Ice climbing evolved from equipment used by alpine-style mountain climbers to negotiate icy patches at high altitude. Today, most ice climbers use crampons and ice axes to drag themselves up steep glacial walls and frozen waterfalls. Ropes, screws and other safety features are also part of the equation, and helmets are a necessity because of the danger of falling ice.
Glacier-walking is a tamer cousin of waterfall climbing. It may require special equipment like crampons, but is usually a gentler activity (although glaciers are often part of protected areas, so a guide is necessary). More-vertical ice climbing comes with a steep learning curve, but the sport has become quite accessible, with some waterfalls and glaciers offering challenges for both novices and expert climbers.
Here are 10 amazing ice climbing destinations that draw climbers of all skill levels.
1. Ice Factor in Scotland
One of the biggest drawbacks of ice climbing is that the weather must cooperate. Ice climbers might have only a couple of months each year to put their skills to use. At Scotland's National Ice Climbing Center, also known as Ice Factor, conditions are always good. This indoor facility has different routes graded for beginner to expert climbers.
Instructors are on hand to help novices learn the proper techniques, and equipment rentals are also available. The center offers outdoor excursions, including winter climbing expeditions on some of the U.K.'s most famous peaks, including Ben Nevis. Because indoor ice climbing is so rare, it is the main attraction at Ice Factor. However, the Ice Climbing Center also has rock climbing walls, abseiling experiences and an elevated obstacle course called Aerial Adventure.
2. Ouray, Colorado
Ouray, Colorado, is in the San Juan Mountain Range. Climbers first discovered the walls of ice running up the side of a steep gorge more than four decades ago. In the early 1990s, local water sources were altered, creating even more routes.
The Ouray Ice Festival has taken place each January since 1996. It has become one of this climbing niche's biggest events, with competitions, vendor demonstrations, seminars and clinics. The Ouray Ice Park is open until conditions make climbing unsafe. It can close as soon as early February (as it did during the 2016-2017 season) or stay open much later. For people who want to immerse themselves in the world of wintertime climbing, Ouray-area schools offer courses and lead expeditions in and around the ice park and to nearby Telluride and Silverton.
3. Banff, Alberta
Johnston Canyon is one of many climbing sites in and around Banff National Park. (Photo: davebloggs007/flickr)
The ice in Johnston Canyon, near the popular wintertime sports destination of Banff, Alberta, is an attraction for ice climbers and sightseers alike. During the three warmer seasons, trails through the canyon are ideal for hiking. In winter, the route is more difficult, but hikers still make the trek to see the canyon's falls when they are frozen. Because the walkways are covered with ice and snow, these visitors usually wear ice cleats.
Johnston Canyon is one of several sites in the Banff area that offer challenging climbs during the wintertime. While the spectacular frozen waterfalls capture expert climbers' imaginations, there are also options for beginners, and area outfitters hold courses to teach the fundamentals of the sport.
4. Rjukan, Norway
Norway, like the rest of Scandinavia, is a haven for winter sports enthusiasts. Skiers head for the mountains, while cross country enthusiasts, skaters, mushers and even ski jumpers find plenty of destinations to choose from. For ice climbers, the best place to spend a Scandinavian winter is Rjukan, Norway. The town sits along a deep ravine. In the winter, the sides of the ravine are covered with sheer, whimsically-shaped ice formations.
Special operations troops famously scaled the icy walls during World War II to thwart a Nazi attempt to develop a nuclear bomb. In modern times, skilled climbers try to conquer the seemingly impossible ice formations for sport. Like Ouray, Rjukan has its own ice climbing festival. While the focus is on the most challenging routes, Rjukan's numerous frozen falls provide easier options as well.
5. Kandersteg, Switzerland
Kandersteg is a haven for outdoor sports enthusiasts and tourists looking for stereotypically dramatic Swiss Alps scenery. The different sporting opportunities — skating, alpine and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tobogganing, even curling — make this a good destination for people who might like to try their hand at ice climbing, but who want to experience other wintertime activities as well.
The mountains here hold an assortment of challenging longer climbs, but the Oeschiwald Area, in particular, is popular among outfitters who offer hands-on courses to people who are brand new to the world or crampons and ice axes. Gasterntal, a wilder corner of the alps, is more popular with experienced ice climbers.
6. Viedma Glacier
The Viedma Glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field between Chile and Argentina, is ideal for combining a basic ice climbing experience with a glacier walk. This is a spectacular place to hike because different parts of the glacier move at different speeds. This means that there are whimsical formations, deep ice caves and steep ridges scattered throughout the area. Many excursions onto the glacier include ice climbing on some of the steeper walls.
The glacier is on the edge of its namesake lake, and many tours arrive by boat, so views of the area from the water are part of the experience. Viedma is truly a massive glacier; it covers 380 square miles, so getting a panoramic view from the lake before actually strapping on crampons and stepping on the ice is a good idea.
7. Drakensberg and Maluti ranges
The Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa and Lesotho's Maluti (also spelled Maloti) Range receive snow and experience below-freezing temperatures during the wintertime. This is the Southern Hemisphere, so streams on the south facing slopes at high elevation freeze between June and August. The ice formations are rather consistent because they rely on wet season runoff. This means that even if there is little snow during the coldest months, there still may be good conditions for ice climbing.
Lesotho's Maluti Mountains have several challenging climbs, including the ascent of Lepaqoa Falls. South Africa's Drakensberg boasts the Sani Pass, which has a collection of routes that are ideal for beginners, and Giant's Castle, a site with easy routes and multi-pitch climbs that will challenge skilled climbers. This area includes some routes that have never been climbed before, mainly because climbers cannot get there easily due to the lack of infrastructure.
The areas in and around Skaftafell National Park are among the best places in Iceland for ice climbing and glacier walking. (Photo: Michał Huniewicz/flickr)
Iceland is a place of otherworldly landscapes. Glaciers, geysers, volcanoes and mountains all earn places on adventure-seeking visitors' itineraries. Iceland has 4,500 square miles of glaciers overall. One of the most accessible frozen playgrounds is the Svinafellsjokull Glacier, which has opportunities for both glacier walking and vertical ice climbing.
Vatnajökull is another glacier with accessible walking and climbing experiences for beginners. These glaciers are in southern Iceland, so they are reasonably easy to get to from the capital city of Reykjavik.
9. Frankenstein Cliff, New Hampshire
Frankenstein Cliff is in Crawford Notch State Park in New Hampshire's White Mountains. This area is known by many East Coast ice climbers because it offers a variety of different routes, from basic challenges to multi-pitch climbs that only the most skilled would dare to attempt.
Though consistency varies here, there are so many different options that climbers should be able to find something to scale between December and March. The Mountain Project lists a total of 42 routes at Frankenstein that are either all ice or a mixture of ice and rock.
10. Matanuska Glacier, Alaska
Alaska is the land of 100,000 glaciers. Most of these ice formation are in inaccessible corners of the state and are visited only by professional climbers and adventurers who are willing to pay to fly in. The Matanuska Glacier is not one of these inaccessible ice fields. Located just off the Glenn Highway, about 100 miles from Anchorage, this 27-mile-long glacier is a favorite of tour guides because it offers easy hikes and has a number of short ice walls where novice climbers can learn the ropes.
There are also challenging walls on Matanuska, so it is not just a destination for beginners and tourists. The Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau, is another icy destination that is accessible to casual hikers and new climbers.