In general, there are two different forms of ice climbing. The first and most common is alpine, where the ice is simply part of the flatter environment. Typically, this is comprised of a mixture of snow and rock. Waterfall ice climbing on the other hand is just as it sounds, and is the formation of vertical, frozen water. This category breaks down further into two sub-categories—the first of which houses legitimate waterfalls, and the second that describes waterfall-like ice that is created from temporary runoff.
Explaining how the ice freezes in a vertical position is a bit trickier. According to an article posted on How Stuff Works, “In freezing temperatures, water molecules begin to slow down and eventually stick together, which is how water changes from a liquid to a solid. The snowball effect of those gumming water molecules results in a waterfall that’s frozen in midair.”
The author of the article said one of the biggest reasons climbers are attracted to climbing frozen waterfalls is because of the constant changes on the surface. Factors such as midday sun, changing temperatures, and runoff alter the shape of the waterfall, constantly adding new formations to it.
The technical challenges of climbing waterfalls is what draws in expert climbers, but as with most extreme sports, there are obvious dangers. Climbers must understand when the ice is ready.
Back in 2010, The Fang in Colorado—a frozen waterfall that is popular among climbers—collapsed, taking a climber down with it. Although the 34-year-old man recovered, it made many people question the safety of ice climbing, as was evident by comments on a number of online forums. While many people were quick to scold the man for not waiting until the ice was ready, others jumped in and gave a list of his qualifications that proved he was an experienced climber who was not a risk taker.
“He has waited over 15 years to climb The Fang…and people were climbing it all week,” a friend of the climber said. “This guy talked to every person who has climbed The Fang this year to get their perspective. It was not something he took lightly.”
Stories such as this will always be evident, but people still ice climb, and there was a fair share of expert climbers who voiced their opinion about the collapse. Many said that by getting involved in ice climbing, you need to accept the position you’re putting yourself in. There is always going to be a danger, but that’s part of the thrill of it. And most recommended gaining an enormous amount of experience before attempting a climb such as The Fang. Mild glacier climbing is a great place to start. Although much of the same knowledge used in rock climbing such as rope systems, tying in, belaying, leading, abseiling, and lowering is evident in ice climbing, it’s an entirely different sport
For information about what equipment to use while ice climbing, read this advice from REI.
Check out the video below that features a team of climbers at Helmcken Falls in British Columbia, Canada that was uploaded last winter.