Ascending the Frozen Heights: Traditional vs Inclined Ice Climbing Explained.

Ascending the Frozen Heights: Traditional vs Inclined Ice Climbing Explained.


Ice climbing is a thrilling and challenging sport that involves ascending frozen ice formations using specialized equipment. It requires strength, endurance, and skill, making it a popular activity among adventurous individuals who are always seeking new challenges.

For many, the adrenaline rush that comes with climbing up a frozen waterfall or glacier is simply unmatched. However, not all ice climbing is the same.

Different techniques and equipment are used depending on the type of ice surface being climbed. In this article, we will explore the differences between traditional and inclined ice climbing to give you a better understanding of what each entails.

A Brief Explanation of Ice Climbing as a Sport

Ice climbing involves scaling vertical or near-vertical ice formations using specialized equipment such as crampons, ice axes, ropes, harnesses and helmets. The objective is to climb up the formation without falling or losing control by digging in one’s crampons and driving an axe into the ice for support. Ice climbers face numerous challenges including unpredictable weather conditions such as snowfall or sudden temperature changes which can affect the quality of the ice surface.

They also have to contend with fatigue due to physical exertion from constantly pulling themselves up using their upper body strength while ensuring proper footholds with their crampons. Despite these challenges, many climbers find the sport exhilarating due to its difficulty level that tests both physical and mental fortitude.

The Importance of Understanding the Difference Between Traditional and Inclined Ice Climbing

Understanding traditional versus inclined ice climbing is essential for anyone wanting to take part in this sport. While both involve ascending frozen surfaces using specialized gear like crampons and axes; traditional climbs consist mostly of natural formations like glaciers while inclined climbs include artificially made structures such as walls in indoor facilities.

Knowing these differences will help you choose which type of climb suits your experience level best since you can get started with either one depending on your preference. It is also important to understand which equipment and techniques are required for each type of climb as well as the pros and cons of each approach which we will explore in further detail later in this article.

Traditional Ice Climbing

Definition and Characteristics

Traditional ice climbing is the original form of ice climbing. It involves ascending frozen waterfalls and ice formations using specialized equipment such as ice axes, crampons, and ropes. Traditional ice climbing routes are typically found in colder climates where waterfalls freeze over in the winter months.

The routes vary in difficulty depending on the incline of the ice surface and other factors such as temperature, wind, and snowfall. One of the defining characteristics of traditional ice climbing is that it requires a great deal of physical strength and endurance.

It’s not uncommon for climbers to use every muscle in their body to ascend even simple routes. In addition to physical strength, traditional ice climbers must also have a strong mental game because falls can be dangerous or even fatal.

Equipment needed (ice axes, crampons, ropes)

Ice axes are one of the most important pieces of equipment used in traditional ice climbing. They are designed to be swung into the surface of the ice to provide both leverage and stability while ascending a route.

Crampons are another essential piece of equipment used for traction on icy surfaces. These pointed attachments fit onto the bottom of mountaineering boots and allow for secure footing when front-pointing or flat-footing up an incline.

Harnesses are also necessary for traditional climbers as they provide a way to attach oneself to a rope or anchor point at all times during an ascent. Ropes can either be used as protection while leading up pitches or set up as top-rope anchors from above.

Techniques used (front-pointing, flat-footing)

There are two main techniques that climbers use when ascending traditional routes: front-pointing and flat-footing. Front-pointing involves kicking your crampon points into the vertical face while keeping your heels down towards your butt before swinging your ice axe above your head and repeating the process. Flat-footing, on the other hand, involves using your crampon points in a horizontal fashion to edge along the surface of the ice.

Both techniques require balance, strength, and focus to execute properly. As a climber advances in skill level, they will likely use a combination of both techniques on any given route.

Examples of Popular Traditional Ice Climbing Routes

One of the most famous traditional ice routes in North America is called The Weeping Wall. Located in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, this 1,000ft frozen waterfall has been climbed by some of the best climbers in the world. Another popular destination for traditional ice climbers is Ouray Ice Park in Colorado.

This park is home to over 200 ice and mixed routes ranging from beginner-friendly to expert level. Another classic destination for traditional ice climbing is Hyalite Canyon near Bozeman Montana which hosts over 200+ routes including The Mummy and Winter Dance.

Inclined Ice Climbing

Definition and Characteristics

Inclined ice climbing, also known as waterfall ice climbing, involves climbing frozen waterfalls, ice pillars or other steep ice features. Unlike traditional ice climbing which is done on low-angle terrain such as glaciers and snowfields, inclined ice climbing takes place on steep vertical or overhanging ice surfaces.

The ice surfaces can range from a few feet to hundreds of feet in height, and the challenge of the climb increases with the angle of the surface. Inclined ice climbing requires a combination of technical skills and physical strength.

It demands precise footwork and efficient use of tools to swing into the hard ice surface without causing excessive damage to it. Climbers must also be able to balance their weight against gravity while using their muscles to move upwards.

Equipment Needed

To safely engage in inclined ice climbing, climbers require specialized gear that can withstand extreme conditions and provide adequate protection against falls or other hazards. Key pieces of equipment include: – Ice Screws: Used to create anchors by drilling into the hard snow or frozen water.

