by Jeff Golden
CMC Marketing Manager
Ice climbing can make a deceptive first impression. Like rock climbing, the goal is to get from the bottom of a route to the top without falling. Unlike rock climbing, many newcomers can accomplish this feat on moderate (WI2-3) or even somewhat difficult (WI4) routes on their first day out. It might have taken 30 minutes and they probably fried their ability to grip a coffee mug for the rest of the week, but doggone it, they climbed to the anchor. It was almost easy.
The beginner-friendliness is part of the reason the sport is exploding in popularity. The difference between an ice neophyte and a skilled veteran, however, is obvious to the seasoned eye. It all starts with a technique known as the A-Frame.
It’s relatively simple, just a little awkward to accept as you’re desperately clinging to ice and equipment you don’t quite trust yet. Once mastered, it’s a perfect example of the old adage to “work smarter, not harder.” You’ll be swinging the ice tools literally half as often to climb the same route, saving your forearms for later laps.
Imagine you’re on a vertical and perfectly smooth ice route. Your feet are slightly more than shoulder-width apart and you’re standing straight, with your knees nearly locked. Most beginners would reach the right ice tool above their right shoulder and sink it, then place their left ice tool at the same height above their left shoulder. This body positioning looks like an “H.” Pulling on both ice tools, they begin moving their feet up. Their elbows are locked in an “L,” engaging all of their arm muscles, and in a breathless struggle for purchase they kick their crampon points into anything that will hold them. The feet end up slightly uneven. With screaming calves, the new ice climber repeats these jerky motions all the way to the top. Back on the ground, they can’t unscrew their thermos for the next hour, let alone climb another route.
The A-Frame presents an easier and more efficient alternative. Imagine the same ice route, except this time the climber reaches her right tool as high as she can comfortably swing above the center of her forehead. Confident in the placement, she sinks her hips down into a crouch until her right arm is fully extended and locked. She’s resting on her skeletal system, not engaging her muscles. From this comfortable “monkey hang” position, she moves up one foot, then the other, placing them slightly more than shoulder-width apart and on an even plane. She stands up with her hips closely hugging the ice.
This is a bomber, restful position from which the climber can lean her head back and survey the next move. The body positioning looks like an “A.” All the weight is equally distributed on the legs. By keeping the heels down and the front crampon points solidly planted, the rigidity of ice climbing boots further absorbs some of the burden from the calf muscles.
Leaving the right tool where it is, probably around neck- or face-level, she places her left tool as high as she can, again above the center of her forehead. She repeats this process all the way to the top, gets lowered, and can immediately climb a second lap because her forearms and calves aren’t ready to mutiny. A great way to practice this technique is climbing with only one ice tool.
A solid A-Frame stance is only part of the equation, however, and won’t be possible at times on many ice routes. Body position and pick/crampon placement will depend on many factors, but at the core of the technique is expending as little energy as possible to ascend the route while maintaining a secure, comfortable platform. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to climbing longer and more difficult routes without feeling more roasted than a Thanksgiving turkey.
Want personalized instruction on the A-Frame and other ice-climbing techniques? The Colorado Mountain Club offers ice-climbing clinics all winter in Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder. Visit the CMC Classes and Schools page for an updated course listing.