Ice climbing is an extreme sport that is practiced on frozen waterfalls or streams in the mountains in winter with negative cold temperatures, this practice is similar to mountaineering in gutters but it is much more difficult since it involves ” extremely hard ice formed by water and not often softer snow.
Depending on the incline, stability and freezing conditions, the icefall is more or less difficult.
The easiest are the trickle runs, a sort of frozen stream in winter where the beginner can get started by climbing up the ice.
There are many routes in the Alps, from beginner to expert but also in advanced training.
How to start with an icefall?
You don’t have to be a rock climbing pro, but you need to have the basics of belaying. You can start the waterfall by climbing in streams (Ruisselings) slightly inclined, this will allow you to familiarize yourself with the use of ice axes, crampons and ice axes. In general the steeper a waterfall between 75 ° and 90 °, the more difficult and physical it is to climb, between 45 ° and 75 ° we consider this as initiation, the rating does not exceed 3+ in this degree d ’tilt, this will allow you to climb first with your feet by leaning on your crampons.
In general, the topo of the waterfall will tell you the number of lengths and relays, the height, the difficulty, the engagement, the necessary equipment or the best period.
Some accesses can be done by ski or snowshoeing, it is therefore necessary to take all the information before launching unless you are with a high mountain guide.
What equipment is needed for the icefall?
Ice axes: Ice ice axes or ice axes are required, in general these have a curved handle to protect the hand when striking the ice, their strange shape or when equipped with a handle allows better comfort grip and typing.
The forged steel blade is serrated to allow deep anchoring in the most difficult ice, during your ascent you will appreciate having a strap to rest or a large handle allowing you to put both hands on the same ice ax .
Brands like Petzl, Grivel or Black Diamond are references in this area.
The crampons: They are with 12 very sharp points, the 2 front points are very important because they allow to push on the feet and thus to save the arms during the climbing.
The shoe fastening system must be reliable and tear-resistant, the crampons must be fitted with an “anti boot” system allowing the snow not to stick under the sole of the mountaineering boot.
Shoes: Insulating and waterproof they must be cramponable and very rigid sole to be able to support very strong supports on the front points. Comfort is also very important since it stays all day long!
The helmet: It is essential to protect you from falling ice cubes or other objects that can tumble from above.
Clothes: From head to toe, you will need to cover yourself well with flexible and resistant clothing such as Goretex or membranes so as not to get wet by ice or snow.
Gloves will require several pairs, they tend to get wet, the best is to have thin gloves to climb, and a good warm pair for the relay.
The 30 or 40 liter backpack will allow you to store your waterfall gear, carabiners, ropes or a good thermos of tea!
Where to practice the icefall?
There are many spots to practice ice climbing in the mountains or even in more ephemeral areas.
Ideally you have to go to the coldest valleys in winter, the more it is icy and in the shade the better it is, basically, a beautiful north face!
Around Annecy and Aravis there are many ice waterfall spots: The Montremont Valley, Manigod or La Giettaz are superb spots for beginners or ice-climbers already initiated into verticality and the atmosphere. It is not uncommon to come across high mountain guides everywhere with their students or even high level stuntmen.
Around Chamonix, there are many spots like the Bérard valley, Trient or Argentière, this gives a magical atmosphere because you are at the foot of Mont-Blanc! The vision of seracs and glaciers will give you alpine desires.
In the Ecrins and the Oisans massif, there is the Fournel valley which is a bit of the ultimate icefall spot, the waterfalls are spectacular and have an incredible scale, depending on the conditions, mountaineers or climbers launch themselves in lines where the stalactites are not thicker than a few meters. Just enough to put ice pins and anchor your ice axes.