Mountain Project Logo

SLC climber needing advice on learning alpine ice

Original Post
Ryan Arnold · · SLC · Joined Jun 2012 · Points: 596

I'm planning a trip up Rainier in June.  I have two experienced and competent partners and we're hoping to hit Liberty Ridge.  I have a lot of rock climbing, big walling, and backcountry skiing experience but I've never climbed a single pitch of ice.  I want to be able to pull my weight on the ice with leading, anchors...  or at minimum have a basic competence. I should be able to climb/toprope a lot this season before June, but I also hope to get a solid education through a guide service.  I could use some additional instruction on glacier travel as well.  I have a full week in January to dedicate to classes and practice, on top of more scattered days and weekends.

Options:
1. Piece together a local (SLC) experience with the guide services here.  Probably no true alpine ice but maybe I can get what I need over several days.
2. Travel to Denver or California for a few days of ice climbing.  For example, this class in Lee Vining: https://www.internationalalpineguides.com/intro-ice-climbing
3. Travel to Washington or similar to do a full alpine ice course with a summit, such as on Mt Baker: http://www.alpineinstitute.com/catalog/alpine-ice-climbing-introduction/
4. Other... ?

Appreciate specific recommendations for guide services or instructors as well.  Thanks for your help.

Derek DeBruin · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2010 · Points: 620

Baker would be good prep for Rainier if you'd like to go that route, but not sure if the Institute will have anything running in May before your June trip. (Btw, June can be getting late for the lib ridge; hopefully you're going on the earlier end of it.)

Local guide services can teach you how to rope up for glacier travel and about haul systems, etc. for crevasse extraction, but it's close to impossible to learn how to navigate a glacier without being on glacier.

There's not a huge difference in climbing alpine ice vs. waterfall ice. Get on as much ice as you can this winter as the skills will definitely translate.

The lib ridge also has plenty of snow climbing on it. Booting steep couloirs like you do backcountry skiing is pretty good practice, too.

climb 2 smile · · Draper, UT · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 175

What Derek said.  Also train your legs for whatever elevation gain and loss you expect on your longest day.  I haven't done Liberty yet but have been on Emmons twice.

On Liberty I believe it is approximately 10,000 feet from Thumb Rock to Camp Schurman / Camp Curtis and ~15,000' all the way down to White River.  Doing Everest ridge on Timp car to car (~10K) is an OK simulation of stopping at Schurman.

I try to keep my wheels rust free so if you need a local to do some long days and ice climbing with let me know.

Thomas G. · · SLC, UT · Joined Feb 2010 · Points: 195

A great option for doing Liberty is climbing the Kautz first as a training route - that's what my partner and I did. It's not as long, committing, or technical, but it gives you good experience of doing an up and over route on Rainier.

Like others have said, there is a ton of steep snow on Liberty, and (depending on the year) not so much ice - we did it on an 'icy' year, and found 500-600 feet of Alpine ice above the black pyramid. The ice was relatively easy, but at 13k feet, with a 40lb pack, it was still an endeavor.

If I were you I would use routes like Everest Ridge, the Triple Traverse, and the Great White Icecicle to train, and then maybe do an easier route (N. Ridge Baker/Kautz) as a training route. Also given the recent rockfall event at Thumb Rock, I would not bivy there any longer (which means a brutal long day from the Carbon to the Summit).

Kyle Tarry · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 316

Ryan, in my opinion it may be inappropriate to attempt Liberty Ridge with less than 6 months ice climbing experience.  I am sure it can be done, and others may disagree, but that's my opinion.  While the climbing is not very technical by modern standards, it is variable, exposed, long, and high.  You should expect to be soloing and/or simulclimbing easy alpine ice while wearing a pack, which I don't think is appropriate for a newer ice climber.  Consider something like the Kautz glacier, which is still an awesome adventure and would be a good introduction.

