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Five Keys to Improving Your Ice Climbing Skills

The conditions continue to be great for climbing up in northern New England, so I’ve delayed my long weekend training for the upcoming triathlons to take advantage of some ice. We ended up back at the Flume, hoping to catch a climb at the Pool called Swain’s Pillar, a 4+ climb, but unfortunately it is exposed in the sun and got baked out (not to mention the riverbed was exposed). It would have been a great climb had it been in since you need to be lowered to it and climb up a nice ice pillar. As a result, we hiked around to the main crag at the Flume and climbed some grade 3 ice (which is normally grade 4, but given the warm temps and soft ice, it was more like a 3). We found an ice cave along the way (see videos below).

While climbing (and often times battling) up the climbs this weekend at the Flume, I got thinking about what it takes to improve your ice climbing skills. I think it boils down to five main things:

1. Natural ability- okay, this is something that is out of your control, but there’s no doubt if if you are a natural athlete and a natural climber, you will be a better climber. There are things you can do to fine tune your natural ability, which is where the next four come into play.

2. Practice, practice, practice- I firmly believe how you progress is a function of how often you go. The more you go, the better you become. This seems like a no-brainer, but climbing is one of those things that takes coordination and planning to do, so you need to be focused in terms of when you’re going to go. If you go once a week, don’t expect to see much improvement. Twice a week is much better, allowing the muscles a chance to adapt and you to work on your skills.

3. Rock climbing- You will only get better at ice climbing if you rock climb. With rock climbing, you cannot make your own holds, and you are forced to think about your moves and get your body into the right sequence. These skills are directly transferable to ice climbing, particularly on harder, more sustained and/or mixed routes.

4. Strength training- Climbing itself will allow you to become stronger, but you need to supplment it with a regular regiment of strength training. You don’t have to load on the weight, but rather work on more power movements that simulate climbing. It’s not about bulking up, but rather building explosive power.

5. Mental skills- Climbing more than any other sport perhaps, is a mental game. The reasons should be obvious– you’re dealing with a number of conditions that aren’t natural for humans all at once– being up high, ice in your face, getting balance and moving upward, often times extreme cold and wind, among other things. This requires you to tune your mind to deal with the adversity and remain focused.

Certainly there are other things that you can do to improve your ice climbing skills, but at an individual level, these are the main five.

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