– Harnesses: Provides support for the climber’s body weight while attached to ropes. – Helmets: Protects against falling debris and impacts from tools.

– Crampons: Provide traction on icy surfaces – Ice Axes: Used for balance and control during ascents

Climbers must ensure that their gear is well-maintained before embarking on any climb. Faulty equipment may lead to life-threatening accidents.

Techniques Used

Unlike traditional climbing techniques, inclined climbers use two main techniques – The French technique and The American technique – both named after their country of origin. The French Technique involves keeping both feet facing straight forward while kicking them into the wall repeatedly while pulling yourself up with one hand on your tool and the other on your ice axe. This method requires more strength than the American technique, but it allows for more precision when climbing.

The American Technique involves kicking one foot inwards to create a “step” while keeping the other foot parallel with the wall before pulling yourself up with both hands. This technique is less strenuous on climbers, but it requires more technical skill to master.

Some of the most popular inclined ice climbing routes include The Rigid Designator in Ouray, Colorado and The Fang in Vail, Colorado. Both of these routes offer steep vertical climbs that require a combination of physical strength and technical skills to ascend successfully.

Differences between Traditional and Inclined Ice Climbing

Gradient of the ice surface

One of the main differences between traditional and inclined ice climbing is the gradient of the ice surface. Traditional ice climbing routes tend to be more vertical, with a steep incline that requires the climber to use their arms and legs to pull themselves up.

Inclined ice climbing routes, on the other hand, tend to have a smaller gradient, allowing for more horizontal movement along the slope of the ice. This difference in gradient can affect both the equipment needed and techniques used in each type of climbing.

Traditional climbers will often use front-pointing techniques to drive their crampons into the ice and gain traction as they climb up vertical walls. Inclined climbers may use different techniques such as French or American technique, which rely more on body positioning and weight distribution than pure strength.

Types of equipment used

Traditional and inclined ice climbing also differ in terms of equipment used. Traditional climbers typically use heavier gear such as larger ice axes and thicker ropes that can support their weight as they make their way up steep inclines. They may also need additional protection like pitons or bolts placed into rock faces for extra support.

Inclined climbers will typically carry lighter gear that allows them to move more easily along less steep terrain. This may include shorter, lighter-weight ice axes that can be swung with greater precision or specialized screws designed specifically for inclined climbs.

Techniques employed

Traditional and inclined climbers will employ different techniques based on their chosen style of climbing. As mentioned earlier, traditional climbers will often use front-pointing techniques where they drive crampons into the ice to gain traction while ascending vertical walls.

Inclined climbers may use techniques like French or American technique depending on their preferences and experience levels. French technique involves using two ice axes to climb up inclined surfaces, while American technique relies on body positioning and weight distribution to move along the slope of the ice.

Both techniques require a great deal of skill and practice to master but can be highly effective for climbers who prefer inclined routes. Understanding these differences between traditional and inclined ice climbing is crucial for anyone looking to get into this unique sport.

Depending on your preferences and experience level, you may find one style of climbing more appealing than the other. With the right training and equipment, however, both types of climbing can be incredibly rewarding experiences that push your limits physically and mentally.

Pros and Cons of Traditional vs Inclined Ice Climbing

Traditional Ice Climbing

Ice climbing is a sport that requires a certain level of skill, strength, and endurance. Traditional ice climbing is perfect for those who are just starting out in the sport.

It involves using ice axes, crampons, ropes, and basic techniques like front-pointing and flat-footing. One of the biggest benefits of traditional ice climbing is that it is more natural and intuitive than inclined ice climbing.

Traditional ice climbing routes are usually found in areas with a lower gradient. This means that they are limited to certain types of terrain.

It also means that climbers will need to have more strength and endurance in order to successfully complete these routes. However, traditional ice climbing equipment is less expensive than what’s needed for inclined ice climbs.

Inclined Ice Climbing

Inclined ice climbing involves more technical skills than traditional ice climbing but has its own set of advantages. One major benefit of inclined ice climbing is that it allows climbers to tackle steeper climbs and traverse more versatile terrain.

This type of climb requires specialized equipment such as harnesses, helmets, and most importantly – ice screws. Inclined climbers use advanced techniques like the French technique or the American technique which require a lot more technical expertise than traditional techniques like front-pointing or flat-footing.

Although this may be seen as a negative aspect because beginners may find it overwhelming at first; practicing these technical skills over time can make one an expert climber. However, this type of climb also comes with cons such as requiring more expensive equipment when compared with traditional climbs because specialized gear ensures safety during the climb.


Despite their differences, both traditional and inclined forms of ice-climbing provide unique experiences for enthusiasts seeking adventure on icy surfaces. Traditional forms offer an intuitive approach to climbing and a more accessible entry point, with less intense physical requirements.

Inclined forms offer more technical skills and allow for climbers to traverse steeper terrain, however require more financial investment. Whether you prefer traditional or inclined ice climbing, it is important to realize that both types of ice climbing have their pros and cons.

The most important thing is to find the style that suits you best and make sure you are well-equipped and properly trained before hitting the ice. No matter which type of climb you choose, ice-climbing can be a thrilling adventure that will push your limits both physically and mentally.