Parties regularly get in over their heads on that route and epic, get rescued, or (sadly) perish.  Consider the party last year that spent 4 days up there and was miraculously plucked by a chopper in a tiny weather window, as a result of slow climbing and poor decisions, and members in that group had climbed that route before.  Use abundant caution.

With regard to leading, note that Will Gadd talks about TRing 150 pitches of ice before leading.  I don't necessarily subscribe to using a firm fixed number for this, but the point is that it takes time to build up the movement skills for ice, perhaps more time that you're likely to get in a single season.

Brian in SLC · · Sandy, Utah · Joined Oct 2003 · Points: 16,181

Hmm.  IMHO, you'd have to get in a gob of ice climbing and feel pretty comfy on WI2/WI3 prior to being able to contribute to leading on any alpine ice on the LIberty Ridge.

Placing anchors, self arrest, negotiating alpine terrain (including crevasse avoidance)...all should be gained on a few seasons of fairly rigorous experience in the alpine prior to a Liberty Ridge attempt.

A number of days out ice climbing with a mentor (or a guide) and your Mount Baker skills option above might work.  But really, your experienced friends will pretty much be carrying the load on this gig.

Maybe I'm a slow learner, but, when I did the Liberty Ridge, I'd been ice climbing, and routinely soloing WI3, for around 10 years.  Also had a fair amount of glacier experience prior.  So, the technical climbing on the ridge was a snap.  What can be hard are the weather and conditions.  Having margin with some technical skills will make the rest of the challenges reasonable, not a continuously stacking house of cards.

Good to have goals, though.  Cheers!

Mr. Southfork · · Roberts, MT · Joined Feb 2014 · Points: 0
Brian in SLC wrote: 
A number of days out ice climbing with a mentor (or a guide) and your Mount Baker skills option above might work.  But really, your experienced friends will pretty much be carrying the load on this gig.

Climbed this in late August of 1991. I found the approach to be the crux! My partner and I felt very committed because we did not want to reverse the maze of crevasses. I agree with the above... North Ridge of Baker for a warm up after as many ice laps as possible his winter. 

Ryan Arnold · · SLC · Joined Jun 2012 · Points: 596

I welcome the words of caution from Kyle and Brian.  Please keep the good info coming.  I'm uninitiated here so I'll take all the perspectives I can get.  I'd also love to hear from people who have received formal guide training and might recommend a service.

sandrock · · Colorado · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 115

I would second doing the Kuatz first before attempting Liberty. It is a great stepping stone towards Liberty, has some great ice pitches and is still a stellar route. I did it a year or so before Liberty.  

For Liberty you need to be very comfortable on all types of ice conditions, from AI2-WI3.  If you're comfortable simul-climbing this ice it'll greatly increase your speed and safety on the Ridge. As mentioned above, I do not believe camping at Thumb Rock is safe anymore. You should be strong enough to climb the Ridge starting on the Carbon to Liberty Cap in one push, with a full pack.  We attempted Liberty this summer, five days after that guy was killed in his tent on Thumb Rock, made it to the base of the Ridge and their was softball size rocks constantly shooting down. This could have been a fluke season, but the window and safety to climb this route is getting smaller and smaller.

In terms of training, drive to the Ouray Ice Park in Colorado. Spend 4-5 days climbing ice with your team. If they don't want to go then hire Peak Mountain Guides. They are a fantastic guide company in Ouray and will tailor to exactly what you want to learn, ask for Pete Lardy as your guide (he climbed Liberty Ridge car to car under 24 hours). Get as many laps of ice climbing in the Ice Park as you can, its not hard to get 10+ climbs in one day. If you use Peak Guides they can take you for some backcountry ice as well, and can specifically practice ice anchors, rigging, simul-climbing, and anything else you'll need on Liberty. The Ouray/Silverton area has something like 200-300 ice routes. You'll get the most bang for your buck going there. It is also very easy to rope solo in the Ice Park, you could do this one day to save some money then hire a guide the other days.

Roots · · Wherever I am · Joined Dec 2010 · Points: 20

Get some instruction and TR some routes. You'll be easily ready for AI2 and 3.

