Ice, Ice Climbing, Baby

National Parks Guide to Ice Climbing
Edith HanPursuits
View looking up at three people ice climbing on a steep cliff.
– Edith Han

Winter is coming… bringing the ice climbing season with it! Whether you’re a seasoned multi-pitch ice climbing veteran, or if all you know is that it looks pretty rad and you want to try it for the first time, the national parks provide a wonderful frozen playground for ice climbers of all experience levels.

To learn what you need and where to go, just keep reading!

Getting Started

One person wearing a helmet belaying another person ice climbing up a frozen waterfall.
Edith Han

First, make sure you learn the ropes. Ice climbing is an inherently risky sport that catches even the most experienced ice climbers off guard. The best way to get started safely would be to take a class, hire a guide, or go with well-trusted, very experienced friends. What’s best about going with a guiding service is that, especially when you’re just trying it out, renting gear will be a fraction of what it would cost to commit to buying your own.

Having the Right Gear

All bundled up in the appropriate clothes

provided by Edith Han

Speaking of gear, here are just some of the things to consider having while ice climbing:

  • Harness
  • Helmet
  • Mountaineering boots
  • Crampons
  • Ice axes
  • Climbing rope
  • Ice protection (known as ice screws)
  • Backpack to carry all your gear, food, water, and extra clothes!
  • Make sure you are dressed properly for the conditions.  This means scarves, gloves, mitts, and warm layers.

What Do Those Numbers Mean?

Person leading and ice climb up a frozen waterfall
Edith Han

When you look up what places you want to go ice climbing, you’ll see that ice routes (WI for Water Ice) are graded by difficulty from WI1 – WI7. Here’s a quick rundown of what these letters and numbers mean:

  • WI1: Low-angle ice requiring no tools
  • WI2: Low-angle (about 60°) ice that can be done using only one ice axe
  • WI3: Steeper ice that is at a sustained 70° angle, with occasional bulges of 80°-90°
  • WI4: Near-vertical ice that requires good technical skills with occasional resting points.
  • WI5: Near-vertical technical ice with few good resting opportunities
  • WI6: Completely vertical with no resting spots
  • WI7: Ice that is mostly overhanging

Where Can I Go?

Now that you’ve figured out your instructional and gear needs, where can you go? There are remarkable national parks across the country that provide ample opportunity for pure ice climbing. Most of these have frozen waterfalls to climb only in the winter, but a handful of them have glaciers to climb, even in the middle of summer!

  • Acadia National Park: In this winter wonderland, water dripping down cliffs and through narrow gullies freeze into icy cascades and curtains to kick your crampons into.
  • City of Rocks National Reserve: With a name like “City of Rocks,” it’s hard to imagine that this national reserve in Idaho gets any ice but in the winter, this rock-climber’s haven gives visitors an opportunity to climb ice with more of an alpine feel.

A person leading up ice on double ropes on at City of Rocks National Reserve
National Park Service


Climbing on Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park

provided by Edith Han

Now that you know what to take and where to go, your next ice climbing adventure awaits! After you turn in the voluntary climber’s registration form available at ranger stations, or after you’ve made a reservation with a licensed and accredited guide service, it’s time to kick some ice and throw some axes. 

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