The waterfall is one of nature’s many sights. So the question is, can we ice climb a waterfall? Most of us wandered through the woods or marveled at the power of Niagara, standing dazed at the dripping water, occasionally listening to the sound of the cascading waters. However, some waterfalls change completely in winter. Where once fierce waters gushed, now they stand frozen white and still. This paradox of serene waterfalls is an ice climber’s dream.
In general, there are two types of ice climb: alpine and waterfall. As the name suggests, you can find alpine ice in the highlands. It is part of steep or flat terrain, mostly formed by snow and sometimes mixed with rock. Waterfall ice is vertically frozen water. There are two types of frozen waterfalls. One is formed from an ordinary waterfall, and the other is from a temporary runoff, especially after heavy rain.
It is hard to imagine that the water of the pouring waterfall is frozen, but it is possible. This is how it goes. At negative temperatures, the water molecules start to slow down and eventually stick together, changing the water from a liquid to a solid. The snowball effect of these gooey water molecules creates a waterfall that freezes in mid-air. Climbers are attracted to frozen waterfalls because the surface is constantly changing.
As a result of midday sun, temperature changes, precipitation, and runoff, new water will trickle down to refreeze in various formations. So, if you “scar” the ice today with your tools, in a week or two, the scar will be gone, replaced with a newly frozen bump or ridge.
Several factors lead to frozen waterfalls, and their formation can offer clues about how safe it is to climb them. As long as the ice is cold and strong, a frozen waterfall that is attached to its ice base and appears to be bonded to a wall of rocks is more stable and safer. Alternatively, if the ice wall was formed by water flowing over a ledge, it could be a freestanding column or hang like a giant icicle. Hanging ice waterfalls are the most dangerous design because they are not rigid and contain many huge icicles fused. Without a basic foundation, this frozen waterfall could crumble and fall in the blink of an eye.
Seasoned climbers say that the best ice climbing in North America is in the Canadian Rockies. There are frozen waterfalls for all skill levels, and hundreds of climbs are available from late November to March. In the United States, you can see frozen waterfalls in Colorado, Wyoming, and even California. In addition, Norway has some of the best ice climbing spots globally and hosts an annual ice climbing festival in February.
Ice Climbing is slightly different from Alpine Ice Climbing. One of the great things about ice climbing is that you don’t have to climb the highest mountain peak to start climbing. Instead, there are frozen waterfalls and runoff downstream. Getting to the top of a waterfall is always vertical and requires more advanced climbing skills. For example, Spider-Man can climb steep ice with crampons attached to the bottom and front of his boots and an ice axe.
Water ice is unique because it is colder and weaker than alpine ice. Brittle and dry ice is more likely to crack and shatter, which climbers call a dining mat. However, you will encounter dozens of different types of ice while climbing. Ice climber Jeff Low lists the most common types of ice that climbers may encounter. This list is not exhaustive.
- Verglas: ice less than 0.5 inches (1.27 centimeters) thick
- Thin ice: ice 0.5 to 6 inches (1.27 to 15.24 centimeters) thick
- Laminated flow: successive freezing of thin layers of ice
- Chandeliered: clusters of hanging icicles
- Cauliflower: ice formed in strange and unstable formations, usually the result of water spray
- Solid pillar: well frozen and cohesive ice
- Rotten post: melting, chandeliered or cauliflowered ice
- Small pillar: ice less than a foot (30 centimeters) in diameter
- Aerated: ice with lots of bubbles or melted pieces
- Plastic: ice that is warm but not rotten and doesn’t shatter
- Mineralized: brittle ice and colored brown, orange or yellow
- Blue/green: well frozen, sometimes brittle ice
- Old dry: very durable ice
How can you predict what the ice will feel like during your climb?
It’s hard to say. Ice can go from hard to brittle to slushy all in one climb. If temperatures are well below freezing, you may encounter brittle ice, which tends to break off in plates when you swing your tool into it. When temperatures are near or above freezing, the ice may feel plastic. The pickaxe sinks quickly and stays there, making it easier and faster to climb. When the temperature rises below freezing, the ice loosens and softens, making it unsuitable for climbing.
Falls ice climbing is usually a challenge for advanced ice climbers because there are so many types of ice to deal with. Therefore, the best climbers are those who easily recognize stable and unstable ice and improvise accordingly.