Ice Climbing Safety

Many people will read the title of this page and laugh.  “‘Ice climb’ and ‘safety’ in the same sentence?”   Yeah, something of an oxymoron.

The fact is, if you’re extremely careful, you can manage most of the risks involved in ice climbing.

The other fact is, no matter what you do in ice climbing, gravity will sometimes aim large chunks of ice at your head.   But hey, compare that to a highway where you have two-ton SUV’s flying all around you aimed by teenage girls!

The main fact is: if you’re going to ice climb, you’d better manage your risks.

Proper training is critical, but here are a few of the main points to keep in mind:

1. Be aware of ice conditions. Too cold and the ice shatters off in large “dinner plates.” Too warm and refrigerator-size chunks come crashing down from cliffs high above you.  Just right and you get the pleasure of feeling your tools sink with every solid, satisfying thwack.

2. Be aware of snow conditions. As in, the snow above your route. Snow has a tendency to slide under many, many conditions, and when it slides in the vicinity of people, it has a tendency to kill them. Keep up to date on avalanche conditions by signing up for the daily email report for your region at

3. Don’t kick your rope in half with your crampons. Consider using the two-rope technique.

4. Don’t pause with your adze (the tiny shovel-like thing on the back of your tool) at eye level.  If the tool pops, it might find a good, secure hold in your eye socket. Disturbing image, I know, but maybe it’ll help you remember.

5. Don’t place your tools too closely together in shattery ice. if you blow one plate, you’ve got nothing but toe points holding you up…momentarily.

6. Always place enough screws to keep you from decking. We picked up a climber last winter who fell 60′ and landed on his face. “The ice is good!” he had shouted to his belay a few minutes before. “I’m going to keep going.”  You never know when you’ll need that additional screw.

7. Place your screws FLUSH with the ice. The vast majority of screw failures happen near the outside end of the screw where it’s outside the ice and has a chance to bend.

8. Placing your screws at a slightly upward angle into the ice reduces the chances of shattering off the outside edge of ice and thus reduces the chances of bending and breaking a screw in a fall.

9. Check your gear before you go for tightness and general condition.

10. Once you have a tool placed, do not move it from side to side. Move it up and down instead to remove it. Moving it from side to side can either weaken and break the tip or work itself free from its purchase and give you a surprise elevator shaft ride.

11. Wear a helmet.  If you need an explanation for this one, please return all ice climbing gear to the store immediately.

12. Warn your belay before you knock 20-pound blocks of ice onto his head.  It’s just common courtesy.

13. Ice beaks make for great quick placements when you’re in a tight spot or the ice is too thin for a screw. Carry a few. They also work loose more easily, though, so be cautious in trusting them.

14. Thank your guardian angels at the end of each route.

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