Dressing for ice climbing as a beginner always gave me a headache. The problem is that you are dressing for two extremes; standing around in freezing weather, followed by intensive climbing. You need both warm layers and freedom of movement with the bonus of having to carrying in everything on your approach hike. After a lot of trial and error, I feel like I’m finally happy with my setup. Unlike other sports, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information out there on dressing for ice climbing so I’m hoping I can save someone else the hassle of figuring it out themselves.
So, here is what I bring & wear ice climbing:
Two pairs of wool socks. I wear my first pair on the drive out, then I switch to my second pair once we’ve parked and I’m changing into my ice climbing boots. Driving to a location can be anywhere from 1-2 hrs so I prefer to start my climbing day off with feet that are as dry and warm as possible. My ice climbing boots fit a bit large so I prefer thick wool socks but the key is that you want a sock that will not compress your foot too much in your boots.
Driving boots and ice climbing boots. Ice climbing boots are very stiff which can make driving and long rides uncomfortable so I rarely wear them out of my house. You can rent boots from a local sporting store but if you think you will get out even once or twice a year, buying your own boots is well worth it. MEC (the Canadian REI) has a gear swap website and also sells returned items at a discount which is how I bought my boots. Ice climbing boots also make great snow-based mountaineering boots if you’re looking to kill two birds with one stone. As for fit, just remember that want your boots to be big enough that your toes don’t slam into the front every time you kick. For me I had to go a size up to achieve this and used insoles to help perfect the fit. My boots are Scarpa Mont Blancs.
Superfeet insoles. I got the warmest insoles (hot pink) and find they really do help keep my feet warm. I also use the same insoles in my ski boots.
Crampons. I would suggest renting these unless you plan on getting out a lot. Mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons are quite different so don’t expect that you’ll be able to use the same pair effectively for both activities. I usually rent Black Diamond Cyborgs (or Petzl Sarkens) from MEC.
Wool or synthetic (or both) long underwear. How many and what type of long underwear you choose will depend on you, and the weather where you’re climbing. For the coldest of days I’ll wear a light synthetic pair, a heavy fleece-like pair, and a heavy wool pair. On warmer days, a lightweight synthetic and wool pair. I tend to be on the cold side and the weather here is cold and dry.
Softshell pants. I have a pair of Alpine Guide pants from Patagonia that I love. They are stretchy enough to wear multiple layers underneath but not too bulky. I’ve never worn hardshell pants as I find my softshell pants are water resistant enough to deal with the occasional drips.
Gaiters. The idea behind gaiters is that they keep crampon points away from pant legs and the more you climb, the better you’ll get at doing this. I prefer not to worry about catching points on pant legs so I always wear gaiters. As a bonus, they help block wind and keep your legs warm.
Harness. A rock climbing harness will do in a pinch, but there are some things to be aware of. Firstly, you’ll have more clothes on so make sure the leg loops will fit over your layers. Secondly, it’s really helpful if your harness has slots for ice clippers. These look like plastic carabiners that slip through slots on your harness. You can clip ice tools (useful for rappelling or being lowered) or ice screws (if you’re seconding a multi-pitch) onto them.
Sports bra, synthetic tank top, long sleeve wool layer, long sleeve fleece/synthetic layer. On my top, I notice a big difference between wool and synthetic in that having one wool layer is warmer than just synthetic layers. I also pack an extra warm fleece in my bag in case it gets cold. Another consideration is how sweaty you’ll get on the approach. If you remove layers as you go to regulate your temperature, you will arrive dry. If your approach is strenuous, you may get sweaty anyways in which case bringing a change of tops will keep you from getting chilled from being wet.
Down sweater. My Patagonia down sweater acts as my insulating layer as it’s thin but warm.
Softshell & Hardshell. Depending on temperature and wetness, I’ll wear one or the other. If I’m warm, I prefer the softshell because it’s stretchy and fitted which is great for your range of movement. If it’s colder out, windy, or wet, I’ll wear my hardshell as I can fit more layers underneath and it provides more protection.
Belay jacket. You’ll only wear this when belaying or waiting to climb. Down is the way to go and you want to make sure the jacket is big enough that it fits over all the above layers. If you plan on doing multi-pitches, a jacket that packs up small is a bonus.
Belay mittens. I use my Swany ski mitts with handwarmer pockets for cold days. Any warm mitten will do but make sure they’re not so bulky that you can’t belay properly. If you’re cragging, you’ll leave these with your belay jacket while climbing. If you’re on a multi-pitch, you’ll zip these into your outmost layer when you climb to keep them warm.
Climbing gloves. Gloves are the way to go when climbing. They don’t need to be as warm as your mittens as you’ll take them off when belaying and zip them in your belay jacket (this keeps them warm and lets them dry). I use Black Diamond Arc Gloves as they’re thin, relatively warm and waterproof (which also makes them great for mountaineering or alpine climbing!). You can also keep your hands warm by avoiding over-gripping your axes. The tighter you grip, the more you’ll cut off circulation to your hands!
Ice axes. This is another item I rent from MEC. I really enjoy Petzl Nomics and Black Diamond Cobras but this is a personal preference. If you’re renting axes, make sure that they are sharpened before you take them out. It’s happened a few times that I’ve picked up my axes and they were not only unsharpened, but the tip of the pick was missing!
Umbilicals/leashes. For multi-pitches these are a necessity for me as I REALLY do not want to be dropping tools. I use the Black Diamond Spinner Leash. For single pitches I don’t use them.
Warm hat, neckwarmer and sunglasses. Anything that fits under a helmet will do. I like wool hats and a wool buff.
Helmet. I use my Petzl Meteor but would recommend something harder like the Elios/Elia as falling is very common.
Backpack. If you’re doing a multi-pitch you will likely need a small day pack that you can comfortably climb in. For single pitch days, anything goes!
Belay device, carabiners, etc. What hardwear you bring will really depend on what kind of day you’re planning on having and what gear your partner(s) are bringing. Best to double check with whomever you’re going with than to show up empty handed!
Hot chocolate & snacks. Be nice to yourself, nothing beats a hot drink on a cold day :) Snacks are also better than a full lunch as sitting around means getting cold. My personal favourite is the bacon sandwich.
Notes about the photos used in this post –
First Photo: Enjoying my first multi-pitch at Louise Falls on a warm day in my softshell. That checked off one bucket list item! My second multi-pitch was on a much colder day at Professor Falls. Photo credit goes to Sarah Hueniken who took my friend and I out.
My ice climbing boots did double duty on a mountaineering trip to the Wapta Icefield. Despite a late July departure, the trip was snow-filled and the only rock my boots saw was on the approach hike.
Third Photo: Trying out a mixed climb on a cold day in Haffner Canyon. This was one of the last trips when I trusted that I could wear pants without gaiters. After this I because very proficient in patching holes
Do you ice climb?
What are your favorite layers for winter activities?
Sarah lives in Calgary, AB and likes to spend her spare time in the nearby Rocky Mountains hiking, camping, climbing, skiing or snowshoeing with her husband and friends. When she moved to Calgary, early adventures involved learning about all the different sports she now does in the mountains. Her latest adventure will be welcoming a new little family member and introducing them to the outdoors. You can follow Sarah on twitter or on her website