An Ice Climbing Primer

Gear Glossary
By Cameron M. Burns

In a world where every outdoor sport has its own unending assortment of gear, ice climbing is no different. It might be true, however, that the gear used for ice climbing is a little more bizarre than most.

The expensive equipment comes in all shapes and sizes, and the individual pieces have odd names like Snargs, Icehogs, Spectres, and Footfangs.

For the uninitiated, here's a quick rundown of the more common accoutrements of the sport.

Crampons: Crampons are, basically, spiked metal devices strapped to the bottom of a climber's boots. Often mistaken for part of the boot itself, crampons consist of a small frame that fits snugly against the sole, similar to a ski binding, with spikes protruding off the frame. The spikes are about two inches long, giving the admonition "watch your step" a whole new meaning. Most spikes point downwards, but crampons also have one or two points that jut out the front of the frame, below the toes. Called "front points," these spikes are essential to vertical ice climbing. Crampon manufacturers have traditionally waged a competitive war to see who can come up with the most outlandish names such as "Footfangs," "Lightfangs," "Switchblades," "Rambos," "Ice Invaders," "Scarfaces."

Ice tools: Ice tools, often mistakenly called axes, allow climbers to indirectly grip the ice with their hands. (Ice axes are longer than ice tools, and they're rarely used on steep ice.) In size and weight, ice tools are similar to something you might buy at your local hardware store. The head of the tool boasts a pick on one side and either an "adze" (a flat, chisel-like device used for chopping holes in ice) or a hammer on the other.

Just like crampons, ice tools have a selection of unique names. A lot of ice tools are named after birds, since the pick of the tool is reminiscent of a bird's beak. Here are a few: "Hummingbird," "Woodpecker," "Blackbird," "Thunderbird."

Ice protection: "Protection" is a generic term for equipment placed by climbers as they progress upwards. In the event of a fall, protection (and a rope) allow the second climber to catch the lead climber before he or she hits the deck.

The most common protection used by ice climbers are hollow metal tubes, or ice "screws." These devices, about the size of a bicycle seat post with threads on the exterior of the cylinder, are pounded and/or screwed into the ice, then clipped into a climber's rope. If placed correctly, ice screws can support hundreds of pounds of force.

Screws are all pretty similar, but the names get really ridiculous.Get your tongue around these: "Ice Hogs," "RATS," "Snargs."

Ropes, 'biner, helmets: Carabiners, or 'biners, are used to clip protection into the rope, among other things.

Helmets and ropes are the same as you find in rock climbing. Helmets, however, are the single most important piece of ice climbing equipment. You'd be amazed at how much of a frozen waterfall can rain down during a warm winter's day.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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