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alpine ice climbing on north ridge of mount baker with mountain madness

Glacier, Alpine, and Waterfall Ice Climbing defined

What does the North Ridge of Mount Bak­er, moun­taineer­ing on the Eas­t­on Glac­i­er of Mount Bak­er, and Ouray ice climb­ing have in com­mon? First, all involve some form of frozen water. Sec­ond, you need sharp pointy things, like your ice axe and cram­pons. The dif­fer­ences diverge quite a bit from there.

Get­ting out on a glac­i­er climb is the entry lev­el expe­ri­ence, from there you can find a wide range of both the dif­fi­cul­ties and the medi­um you are climb­ing; it could be easy going glac­i­er climb­ing on sea­son­al snow or a steep­er alpine ice route that involves frozen snow (neve) to give you the prop­er con­di­tions. And then there’s frozen water­fall ice, the more tech­ni­cal climb­ing done in winter.

Let’s get started.

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Ice climbing in Ouray Ice Park Colorado with Mountain Madness

Glacier climbing- what the heck is that? Am I climbing ice on a glacier climb, or what?

Glac­i­er Moun­taineer­ing: By def­i­n­i­tion, glac­i­ers are frozen, mov­ing bod­ies of ice- so yes, a glac­i­er climb like Mount Bak­er’s Eas­t­on Glac­i­er could be called an ice climb. But, glac­i­er climbs are all about ter­rain. What you’ll find are low angled slopes of glac­i­er that allow for walk­ing, but may occa­sion­al­ly require the use of an ice axe and cram­pons. It’s here that begin­ners can find their way with­out too much, if any, tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. Require­ments for this type of climb are sim­ple enough:

  • A sense of adven­ture and ready to learn- all skills on climbs like the Eas­t­on Glac­i­er can be gained while on the trip
  • Good phys­i­cal fitness
  • The nec­es­sary equipment
Ascending snow field from camp

What is the difference between the frozen waterfalls of Ouray, Colorado and for example, the North Ridge of Mount Baker?

Alpine Ice: Instead of short steep routes on water­fall ice that some­times are only 100 feet high or less, alpine ice climb­ing takes place on the airy alpine ridges and big snow/​ice faces; so we’re talk­ing up to 2,000-feet+ routes on Cas­cade ice routes, to the mon­ster faces in the Himalayas and Andes. Here its not all about just swing­ing your ice tools over­head to get your place­ment, its just going to require dif­fer­ent dif­fer­ent tech­niques- take a course to get it start­ed with the Alpine Ice Course or the Mount Bak­er Ice Climb­ing Essen­tials.

  • On the Cas­cades clas­sic ice routes such as the North Ridge of Mount Baker rarely are there water­fall ice con­di­tions encoun­tered. Routes like the North Face of Mount Shuk­san, or the North Face of Mount Buck­n­er or Maude, take place on ter­rain the 40 – 60 degree angle, with usu­al­ly frozen snow the medi­um. As a result, dif­fer­ent tech­niques are used and only occa­sion­al­ly will you be using your ice tools over­head in pio­let traction.
  • Cram­pon­ing tech­niques also vary from French tech­nique, which pro­vides mul­ti­ple or all points on the ice, or an Amer­i­can hybrid tech­nique using one cram­pon in French and the oth­er front pointing.
  • While there is some cross-over in tech­niques used, it can be said that alpine ice and water­fall ice tech­niques are different.

On the North Ridge of Mount Bak­er you will tran­si­tion from alpine ice climb­ing tech­niques on about 40 degree slope to a 1 – 3 pitch sec­tion that you will use water­fall ice tech­niques as you work your way up the ice cliff sec­tion mid-route. On a route like the North Face of Mount Buck­n­er you’ll use pure alpine ice tech­niques as you ascend a con­sis­tent grade of steep­ness over the 1,000−2,000 foot route. While a ice climber may enjoy the vari­ety of moves, the alpine ice climber enjoys the rhythm, the pre­dictabil­i­ty of each move and an increased abil­i­ty to move effi­cient­ly as a result.

Alpine Ice is Nice!

2016 Contest Overall 83

Water­fall Ice: The sounds of ice climb­ing frozen water­falls – the plea­sur­able thwank of your pick going in with one swing, plates of ice cas­cad­ing down from brit­tle ice break­ing away, the screams of agony as your numb fin­gers warm up, your cram­pons crunch­ing and your front points thunk­ing, are as unique to ice climb­ing as the sport itself. One of the best places to expe­ri­ence it is in Ouray, Col­orado where you can get guid­ed climbs of the area’s clas­sic, or you can take a curse if its your first time.

  • It is gen­er­al­ly cold­er, some­times A LOT cold­er, deter­min­ing not only your enjoy­ment, but also the type of ice you will encounter. With temps in the 20s-30s Fahren­heit you may encounter hero ice,” which is the kind of ice pro­vides easy to get, sol­id place­ments for your tools and ice screws. But, with tem­per­a­tures in the let us say the 10 degrees above to minus 20 Fahren­heit this can change dra­mat­i­cal­ly to hard, brit­tle, or chan­de­liered ice, all which can make get­ting good place­ments that much more difficult.
  • Water­fall ice on the more tech­ni­cal sec­tions always requires two ice tools and set­ting them over­head with aggres­sive swings, what as the French call pio­let trac­tion. Cram­pon­ing is gen­er­al­ly using front points only, although occa­sion­al rest steps you are able to get more points in.
  • In sum­ma­ry, the tech­niques used on frozen water­falls is some­what dis­tinct to this medi­um when the ice is at a 50 – 90 degree angle.

ice climbing Jeremy photo
Jeremy Allyn Karen Hilton photo
Ouray Ice Park Libby Sherwood