Ice Climbing 101


Our two-day introductory ice course is perfect for the first time ice climber and/or mountaineer looking to expand their skills. Only $405 for 2 full days of instruction. If you want to beat the crowds and get an even better price at $360, check out our midweek dates!

This course has a minimum of 3 to run at the prices and dates listed with a maximum guiding ratio of 4:1 and max group size of 8 climbers. We are happy to arrange this course or similar for you on a custom private basis. Click here for details and reservations.


Ice Climbing 101

photo: Ken Etzel

photo: Ken Etzel

Frozen waterfall ice climbing is like nothing else you can do in winter… or in life. It is completely counter-intuitive for our species to climb waterfalls in winter, but that might be what makes it such an addictive activity. With modern equipment, the learning curve is steep, like the ice, and you will be amazed at how quickly you will find yourself scaling the ice efficiently and with heat enjoyment. Our introductory 2-day Ice 101 course is the perfect introduction to the ephemeral world of frozen waterfall ice climbing, at a great price. Our venues are Horsetail Falls in June Lake and Lee Vining Canyon. We have the best gear in the area with rental boots and top of the line technical ice crampons and tools from CAMP/Cassin, all included in the price of the course!

TRIP ITINERARY: Ice Climbing 101*
Horsetail Falls, June Lake

Horsetail Falls, June Lake

We generally meet after an early breakfast in the warm comforts of our June Mountain office and Backcountry Ski Center. Get geared up for the day with our state of the art technical ice climbing equipment. We have the best rental ice equipment in California and rental costs are included in the price! We will drive from there either to Horsetail Falls or Lee Vining Canyon. Location varies with conditions and the group. On Day 1 we review climbing safety systems, knots, rope handling, belaying, systems check, and communication. Our AMGA trained and certified guides teach the basics of footwork with crampons, from French technique to frontpointing. Next is the art of tool swing and placement. Pretty soon you are off and climbing ice. We give you customized coaching and challenge you with exercises to help target your most needed areas of improvement. By the end of the day you will have a lot to smile about and reflect upon. Get some rest for Day 2!
Lee Vining Canyon. photo: Ken Etzel

Lee Vining Canyon.
photo: Ken Etzel

The next day we go to a new location (conditions permitting) and quickly get on some steeper ice, which pushes you to apply the techniques learned on Day 1. Learn to relax muscles that need to relax and continue working on climbing efficiency with expert, personal coaching from our guides. Learn to ascend with fewer tool placements and crampon kicks. Learn the tricks for removing tools more easily. Learn to get rests on the go. Try 1 tool exercises that demand balance and footwork over strength. At some point in the day we will engage you with clinic on ice screw placement, removal, and racking so you will be prepared with the skills to try being the second climber on a multi-pitch ice climb in the future. This will set you up for seconding any ice climb the Sierra has to offer, in any season, and is a great primer for popular, accessible ice climbing venues like Ouray's Ice Park and Canada's roadside winter ice climbs.
 * Please be prepared for Plan B:  Sierra Mountain weather does not care that you have scheduled an ice climbing weekend. It is always good to have a "plan B" when making deals with mountains. We highly recommend trip insurance that covers the possibility of road closures from Sierra storms affecting access to ice climbing. We do not cancel courses for inclement weather or other conditions that may limit or prevent ice climbing. Such conditions are extremely rare in our experience, but mountain weather and conditions can vary with little warning from way too warm to way too stormy in a matter of hours or days. Although we wish it was otherwise, we cannot control nature. Trip insurance may or may not cover circumstances where roads are still open but the risks of accessing ice climbing are still too great. Check this with any potential insurance provider. As for all of our guided mountain programs, we do not guarantee any itinerary exactly as suggested and we will not generally be able to cancel, reschedule, or refund your course fees beyond the terms of our deposit and cancellation policy. Without trip insurance, Plan B is that you will be entitled to these scheduled dates with our top-notch guides, who can offer you an alternative plan that may include: rock climbing (with climbing shoes and all other gear provided), "dry-tooling" skills training on rock with ice gear, other technical climbing skills training, technical rescue training, avalanche awareness training, or other guided mountain activities that may be of interest to the group as conditions allow. If major winter storms prevent ice climbing, and you are willing to add the costs of rentals, we may be able to arrange backcountry skiing or snowboarding with a guide, as the conditions could be excellent. Thank you for your understanding about these uncertainties, and welcome to the wonderful world of alpinism. This might just be the most important and useful lesson of your climbing course! 