Scot Hastings · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Apr 2013 · Points: 35

+1 for Ouray.  You can easily get 10+ pitches in a day there.  Just make sure you avoid the Ice Festival as it's a zoo during that time.

Beyond that, pick up Beehive Ice.  I think you'd be surprised how much ice is around SLC.

I'm in SLC as well and looking to get out a bunch this December and January.  Shoot me a PM if you'd like to meet up.

Allen Sanderson · · On the road to perdition · Joined Jul 2007 · Points: 1,188

You have no business even thinking about Liberty Ridge without any experience with alpine snow/ice climbing. Further, you have no business on the Carbon Glacier without without any experience with glacier travel. In short you would simply be an accident waiting to happen regardless of how experienced your partners may have. You are not going to get the experience needed in the next 6 months. Further, you are not going to get the experience you need from climbing vertical ice. There is big difference between the techniques for vertical ice and continuously and competently moving on lower angled snow/névé/ice.

As for the suggestions of dong the Kautz on Rainier or N. Ridge of Baker, you are not even ready for that, Furher Finger on Rainer would be a good first option so to learn to continuously move on steeper ground with a bit of glacier travel tossed in. Often over looked is Mt. Hood as it has multiple good steeper alpine routes such as Lethold, Reid, and Sandy. If you want a route to give yourself a wee taste of what it is like on part of the upper reaches of Liberty Ridge do Coppers Spur. Technically easy but a fall will send you bum sliding for your life.

The unfortunate part about Utah is the good couloirs do not come into shape until late spring after some good freeze thaw cycles. The AAI week long courses are a very good intro to alpine terrain. Take it and then spend the next couple of years building a descent alpine resumé it will make doing Liberty more enjoyable.

kgray · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2014 · Points: 0

Liberty Ridge is mostly vertical backpacking with a little bit of alpine ice in the middle. However, on every inch of it the consequences of screwing it up are enormous, otherwise it's pretty easy. The bigger challenge for me was the altitude, sheer freaking size, and complexity involved in glacial approach/decent logistics. Rainer sticks up so high, and is so alone, that it often has its own weather thing going on. And bad weather there is more than just 'bad'...  
The math is simple; assuming competence in snow climbing, ice climbing, and crevasse rescue, and in the presence of favorable conditions, how fast and for how long, can you kick steps and front point up 45 degree snow/ice with 40 lbs on your back? 10,000 feet is a very long way. Speed is safety in all alpine situations and it can't be overstated for this route.

IMHO - There are lots and lots of beautiful alpine climbs in the Cascades, at all sizes, grades and commitment levels. They're just not on the volcanos, which for the most part are loose, funky and dangerous.

But, if Rainer is the goal, and you'd feel better with a guide, RMI is an excellent group and comes recommended. Good luck and have a nice time.

Artem Vasilyev · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2014 · Points: 95
kgray wrote: Liberty Ridge is mostly vertical backpacking with a little bit of alpine ice in the middle. However, on every inch of it the consequences of screwing it up are enormous, otherwise it's pretty easy. The bigger challenge for me was the altitude, sheer freaking size, and complexity involved in glacial approach/decent logistics. Rainer sticks up so high, and is so alone, that it often has its own weather thing going on. And bad weather there is more than just 'bad'...  
The math is simple; assuming competence in snow climbing, ice climbing, and crevasse rescue, and in the presence of favorable conditions, how fast and for how long, can you kick steps and front point up 45 degree snow/ice with 40 lbs on your back? 10,000 feet is a very long ways. Speed is safety in all alpine situations and can't be overstated for this route.

IMHO - There are lots and lots of beautiful alpine climbs in the Cascades, at all sizes, grades and commitment levels. They're just not on the volcanos, which for the most part are loose, funky and dangerous.

But, if Rainer is the goal, and you'd feel better with a guide, RMI is an excellent group and comes recommended. Good luck and have a nice time.

