hiking through snow and ice with a pack, you’ll need to ramp up both the amount and variety of cardio you’re doing. “Throw some weight plates in a pack and get on the Stairmaster,” says Chris Wall, certified trainer, MS in Exercise Physiology, and 20-year climbing coach. “You will have to go a lot slower than you are used to, but remember you are training for an approach, not a race.”
Depending on the grade and angle, ice climbing works various muscles in the upper and lower body. The steeper the climb, the more engaged your core muscles, hip flexors, and upper body will be. So make your strength training a full-body effort. “With the exception of the heart, no muscle is more or less important than another,” says Wall. “If there is a weak one in there, it will catch up to you eventually. You need them all.” Wall recommends doing a bunch of one-arm pull ups, knee and leg raises, trunk rotations, and wrist exercises (extension, flexion, abduction, adduction)—all of which will translate directly to your ice climbing performance.
WHERE TO STAY
No doubt you’ll want a steaming shower and a warm bed to crash in after you head in from a day of climbing. Deer Crest Resort is a budget-friendly, cozy escape with a seasonal discount (valid until 5/15/13) starting at $69 per night. If you’re planning to stay for a week, go for a mini suite complete with a kitchenette and fireplace at $89 per night. Chow down at the resort’s onsite restaurant. Or if your sore muscles prefer a stiff drink, head a mile east to downtown Estes to Cascades Whiskey Bar at The Stanley Hotel, where you can treat yourself to a whiskey neat.