Properties of Ice.
What I have tried to do is to quantify and list the different types
of ice that I have come across whilst ice climbing. I have explained
how I have felt the best way to climb that type of ice is. There may
be better ways to climb the subtleties of the ice and more types of
ice that need discussing any ideas that you have will be gratefully
Hardness: Soft -> Hard
Wetness: Wet -> Dry
Temperature: Warm -> Cold
These properties go hand in hand, e.g. soft wet and warm will go together,
as do hard dry and cold.
The different flavours and tips on how to climb.
This is caused by strong warming of the ice over a period of time (more
than 1 day), predominantly by the sun. The ice has a white sun bleached
appearance. It causes the whole top layers of the ice to turn to mush.
This type of ice is very serious to climb as it is often very difficult
to dig deep enough in the crud to find solid reliable ice for placements
as well as protection (ice screws). It has been known for climbers to
melt off the ice. The best solution for this type of ice is to get to
recognize the look of the ice and avoid climbing it.
This is where the ice has been affected by the warmth (sun) but not
to as greater extent as above. It is when there is a slight (1 to 4cms)
of cruddy ice on top of a solid ice base. The density of the ice is
soft and then suddenly hard on the underlying base layer (1 to 4cms
deep). It gives the feeling of easy first time placements, but beware,
actually the picks/front points are not as secure as they look and can
rip suddenly when the top layer breaks. During the morning the ice can
be excellent to climb after it has been refrozen as the top layer becomes
denser and so can hold the climbers weight easily.
This is formed by water running over ice in sub zero temperatures. The
relative warm water softens the surface of the ice and freezes on to
the top layer of ice to give a rippling effect. The density of the ice
gradually and uniformly increases with depth. The ice seems to suck
in the picks and front point giving secure first time placement. This
kind of ice is very flattering and a joy to climb. Ice screws can be
pushed the first few mm into the ice and so make them easy to place.
Wet gloves are a suitable sacrifice for this type of ice. “No
buts it’s got to be butter”
Even better is when the water dries due to a slightly stronger freeze
(not too rapid as this will cause the ice to form a brittle top layer
see crackling) this ice is lovely and dry and the tools just punch into
the ice for about 2 to 3cms with out disturbing (cracking). This is
absolutely the best although you do need to get the picks into slight
depressions in the ice for best effect (i.e. no cracking of the ice).
Smooth Brittle Ice (Crackling):
Grey smooth brittle plate ice which crack and dinner plates when hit.
The best technique for this is to tap the ice to craft a placement or
just smash the hell out of it which is very strenuous and messy (be
careful you don’t knock ice people below). Watch out for dinner
plates knocking your feet off the ice as on steep ice the dinner plates
can land in your face so it is best to hit the axe placements a little
wide if possible. Also mind you don’t step on one of these dinner
plates as you could loose your footing as the dinner plate skates of
the icefall. You can end up with a mosaic of cracked ice above you which
can be very serious as you might have to knock a plate of ice off so
to gain a solid placement which has to come falling past you in one
way or another. Be careful not too hit too close to the other axe placement
as you can end up with both axes embedded in one dinner plate which
comes off when you take out one axe only to pull out the other. One
nice thing about this ice is that once a placement is made the tension
has been taken out of the ice so it is much easier for other climbers
to follow when the path is prepared. The scooped out axe placements
do make excellent footholds (especially with monopoints).
This is old ice where the feed has dried and it has been left in the
shade in sub zero temperatures. The ice at first forms in point (icicles)
but the dryness of the air causes the ice to sublime (from the sharp
edges first) and this causes the formation to round it’s edges
and thin to eventually form a lacy curtain of grey ice.
Clear water ice (window in the ice):
This is a beautiful site when you see it. The ice forms a ‘glass’
window in which you can view the water falling inside. It can be over
20cms thick and good for putting in placements and screws. It is a bizarre
site to see the bottom of the screw in the ice for a change. Sometimes
the clear ice can be thin and part of an ice cone (see later) care is
needed not to get too committed if it is thin.
This is not really relevant to cascade ice climbing but you can get
really old bedding ice on high mountain which is very dense and extremely
hard to penetrate with an axe/crampons. There is a general trend for
this bedding ice to be retreating (c.f. the glaciers) leaving something
much worse which are water worn smooth slabs of rock or loose rubble.
These are then covered by snow/neve, which is relatively easy to climb
in it is neve form but very dangerous when unconsolidated as you are
relying on the base rubble/smooth slabs for support.
Snow ice (whitish grey) ‘Scottish’:
Ice which has a lot of snow mixed in with it provides great first time
placement and can give good screw placements where the ice is at its
most dense. Ice screw protection in this softer ice can be marginal.
