Water Ice Zero to Leading WI4 – 5 Things I Learned in My First Winter of Ice and Mixed Climbing (2022)

This winter I picked up spiky things and climbed frozen water for the first time. Kinda like my first year on rock, I got quite obsessed. In six months I logged a half dozen leads at the WI4 grade, including a winter solo of the Grand Teton and an on-sight lead of the Hyalite Canyon mixed climbing classic, The Thrill Is Gone (M4+, WI4). Here’s five things I learned across the way – the article I wish I read before this season.

The author climbing the upper most pitch of the Lake Louise Ice Gully in Wyoming’s Wind River Range (IV, WI4)

#1 – Real Gear Helps

This may sound elementary, but buying the proper gear for ice climbing, including boots, vertical point crampons and technical tools, is a MUST for anyone wanting to fully experience the sport. Yes the gear is expensive, and I too once swore I would climb “just my first season” in ski boots, but for anyone with aspirations to reach higher than WI2 investing in a full set of “real” ice gear is the way to go. Even for someone merely sampling the sport, I recommend either borrowing or renting ice gear instead of thrashing around in ski boots, mountaineering crampons and ancient straight shafted tools. Ice climbing boots are insulated, keep feet warmer and drier than ski boots and provide greater precision foot placements. Vertical point crampons penetrate ice better than horizontal crampons, requiring less effort per kick and greater stability. Well sharpened bent-neck leashless tools are more ergonomic than those 1970’s axes at the second hand store, and have a specially crafted pick, handle and weight distribution to maximize purchase and efficiency with every swing.

My Cassin X-Dream Ice Tools (not sponsored) ready for duty

#2 – Ready To Send? Hold Your Horses.

In my article “Five Things I Learned in My First Year of Rock Climbing”, I advocated for learning to lead early on – and not only just lead, but push one’s self to climb maximally above bolts, take falls within reason and cultivate a healthy relationship with fear. In rock climbing, fear is a major limiting factor in all climbers from 5.7 to 5.15. Above bolts or well placed traditional gear with a clean wall beneath, fear serves only to cripple the climber into performing below their capacity. However, as it pertains to ice climbing, obeying this notion could be downright deadly. Ice screws are not bolts or a well slotted cam, and should not be relied upon to arrest a fall. A screw is only as good as the ice it’s placed in, and ice is a very volatile medium. I treat every ice route I lead like a free-solo, with ice screws there to save my bacon on the 1% chance I pitch off. I try never to lead ice at my absolute limit (though sometimes that happens, more on that below). Professional ice guru Will Gadd famously claims never to have fallen in his 20+ years of ice climbing, and hopefully by the time I am 46 I will say the same.

On this particular climb I was comfortable enough to take a selfie while leading. It won’t always be this way, but I strive to remain this relaxed at all times.
Route: Jeff’s Right (M2, WI3), Hyalite Canyon, Montana

#3 – Slow Down!

This past February I bit off a bit more than I could chew on a short but stout WI4 curtain in Hyalite Canyon. The Fat One was my first pitch of the day, and after a slacker warmup the dreaded “flash pump” called my number, but I still had another 10 feet to go! My first thought? Punch it of course! But three deflected swings revealed my arms were far too fatigued to climb another foot. Suddenly the carefree mood got intense, as I was stuck 30 feet off the ground “protected” by two screws in sub-par ice, likely staring down a ground fall. Luckily I had a seasoned parter who encouraged me to slow down, breathe and find a good rest. I focused on my feet, kicked two solid steps, slipped in one more screw and began shaking out either hand systematically. I slowed my breathing and took several minutes to develop a plan of attack. Despite still being quite tired, I recovered just enough to link one solid sequence and pull onto a resting bulge above. When things get intense on the ice, slowing down is the name of the game. For the rest of the season I devoted many top-rope sessions to learning efficient resting techniques – an ever valuable skill.

Brian Emory following my lead on the WI4 variation to The Fat One (traditionally WI3) in Hyalite Canyon, Montana, right about where I began to get terminally pumped.

