Ice climbing is a very cool way to spend a chilly winter day—but using axes and crampons to scale a frozen waterfall is definitely not the kind of thing you want to try on your own. Fortunately, you don't have to, because ice climbers love to show newbies the ropes.
Visit one of North America's ice climbing hot spots, where experts will be happy to gear you up and get you out on the ice—how far you go is up to you.
North Conway, New Hampshire
New Hampshire's Mount Washington Valley has long been a center for Northeast ice aficionados—that's why a number of world-class climbers live and guide here. Base yourself in historic North Conway, where you'll have your choice of top-shelf guide services and easy access to venerable ice at places like Cathedral Ledge and the not-as-scary-as-it-sounds Frankenstein Cliff. With a bit of experience, Mount Washington awaits—the smallish peak famously boasts both climbing and weather that resemble the world's great ranges.
The Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest is held in February, and it's a great way to get your feet wet on the ice. Clinics on tap include everything from Ice Climbing 101 to Light & Fast Alpinism and Women's Steep Ice Climbing.
The Canadian Rockies boast probably the greatest array of world-class ice climbing routes in North America. But surrounding all those stomach-turning, 3000-foot vertical epics is a limitless selection of reliable ice that's perfectly suitable for beginners and intermediates. Plus, with many elite climbers living in Canmore and the surrounding area, your odds of getting rock-star instruction are very good.
Among the many excellent choices for schooling on ice, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures has been a local standout for 40 years. Sign up for a weekend-long Basic Ice course and you'll soon be climbing with confidence. In fact, most Yam Ice Team students are ready for a classic, multi-pitch guided climb after just two days—and you can easily tack on a “plus day” to go for it.
Lee Vining Canyon, California
Lee Vining Canyon's wide variety of climbs and hard-water ice prompted the American Alpine Institute (AAI) to describe it as “almost without parallel as a place to receive ice climbing instruction.” Spend some time in the Eastern Sierra with that venerable institution's guides and you'll soon see why.
In the 1970s, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Robinson began pioneering the tempting routes that lined the canyon road into eastern Yosemite National Park's Tuolumne Meadows area. Today you can follow in their footsteps, or at least see those famed climbs en route to your own tamer adventures on one of the AAI's guided ice climbing courses. Courses typically run either two or five days, though you can customize your own programs as well. You'll be amazed at how quickly your skill progress and, if you get hooked on swinging an axe, you won't have to leave the canyon to find some of the steepest and most demanding multi-pitch ice routes in California.
If the climbs at Ouray Ice Park seem too good to be true, it's because humans give Mother Nature a hand in this slice of southwestern Colorado. Each winter they tap this mountain town's runoff-driven surplus water supply to “farm” ice on the walls of Uncompahgre Gorge. The fruit of their labor is a legendary ice climbing area with over 200 named ice and mixed climbing routes, a total of some 17,000 feet of vertical ice that's free for all. The park is a 10-minute walk from the scenic mountain village of Ouray, but it draws climbers from around the world and is home base for a long list of local guides who teach ice climbing all winter.
Better yet, for a crash course introduction into the wild world of ice climbing, check out the Ouray Ice Festival each January. You can choose from 100 climbing clinics, try out gear, and watch the world's best compete—then hang with your new climbing buddies at the many parties and after-dark events.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Michigan's Upper Peninsula may be short on big mountains, but you can certainly count on frigid winter weather. Combine the cold with reliably humid conditions and miles of porous sandstone cliffs along the shores of Lake Superior, and you've got an incredible climbing destination that might surprise many mountain-dwellers. But the secret is getting out. The northern Michigan town of Munising has become an ice climbing destination thanks to the precipitous cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where ice routes tower up to 200 feet above the churning, ice-filled waters below.
The area hosts its own winter extravaganza, the Michigan Ice Fest, a heady combination of climbing and good-time camaraderie that's so much fun it draws some of the sport’s biggest names—Conrad Anker presented here last year. If you can't make the festival, the Michigan Ice Fest guides run beginner classes whenever the ice is good. It's a long winter in the Upper Peninsula, and climbing ice is their favorite way to spend it.
Brian Handwerk is a New Hampshire-based writer covering travel, adventure, and science.