Toprope Ice Climbing – Why It’s Different Than Rock

OurayIceParkChickswithPicksWow, the snow is flying, ice is forming, and winter is here!  It’s December, and the ice climbing season is starting.  The Ouray Ice Park is slated to open December 19, just a few short weeks away.  This is a great time to review a few skills related to toprope or slingshot belay set-ups for ice climbing, and think about the differences between rock and ice (don’t worry, if you ask the Captain Kitty Calhoun, there is really not too much of a difference, and you’re just extending your season either way you look at it).

Ice – A low friction environment!

If you have been busy rock climbing this fall, and have been toproping on rock, it is worth remembering that ice provides a low friction environment.   When the rope runs over the rock, a fair amount of friction is in the system, which is taking part of the weight of the climber on the other end of your toprope belay that you have to counterbalance when you hold her.  In ice climbing, there is very little friction between the rope and the ice.  Therefore, you, the belayer, take the full brunt of the system.   With this in mind, practice these good habits:

– Use a back-tie anchor for the belayer.

– Always keep a strong hand on the brake strand of the rope.  Using gloves can help your grip, and having a back-up belayer is great, too.

– Communicate with loud and clear commands between climber and belayer.

– Pay close attention to avoid slack (which can lead to higher forces) in the system.

ModerateWallChickswithPicksIce – Heavy things fall down on me!!

Coming from rock season where it is much more customary to be belaying right underneath the climber for the best angle of taking the weight of the climber, it is important to remember that ice breaks and shatters and falls…  and often in big chunks, right down to the base of the climb!  So, keep out of the impact zone!  Find a protected belay spot away from the fall line of the climb.  Use these techniques:

– Use a back-tie anchor.  When you belay away from the cliff, the rope angle is your vector of force.  A back-tie anchor keeps you from getting pulled forward or sideways.

– Watch for open water in the canyon.  In the Ouray Ice Park (OIP), you often climb on one side of the river and belay on the other.  Manage your rope carefully, tie in a secure spot, and look for safe crossings.

– When you climb, alert your belayer and other bystanders of falling things by yelling “ICE!!”

InstructionChickswithPicksAll us Chicks guides are excited for the upcoming ice climbing season. For us, the Ouray Ice Park is not only a great training ground and fantastic ice climbing venue but really the home of Chicks with Picks.  This is the place where Kim Reynolds started our company 17 years ago, and where we still go strong today. So many of our ice climbing days are spent in the park, and we have come have a special relationship with the OIP over the years.  A great way to support the OIP is by becoming a member, check out their website for more information.

Chicks with Picks is offering three women’s ice climbing events in the Ouray Ice Park this winter.  First up is The Sampler Jan. 22-25, followed by The Complete Jan. 27-31, and ending with The Jiffy Feb. 19-21.  Every event offers all the Chicks clinic levels 1- 5.  All our clinic levels are designed to build on each other, giving you a great foundation to be a well-rounded ice climber.  The OIP is a great location to progress your skill level. Come join us at one of our clinics, we look forward to seeing you in the Ice Park this winter!

Written by: Karen Bockel.
In 2010, Karen began guiding on the West Buttress of Denali and now guides year-round in the mountains.  Karen is an AMGA Certified Rock and Certified Ski Guide, is Avalanche Level III certified, and is a member of the Search and Rescue Team in San Miguel County, Colorado.