#4 – Go Dry-tooling (or Mixed Climbing)

For those uninitiated, dry-tooling and mixed climbing are spinoffs from traditional ice climbing, born from a desire to climb ice that wasn’t fully formed to the ground. Mixed climbing came first, where climbers learned to ascend dry rock with ice tools and crampons for the purpose of reaching ice further up the wall. Then came dry-tooling, where a few yahoos decided that the “mixed” in mixed climbing was so “fun” they might as well expand the already questionable activity to the realms of exclusively dry winter rock. I’ve done a bit of single pitch top-rope dry-tooling – pretty fringy. I froze my ass off, chipped a tooth, got sickeningly pumped and shuddered at the idea of ever taking a lead fall with crampons and tools, but can’t deny the few days I spent flailing around on the gentle overhanging limestone cliff were invaluable to my ice and alpine goals. With a reservoir of dry-tool techniques I felt far more comfortable stepping up to mixed leads in Hyalite Canyon, where I eventually climbed the grade of M4+ (5.9+), WI4 on traditional gear. When I completed a winter solo of the Middle Teton’s North Ridge, dry-tool techniques were paramount to securely surmounting exposed rock cruxes up to 5.6, where the common summer holds were shrouded in ice and snow. I believe dry-tool climbing is a skill any ice climber could benefit from, but becomes especially more pertinent to the aspiring alpinist or high level ski mountaineer.

Scott Melin following my lead on The Thrill Is Gone (M4+, 5.9+, WI4)
The author leading through the upper ice of The Thrill Is Gone

#5 – Get Tough

Going ice climbing isn’t like bouldering in Joshua Tree, sunny winter sport climbing in Sinks Canyon or a bluebird summer day in the Teton alpine. Nope, ice climbing and comfort are almost never synonymous. The fair-weather ice climber will either achieve nothing (due to a lack of climbing days) or quit all together. Sure, once in a blue moon there will be a 40 degree day of plastic hero ice, warm as can be in a dazzling winter wonderland, but this is the exception. For any ice climber wanting to log more than a dozen days each season, it pays to be tough. Harsh wind, sub zero temps, numb toes, numb-er fingers, arduous approaches, heavy packs, deep snow, shattering ice that smacks you in the face like an angry ex-girlfriend and couple crampon kicks to the leg are just the beginning of what a tried and true ice climber will encounter in a given season. Compared to other sports, ice climbing involves a disproportionate amount of type two fun. Some of us love it, others hate it, and thankfully I lean towards the former – who am I kidding, I am a glutton for punishment. Being comfortable being uncomfortable is a critically important trait for the aspiring ice climber.

The author rappelling down Grand Teton National Park’s Sentinel Ice Couloir (III, WI3+) in an unexpected sub-zero gale storm.

Bonus: Don’t Be Scared, Ice Climbing Is Rad!

If this article made you think “ice climbing sounds terrible”, I’m here to tell you it’s not. Ice climbing can take a person beautiful places, beyond mental and physical limits they didn’t even know existed and, for the inspired rock climber, alpinist or ski mountaineer, introduce a whole new mental and physical skillset that can be applied to nearly any vertical realm. Despite early skepticism (yes, I admit) I had a phenomenal time enjoying the fruits of ice climbing, and look forward to climbing alpine ice routes in Grand Teton National Park this summer, pushing my water ice grade next winter and furthering my ski mountaineering toolbox for more technical descents. If climbing ice sounds even the slightest bit fun to you, I’d suggest you give it a swing 😉

The author on his first winter solo climb and ski descent of the Grand Teton’s Ford-Stettner Route (WI2+, Steep Snow)

As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise.

If you enjoy and would like to support Ten Thousand Too Far, consider subscribing below and/or leaving a donation here. The hours spent writing these blogs is fueled solely and happily by passion, but if you use this site to plan or inspire your own epic adventure, consider kicking in. A couple bucks goes a long way in the cold world of adventure blogging. I also love to hear your thoughts, so don’t leave without dropping a comment! Thanks for the love. 

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Ski mountaineering, rock
, ice climbing and any other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but we are only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.

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