Early Season Ice Climbing

Nathan Smith on an October ascent of Golden Spike WI4 M5, Uintas, Utah.

Don't wait for the ice to come to you, go chase it down. Nathan Smith, Liberty Mountain employee and author of the Utah ice climbing guide, Beehive Ice, shares his tried and true tactics for jump starting the ice climbing season:

Green is making way to the golden yellows, vibrant oranges, and deep reds of fall. The air is crisper and we have only been teased with early season snow, but make no mistake, winter is coming! The last few years, late September snows have left enough coverage to bag early October ice ascents above 11,000’ in Utah but unfortunately a warm September and October in the high-country has left us high and dry.

Daniel Sundqvist topping out on Moist and Juicy WI4, with the October fall color in full bloom below. Mt. Timpanogos, Utah.

Colder temps are in the forecast and for those who can’t wait for the main season, the early fall ice can be jam-packed with adventure: No crowds, low to no avalanche danger, elusive routes that are usually covered in snow, access to places normally inaccessible due to road closures, and dry approaches.

Here are a few tips to help you take advantage of the early ice season:
  • Trail Runners, Micro Spikes, and Gaiters: Most early season ice is at higher altitude and often requires a good amount of hiking--often on completely dry trails. While the current selection of ice boots are light and somewhat comfortable to walk in, they can’t come close to the comfort of a pair of trail runners. A lightweight pair of trail runners with Gore-tex or eVent can often get you all the way to the base of the climb or at least close enough to boot up nearby. Throw in some Kahtoola Micro Spikes or Yak Trax for extra bite on any icy sections on the trail and a pair of gaiters for random snow patches and you're set for almost anything.

 Simon Fryer hiking out after a day of early season ice. Mt. Timpanogos, Utah.

  • Rock Protection: Early season ice can be a bit spicier than later in the year when the ice has thickened. Carrying a rack of cams, stoppers, and a light selection of pins can make all the difference in turning a runout horror-show into a more reasonable affair. 
  • Short and Stubby Screws: Shallow screw placements can be a norm, so make sure you have enough short or stubby screws. Although, you can tie off longer screws but that is less ideal than a well placed shorter screw.
  • Descent Tat: Bring extra cord for the descent. Early season climbs are rarely climbed so the slings at top might be in pretty bad shape.

Simon Fryer hiking the sunny and dry trails of Mt. Timpanogos on the way to shady, high-elevation ice.

  • Pare Down: Light, light, light. While hauling everything you own out for a day of cragging might not be that big of a deal, hiking for miles at high elevation with a heavy pack is not ideal for a great day out. Pare down your pack to the essentials and look into bringing your lightest gear. Draws, slings, cam’s, ropes, etc. have all gotten lighter and lighter, making these longer missions much more comfortable. Try to determine the length of the climb. Do you really need to haul up a 70m rope up or can you do it with a 60m?
  • Extra Layers: You’ve spent the last few months in shorts and t-shirts and your body is not used to the colder weather yet. Cold temps will feel chillier at the beginning of the season as our body tries to remember how to keep itself warm. Pack a few extra layers and some hand warmers. 
  • Have a Plan: These climbs can be much more remote than normal season ice. Can you safely and reasonably get in and out in a day or do you need to bring bivi gear? Also, make sure others know where you are heading and when you plan to be back as you are unlikely to encounter anyone else in the area.

Simon Fryer on a variation of Picture Window WI3+. Mt. Timpanogos, Utah.

Early season backcountry ice is a lot more work but is a great adventure and a fun way to start off the season. Who knows, you might even snag a first ascent while you're at it.

Now that you're all fired up to chase down some early season ice, make sure your ice climbing kit is up to snuff. We suggest you check out the new line of Grivel Machine ice tools:

Visit your favorite Grivel dealer today and give the new Machine tools a swing.

Grivel is one of the many brands that are exclusively distributed through Liberty Mountain in the U.S. Contact the Liberty Mountain Sales Team or visit LibertyMountain.com and become a Grivel dealer today.


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