Curious - what gear are you carrying that sums up to 40lbs? Not sure if I'd ever want to climb with that much weight on me. 


Responding to another poster - about the Will Gadd advice on 150 pitches of ice on TR before leading.... I suppose that depends on your prior climbing experience and skill. I lead my first pitch of ice after TRing ~ 5 pitches of ice up to WI6 and soloing ~ 1,000 feet of WI1/2. The pitch I lead was WI3 and felt mellow and uneventfful. I was able to TR ~ 50 ft of WI5 relatively easily without a serious pump right after this pitch.

I personally would not want to push it in this arena (i.e. I don't want to lead WI4 or WI5 until I have a fair amount of TR practice to gauge sub-par ice conditions and experience placing ice screws under my belt) - but I don't think that there is much remarkable about leading easy ice assuming good conditions - given that you are a solid climber to begin with.

The real danger is being green with reading conditions on route imo. You can be a strong climber, but if the terrain you are climbing is disintegrating - you'll fall just the same as anybody else. This is where having experienced partners to point out hazardous conditions to you is very valuable. Additionally, it's better to make newbie mistakes on TR (catching your crampons on each other, having your crampons lever off your foot, tripping from hitting your pant leg with your 'pons, having a tool or front point blow on you from sloppy technique, etc) than on lead - where a fall would almost certainly be very, very, bad. 
kgray · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2014 · Points: 0
Artem Vasilyev wrote:

Curious - what gear are you carrying that sums up to 40lbs? Not sure if I'd ever want to climb with that much weight on me. 

You're right, that is a bad number. More like half that or perhaps a little more. It depends on where, how and if you'll be spending the night. Bon Temps!

Nick Sweeney · · Spokane, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 777

Ryan, Liberty is a crazy cool objective and a great goal to work towards.  Liberty Ridge was my first route on Rainier and it went smoothly for us, thanks to years of preparation.  Here's some quick notes:

  • One commenter mentioned that after top roping some ice routes, you'll be ready to climb AI2-3.  This is partially true - climbing a pitch of AI2 is easy.  However, Liberty Ridge is best done with little or no belayed climbing - you should be able to effectively solo/simulclimb hundreds (or more) of feet of AI2-3 to make the route go smoothly and quickly.  There are many objective dangers on Liberty Ridge, it's not the place to have your friends rope-gun you. That said, people are guided up Liberty Ridge every year.
  • There will be very little skill transfer between steep ice climbing in Ouray and climbing alpine ice on Liberty Ridge.
  • The Carbon Glacier is no joke and everyone knows this.  However, the other glaciers deserve respect.  Both of my partners for a Ptarmigan Ridge attempt this year fell into a crevasse on the Winthrop, which is fairly benign.  Your glacier skills need to be dialed for Liberty.
  • The Mt Baker course would likely be your best way to prepare for Liberty Ridge.  Some instruction and practice with ice climbing beforehand would be a big help. Even with this prep, I would be surprised if you are able to "pull your weight" with the leading on Liberty.
  • These days, Liberty is often falling apart by mid June.  You may consider going for a May ascent.
  • Some consider the Thumb Rock bivy too dangerous to sleep at due to rockfall hazard.  We had multiple rocks roll through camp in 2018, and there was a fatality there (along with multiple serious injuries) this year.  You may consider skipping this bivy and committing to a mega summit day, which would be a way to mitigate some objective hazard.
Kyle Tarry · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 316
Artem Vasilyev wrote: 

Curious - what gear are you carrying that sums up to 40lbs? Not sure if I'd ever want to climb with that much weight on me. 

