Learn to Ice Climb: The Startup Plan

Ambassador Matt Ritter in Hyalite Canyon, Montana | Photo: Brian Threlkeld

By Sam Magro, Owner & Chief Guide at Montana Alpine Guides

So you are intrigued by ice climbing, but it seems inherently “dangerous” and or way too expensive? It can be both of these things, however it can also be as safe as taking a Sunday stroll and not so expensive to try. There are several great ways to learn to ice climb, here’s how to get started.

Go to An Ice Festival

Ice climbing festivals are popping up at every cliff imaginable that has any sort of frozen waterfalls; some are much better than others.  Chances are there is one with in a six-hour drive or flight from where you live. If you’re looking to learn to ice climb this winter, there’s no better place. You can show up, take a clinic, decide you hate it and then never do it again and you will only be about $100 out of pocket. Then again, you may love it. Most of the time all gear demos are available, so no need to shell out a bunch of cash up front.

Some of the bigger ice climbing festivals with the most gear to try and best areas to ice climb are:

Get out with a professional climbing guide service.

This can be a little bit more expensive, but the guide to participant ratios make up for the additional cost. In general you’ll get more one-on-one attention than what you’d get at a festival, and a day on ice catered to your experience level. If you don’t desire to be part of a big scene then this may also be your preferred way to get into it. Most guide services will offer more affordable group rates for an “Intro to Ice” clinic. We (Montana Alpine Guides) offer ice climbing courses every two weeks at a group rate and offer private courses upon request November 1- March 31 every winter.

Find Yourself an Experienced Climber

Go out with someone you know and trust to be a competent ice climber.  Be leery of those who talk too much. Preferably you go out with some one you might know from rock or gym climbing. You will still need to rent some gear unless your friend has boots your size, but ski boots can work for the first time out. Apart from that you should be able to share all other gear as long as you have a harness and a helmet. Desire and enthusiasm go a long way when it comes to learning to ice climb on a budget.

Matt Ritter | New Hampshire 2016
Ambassador Matt Ritter on Dropline (W15) in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire | Photo: Brian Threlkeld

Coming back for more

If you had a good time, odds are you’ll soon want to buy your own gear. You don’t need the newest stuff to go climbing. Look for sales at your local shop, and if you’re only looking to get out a few times a year, you can also stick with guide services and ice festivals, which typically provide all necessary gear.

Best locations in America:

The “best” anything lists are open to opinion, and on this list you are being subjected to mine. Nonetheless, it can be unanimously agreed upon by most ice climbers in North America that Canada has some of the best ice climbing on the continent. Most of it requires a substantial bit of driving and longer approaches, but it’s all well worth it.

In the lower 48 it all depends on what you like. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Hyalite Canyon and Cody, Wyo.) arguably contains the best concentration of ice climbing in the United States (full disclosure: I am a bit biased). Hyalite and Cody are both within four hours of each other, and there are a plethora of areas in between that have never made it in to any guidebooks. One of the most accessible of the top ice climbing destinations is Hyalite Canyon, Montana.

Direct flights are available to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport from all over the country. From the airport it is 15 minutes to town and less than 45 minutes to Hyalite Canyon.   This makes it feasible for most folks to make even a three-day trip. Climbers often fly in on a Friday, climb with us Saturday and Sunday, and then fly out that evening or early Monday morning.   Hyalite canyon contains nearly 200 routes with something for everyone, from beginners to advanced.   Most climbs in Hyalite have 10- to 30-minute approaches.

Most other locations in the United States require substantial logistics with flights and driving, but they all have their own charm. And if they are closer to your home, it’s a no-brainer where to begin learning to ice climb. The other heavy hitter American ice climbing venues are: Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Lake Willoughby, Vermont and Ouray, Colorado, among others.

Sam Magro has been teaching ice-climbing courses, guiding, and climbing for over 15 years. He is the owner and lead climbing guide for Montana Alpine Guides, based in Bozeman, MT. Montana Alpine Guides (MAG) runs ice climbing courses and private guiding through out the winter in Hyalite Canyon and Cody, Wyo. MAG also runs rock trips, mountain trips, and backcountry ski trips in and around Yellowstone NP, MT, Wyo., and abroad. When not working Sam spends his time climbing or skiing on his own with good friends and his family in and around his home in Bozeman and other beautiful crevices of the globe. He has made numerous first ascents on rock, ice, and in the mountains. The lure of the new and unknown keeps his attention and enthusiasm in all disciplines of climbing, that and good people to share it with.