Here are some frequently asked questions:

So, what is ice climbing exactly?

It's the craziest thing to be honest! Climbing on a medium that is here today, gone tomorrow is a wild adventure, but an amazing experience given the ever changing colors and textures of the ice and adjacent rock.

Is ice climbing dangerous?

Yes and no. Ice is a notch up the hazard scale from rock climbing given all the sharp tools (crampons, ice tools, ice screws) and the ice medium that changes constantly. Ice falls and it can be dangerous too. Our ice guides have the training and experience to assess and manage these risks using skills, instruction, equipment, and group management.

How do I climb up the ice?

It is counter-intuitive that sharp steel can so easily be penetrated less than an inch into the ice, yet is easily strong enough to hold your entire bodyweight. With the right technique and an open mind, learning to climb ice is often even easier than learning to climb on rock or at a climbing gym. If you have pent up aggression, you will be fully serene and content after a few rounds kicking and swinging.

Do you have to be a rock climber to be an ice climber?

The answer is no. Many of the people we see in courses have prior rock climbing experience and are looking to enhance their experience as a climber in winter, but the skills are quite different. Rock climbers often have to un-learn some things about movement and position to make ice climbing work for them. Often first-time climbers do just as well as experienced rock climbers. Comfort and familiarity with climbing safety systems does tend to help people to focus on the ice climbing and climbing's engaging of core and stabilizing muscles are similar on rock and ice. So rock climbing certainly doesn't hurt!

Do I need to have my own ice climbing gear?

No. The complete rental kit - boots, crampons, ice tools, helmets, and harnesses - is included in the price of this course. Let us know your boot size in advance so we can reserve your size. Feel free to bring your own if you already have them.

What if there is a lot of snow? Do we need snowshoes or skis?

If we need to use snowshoes for the approach the guide will let you know. Feel free to bring your own if you have them. Otherwise, we will provide them for you at no additional charge on this program.

Where do we meet, and where should I stay for this course?

The meeting place does vary and you will need transportation to get around a bit. The office will send you the information when you reserve the course, and your guide will assess conditions and contact you a few days before the course start date to confirm the location. Generally we like to meet close to June Lake at the base of June Mountain where we have a satellite office. There, we can get you set up in relative comfort with the gear you need and we can head up to Horsetail Falls to minimize the driving for Day 1. Sometimes when conditions dictate, the guides prefer to meet in June Lake and then drive to Lee Vining, or just meet people in Lee Vining, then we carpool up to Lee Vining Canyon. So the two best places to base from are either the town of June Lake or the town of Lee Vining. June Lake and Lee Vining are around 20 miles away from each other, each with their own climbing location nearby, so there is a bit of driving at some point wherever you stay. Be prepared for winter mountain driving conditions and let us know in advance if you have any issues with that logistic . Ask for lodging discounts in both locations for being an ice climber with Sierra Mountain Guides. Lee Vining probably has slightly more economical options, but June Lake has a wider range of accommodations and better food options. Treat yourself at the Double Eagle Resort and Spa while you are in town for food and/or relaxation!

What are the benefits of hiring a guide to take me ice climbing? 

Given the complexities of ice climbing, a guide can manage the risk, maximize the fun, access the best climbs, hang the ropes, accelerate the learning curve, let you try modern ice gear before you buy, be able to read the quality/stability of the ice, navigate the crowds at busy times, and so much more!


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