For what it's worth, my LR pack was about 30 pounds leaving the parking lot.  When you're on route, lots of that stuff is out of the bag (crampons, harness, ropes, axes, etc.) so the bag itself is a lot lighter, but you've still got to pull that stuff up and over.  Highlights:

  • 8 pounds for pack and sleep system
  • 3 pounds of clothing
  • 8 pounds of food and water
  • 10 pounds of technical climbing equipment (including personal stuff like harness, axes, crampons and a portion of the group gear)

(This is probably lighter than average)
Artem Vasilyev · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2014 · Points: 95
Kyle Tarry wrote:

For what it's worth, my LR pack was about 30 pounds leaving the parking lot.  When you're on route, lots of that stuff is out of the bag (crampons, harness, ropes, axes, etc.) so the bag itself is a lot lighter, but you've still got to pull that stuff up and over.  Highlights:

  • 8 pounds for pack and sleep system
  • 3 pounds of clothing
  • 8 pounds of food and water
  • 10 pounds of technical climbing equipment (including personal stuff like harness, axes, crampons and a portion of the group gear)

(This is probably lighter than average)

Makes sense - thanks for the break down! I had originally pictured this weight without the harness, screws/pickets, tools, and crampons. I was trying to do the math thinking that this was rope+food/water+bivy gear. 

Kyle Tarry · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 316
Artem Vasilyev wrote:

Responding to another poster - about the Will Gadd advice on 150 pitches of ice on TR before leading.... I suppose that depends on your prior climbing experience and skill. I lead my first pitch of ice after TRing ~ 5 pitches of ice up to WI6 and soloing ~ 1,000 feet of WI1/2. The pitch I lead was WI3 and felt mellow and uneventfful. I was able to TR ~ 50 ft of WI5 relatively easily without a serious pump right after this pitch.


I personally would not want to push it in this arena (i.e. I don't want to lead WI4 or WI5 until I have a fair amount of TR practice to gauge sub-par ice conditions and experience placing ice screws under my belt) - but I don't think that there is much remarkable about leading easy ice assuming good conditions - given that you are a solid climber to begin with.

I would recommend that a beginning ice climber listen to Will Gadd, and not some guy on the internet who lead a WI3 once and didn't fall off.  That's how people get hurt.

Artem Vasilyev · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2014 · Points: 95
Kyle Tarry wrote:

I would recommend that a beginning ice climber listen to Will Gadd, and not some guy on the internet who lead a WI3 once and didn't fall off.  That's how people get hurt.

I'm not suggesting my advice over Will Gadd's - I'm simply cautioning that this can vary depend on your pre-existing skillset. While it is better to rehearse and reduce risk as much as possible, it is also worthwhile to point out that it is not necessarily suicide to progress to your comfort level. Obviously, the risk of going in over your head without much experience is higher - which is why it's advisable not to push it too much too early. 

Generally speaking - I found that ice climbing movement was relatively simple and similar to movement used with rock climbing (to the contrary of what I was told). I think I would be bored out of my mind if I were to TR 150 pitches before leading any... that's several seasons of ice climbing for most. I seriously doubt that you, or anybody in this thread actually waited that long. 

That being said - I wouldn't fault somebody for doing so. Safety is paramount and ice climbing isn't the place to barely eek out a lead. 

Final note - we'll probably run into each other at some point, given that we're both in the Portland area. You can be the judge of my approach to climbing and skillset when that happens.
Thomas G. · · SLC, UT · Joined Feb 2010 · Points: 195
For what it's worth, my LR pack was about 30 pounds leaving the parking lot.  When you're on route, lots of that stuff is out of the bag (crampons, harness, ropes, axes, etc.) so the bag itself is a lot lighter, but you've still got to pull that stuff up and over.  Highlights:
  • 8 pounds for pack and sleep system
  • 3 pounds of clothing
  • 8 pounds of food and water
  • 10 pounds of technical climbing equipment (including personal stuff like harness, axes, crampons and a portion of the group gear)
(This is probably lighter than average)

I think this is much lighter than average, but I could be wrong. If I had to guess, our pack weights were probably 35lbs, but I don't have an accurate measurement. Maybe less. I just felt bad for the guys who were on the ridge with us hauling up big old North Face expedition tents that each weighed 11lbs. 
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Ice Climbing
Post a Reply to "SLC climber needing advice on learning alpine ice"

Log In to Reply