This is snow which has undergone freeze thaw metamorphosis and is frozen.
It is a great climbing medium.
This is a thin veneer of ice which is very well bonded and can provide
good shallow placements if thick enough.
Water ice that has just formed gives a hard brittle ice which requires
a technical approach.
The glueyness of ice.
Why doesn't the ice just slide from the cliff seen as it is so slippery?
If you have tried to clean a verglassed rock you will understand how
well ice can be ‘glued’ to another substance in certain
conditions. These conditions would appear to be when the ice is forming
and has a good feed of water to it in good sub zero temperatures (below
After the water feed to the ice fall has dried up the ice will tend
to melt (or sublime) away from the rock. This is because the rock will
be warmer than the ice (being darker, which means that it will be sun
warmed, and having different thermal properties, e.g. a greater heat
capacity). This implies that an icefall which has had no feed of water
can start to become destabilised from the cliff on which it has formed,
which can be observed by the rounding/shrinking of the ice from the
Icefalls can start life as clusters of icicles which in later life are
bonded by further ice build up to give a solid mass of ice. Icicles
are generally very fragile and placements can be hard to win, a delicate
touch is sometimes needed (scary too, as the ice can be too fringed
to find enough ice in which to place screws).
Solid blue/green ice:
Forms on large icefalls and is generally really solid and safe to climb.
This is the best ice to climb. A good place to find butter ice.
Cones of ice:
At top of an icefall where stream pours under ice forcing the ice to
build on the sides and eventually to form in a cone. Great care is needed
here to avoid becoming boxed into a corner as one side of the cone might
be too thin to climb over. A fall into the cone (through the ice) is
not a very appealing option as it will be very difficult to climb out
and you will find yourself in a torrent of freezing water. Hypothermia,
drowning and being crushed by the ice from top of the cone are potential
side affects of falling through.
This is where water has dripped on the ice to build up weak spikes of
ice. These are beautiful formations that tempt you to climb them with
your hands rather than your axes. I tend to hook them with my axes after
creating a little sawed groove in the back of them to stabilise the
axe pick a little. They are fragile, and to dig to the base ice can
be too much work, so good balance and care is needed. Remember to dig
away at the ice jugs so to get to the base ice to place ice screws.
These form when a strong updraft forces the falling water to freeze
in an umbrella like formation. Don’t be afraid to cut the feature
down to size to make the climb easier as they can give rise to very
On popular routes the amount of traffic can create a stair case in the
ice. On steep routes the secure placements become difficult to get as
the shaft of the axe blocks the pick from reaching good ice. The footholds
are excellent but the axe placements are insecure and ratterly. Try
hitting to the side of the worn placements or investing in an axe that
has a larger ‘reach’. If the above fails scary hooking and
good footwork is needed. Often it is difficult to place screws as the
ice is too hacked to find a solid enough piece of ice to put in a screw.
Old screw holes can provide an easy screw placement but they will not
be very strong as the ice screw thread is not bonding too well to the
ice (definitely not recommended for downward pointing screws holes).
Skin of ice over snow on ice, (egg shell):
After a snow fall snow is left on the easier angled ice, water dripping
onto this snow will form an icy crust on top of the snow. The thickness
of this crust can be from a few millimetres to 30cms or more. Obviously
a few millimetres of crust is just brushed away by the climber, but
when the crust is thick enough to support the climbers’ weight
then there is a problem. Does the climber trust the crust and climb
on to of it or do they cut the crust away to get to the solid base ice.
I would always cut the crust away as the last thing that I would want
would be to get committed on to the crust and then for that crust to
break to leave me surfing on an icy board down the icefall.
This is a curious phenomena where water melt on ice surface leaves worm
like impressions (micro streams) which are noticeable by wiping snow
(icing sugar) over the ice (like a brass rubbing). The ice has refrozen
so this is a good sign.
Ice dammed puddles
This happens when the water flow to the ice fall increases but is stopped
by a blockage (natural ice dam) in the ice leaving a pressurised volume
of water ready to spurt out at the climber if he should puncture the
ice. Watch out for the ropes getting wet as they will freeze and become
unmanageable they get wet.
Ice movement and major cracks in the ice.
Ice has plastic qualities when warm and glass properties when cold.
Ice compresses when warm and can snap if the stress caused buy the compression
is great enough and this will form a crack on the icefall (c.f. a bergshrund,
but usually near the top of the icefall). When it refreezes at night
a tension forms which is often released when a climber hits the ice
giving a frightening crack. This is also observed on dry glaciers whilst
walking on them in the cool of the morning. Cracks often found on free
standing ice falls and steeper ice as gravity will pull on the steeper
ice more than the less steep ice as there is friction (holding power)
on to the cliff.