An Introduction to Ice Climbing in the Alps

Published on 23rd Oct 2018

Unless you’re a seriously hard-core climber, the arrival of deep winter snow and plummeting temperatures will shut many routes down for you in the high Alps.

However, for those who still want their climbing fix: frigid temperatures can bring a bit of a bonus. Constant sub-zero temperatures at valley level freeze watercourses and deliver a mind-boggling array of lower-lying ice climbing challenges. (If you ski as well as a climb you will have noticed the tell-tale columns of blue tinted ice draping off crags and cliffs close to roads and adjacent to pistes.) Fast flowing cascades and roaring waterfalls are turned into silent columns and stacks of ice all ripe for climbing trips.

A mountain guide will show you the best places, and ice climbing techniques

Yet, being so close to the valley and its facilities means this ice can be accessed easily and brings the prospect of a long weekend’s climbing from the UK. For those who like to seek out remote places, local guides will be able to show you cascades and frozen waterfall in areas of the Alps that are little visited. Access in winter to the more far-flung climbs can involve some fairly serious exploration, which with great depths of snow, will have to be done either on ski or at a push, on snowshoes.

Ice climbing shares a lot of skills and techniques employed in mountaineering but it does have its own extras to learn and they can be a bit of a shock first time round. You will find some rock protection including bolts, pegs and occasionally chocks but these are the exception. Mostly you will be using ice screws and Abalakov anchors. Ice screw placement can be practiced on the ground and it’s worth doing so, as trying to do it one handed, high up can be unnerving if you’re not proficient. Abalakov anchors are basically V-shaped holes drilled into the ice and threaded with a sacrificial length of rope.

ice climbing in the Alps
ice climbing a sheer face

They can be used for belays but their biggest use is for abseil anchors to get off the top of routes. First time round they seem unlikely to hold, your guide will run through what’s involved, and when constructed properly they are a strong form of protection. Your guide will also run through ice climbing technique, it is nuanced and you will need to persist to nail it, but once a good style is learned you will be able to take on some amazing routes. As with any winter backcountry activity, avalanches are a serious risk and you will be need to carry appropriate kit including locators, shovels and probes, and have the knowledge to use them.

The choice of venues across the Alps is huge, with documented ice climbs in almost every valley. From the UK, flights and a short transfer from Genève will get you quickly to routes that range from 10m beginner’s routes, to 300m world-class epics. Most are feasible over a long weekend, allowing you to make the most of conditions when they come good. Here are a selection Ongosa recommend:

La Crémerie, Argentière, Chamonix

Situated a mere 20-minute amble from Grandes Montets téléphérique car park, La Crémerie couldn’t be any easier to reach. The venue occupies the sidewall of a narrow gorge where a series of ice falls flow down. For the absolute beginner there are some single pitch routes on moderate sixty-degree slabs that have walk-offs at the top. To progress, there are steeper single pitch sectors, multi-pitch routes with big belays, and multi-pitch routes that require abseil descents.

Morzine/Montriond

These two valleys hold a huge selection of climbs ranging from single pitch beginner’s routes through to multi-pitch routes with freestanding and free-hanging ice. Some are accessible in less than five minutes from the road, whilst some are best reached on ski.

ice climbing in the Himalayas

Vallée des Fonts, Sixt

To really up-the-ante you can combine ski touring and ice climbing and take on challenges of sectors like the Vallée des Fonts. The valley holds magnificent lines, as long as you’ll find high in the Alps, on the great north faces. The routes are considerable undertakings and will require a lot of experience, both on ski for the approach and on ice for the very long and difficult climbs.

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