A beginner’s guide to ice climbing

Ice climber

On a regular winter day in cottage country, it only takes Alex Atkin a couple of minutes to escape to a magical world. He stomps off the road near Skeleton Lake, Ontario, to the base of a curtain of ice and prepares to leave solid earth behind.

“I like ice climbing because it gets me into some really unusual places that most people don’t see or experience,” says Atkin, the lead ice-climbing guide at Muskoka Outfitters in Bracebridge, Ontario. “If you’re looking to get away to a wild setting and experience Muskoka in winter, this is it. Some of these places only see 10 groups all winter.”

Ice climbing is rock climbing’s cold-weather doppelgänger. Using a lot of the same safety equipment, both sports involve a dance with gravity high off the ground. To grip the ice, the winter practitioners use crampons—aluminum plates, studded with sharp spikes, that strap to a pair of special, stiff boots—and, in both hands, hold ice axes (sharp picks on slightly curved, L-shaped handles). The ice is just soft enough to accept a kicked crampon or the pick of the axe, while having enough rigidity to hold the spikes and a climber’s weight.

“People always believe ice climbing is harder than it is,” says Jesse de Montigny, of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in Canmore, Alta. “If you can ski at the resort, then you can ice climb. You mostly use your legs.”

Climbing’s biggest challenges tend to be mental. “It can look really hard from the ground,” says Atkin. “But when you work your way over the cruxes, where you didn’t think you could climb, it’s extraordinary. No other sport gives me the same feeling.”

Ice climbing rewards efficiency, says climber Jesse de Montigny. “As you learn the basic technique, you go from zero to hero pretty quickly,” he says. “Most people are surprised by how quickly they progress.” Here’s how to waltz your way to the top:

1. Effective footwork
Climbing is mostly powered by the bigger and stronger muscles of the legs, not the arms, so footwork is key. Climb with small steps—maybe 15 cm high. Swing from the knee like you’re kicking a soccer ball into the air—keep the toes up, but don’t kick too hard. Once the crampon grabs the ice, stand up and drop your heel. The front spikes dig in deeper this way, and it’s easier on your calf.

2. Efficient swinging
Aim your axe swings toward small depressions or concavities a full arm’s reach overhead and close to the midline of your body. Even better, use hollows where you can hook the tool and don’t need to swing at all. Once you find a good-looking spot, keep your eye on it. Swing the axe, moving through the elbow and snapping at the wrist as you would with a badminton racquet.

3. Put the two together
Move like an inchworm, slinking arms and feet up the wall. Kick both feet into the ice in line with each other. Stand tall, reach up, and swing your axe. Move the feet up again, dropping your butt as you go (so your highest arm stays straight), supporting your body weight on your feet and hanging off your skeleton rather than flexing your muscles. You end up in a seated position. Take the other axe out of the ice, stand tall, and swing it at full extension. Repeat.