Family Best Time >> Sports

Climbing an icefall:a completely icy adventure!

Climbing enthusiast, looking for new sensations or simply want to discover a new sport? Climbing an icefall is THE solution!
But before tackling this majestic frozen waterfall, you need to know a few basics . Startin' Sport advises you and accompanies you in this adventure.

Climbing an icefall requires preparation

Warm, at home

As for a climbing route or for a hike, it is advisable to prepare your outing warm at home. This avoids the galleys on the ground! Take the time to read your topo and thus be able to estimate the time needed for your ascent . In your calculation, do not forget the time of approach to the site and also the descent of the waterfall.
The weather is also an important factor to take into account . To know the meteorological conditions in detail, we advise you to approach the offices of the guides or the mountain rescue services of the sector where you are going.

A well-prepared backpack

Climbing an icefall is not like riding on a set road. Indeed, this is a terrain that can change over the season, so you shouldn't find yourself stuck in the middle of your route for lack of equipment!
So here is the basic equipment that you must have in your backpack :

  • A dozen pins for unequipped routes
  • Quickdraws with energy absorber
  • Large rings of rope, 1m20 in diameter
  • A few eyebolts and nuts
  • A rappel rope of 100 or 120 meters
  • A kit to equip moons
  • Helmet
  • Topo of the route as well as a map of the sector
  • ARVA (avalanche victim detector)
  • Shovel and probe
  • Emergency telephone number of the place of practice

About your bag base , remember:

  • A headlamp (and spare batteries)
  • A thermos with a hot, sweet drink
  • A spare pair of gloves
  • A survival blanket
  • A medicine kit (mainly made up of steri-strip , compresses and disinfectant)

And how to dress?

Alright, the backpack is ready, now let’s get to your Ice Age adventurer look. Do you know the three-layer rule? Nope ? So here is the secret to not being cold:thermal underwear, fleece and finally a waterproof jacket . Add to that a hat and gloves. Once bundled up, your movements should be easy.

And on the ground, what should we do?

The approach

If the approach to the chosen site is on foot or on snowshoes, it is advisable to follow the tracks already made . It is also important to check if the path does not cross a freerider spot, which could possibly lead to small rockslides.

At the foot of the waterfall

Before starting your ascent, check that no other rope is already engaged . If this is the case, look for another site because it is dangerous to climb several ropes on the same waterfall (risk of projections and falling ice or rocks).

Before equipping yourself, assess the solidity of the structure . That is to say:is the ice firmly attached to the rock? Doesn't the water circulate between the rocks and the ice? All these precautions are important to avoid any risk of accident during your ascent.

Assessment of ice quality

In order to correctly assess the ice, you must check three aspects:its thickness, its transparency as well as its colors.
The higher the wall, the thicker the layer of ice must be. At least, it is necessary to count about twenty centimeters thick so that the pins do not touch the rock.
Its transparency:
If you see the rock or water flowing under the ice, then it is because the thickness does not is not sufficient. Find another safer passage .
Its colors:
– If the waterfall pulls towards blue, then it’s ideal . Indeed, this indicates that the ice is homogeneous and thick.
A white color means either ice covered in snow, or ice that has sunbathed or experienced a long mild spell. In both cases, an ascent will be risky .
A black color indicates very compact and very cold ice . In these conditions, the ice axes and crampons only get inked on the surface and the pins are difficult to screw on. Climbing such a surface is therefore very sporty but possible . This type of ice is common in the high mountains.

The different forms that these ladies take

The glacierists, with their expert eye, can tell you, depending on the shape of the waterfall, whether it is passable or not. Let's see that she can put on an ice cream lady .

Casting or "streaming"

This is the ideal shape for beginners where those who want to experience this family adventure. With a slight inclination (less than 60°), the ice is often thick and abundant.

The curtain

As its name suggests, the ice forms a curtain that sticks the rock. Its inclination is greater than 60° and the ice is often homogeneous and compact. On this type of waterfall, check that there is no presence of water or air between the ice and the rock.

The column (cigar or tube)

This is a waterfall that comes off a rock with a devers . It therefore rests on a base of ice. Its ascent is quite technical, because in order not to weaken it, you have to go gently, it takes time and therefore energy.
The base of attachment with the rock is very small, the blows of the ice ax and crampons are therefore to be given with delicacy . These ice buildings are usually beautifully crafted because the water falls drop by drop, revealing splendid stalactites.

The stalactite

It is a column of suspended ice. A beginner should not venture into this type of structure . In fact, in order not to weaken a stalactite, you have to know how to climb for long sessions without pinning (to avoid breaking the structure).

Splash (petals, cauliflower or jellyfish)

These are randomly formed pieces of ice . It is often easier to climb without an ice axe.

The effects of temperature on ice

If the cold comes gradually, it's ideal . Indeed, it freezes the flow of water and thus strengthens the anchor points between the rock and the ice. The building therefore grows on solid foundations and the falls of rock or ice are very limited.
On the other hand, if the cold arrives suddenly, the ice shrinks in relation to the rock, which entails risks more rock falls . It is therefore necessary to be very careful to climb in these conditions.
A mild spell is not dangerous if it is not very important. Indeed, the ice cream is then softer, so progress is easier . The most positive thing is that you suffer less from the cold! To climb in good conditions, the ideal temperature is around zero .

Temperature around -15°

It is not a temperature that mountaineers like. Indeed, the ice is very dry and therefore brittle . It is difficult to broach because the ice crumbles. In addition, the chances of falling ice blocks are high.

Temperature between -8° and -2°

This is usually a sign of a solid structure although the ice may still be a bit brittle.

Temperature between -2° to +2°

Ideal for beginners because the ice is easy to climb because it is flexible . The pins are easy to screw on and the ice axes easy to hook. On the other hand, make sure of the solidity of the waterfall (no runoff of water between the rock and the icy wall) which can be altered by too mild a temperature.

Time to practice

We are now going to discover the basic techniques of ice climbing . Learn how to broach and make a relay with this video.

Ice waterfall ratings

As ice climbing is becoming more and more popular, a rating has been created so that climbers can organize their ascent according to their level.A waterfall is rated according to two criteria:The degree (technical difficulties, stiffness) and grade (engagement, exposure).


  • Level 1:walking on ice with crampons.
  • Level 2:short steep walk (60°) with good protection and good belays.
  • Level 3:steep sections (70°/80°) but good rest and good protection and belays. Thick ice.
  • Level 4:vertical parts at 75°/80° between good belays.
  • Level 5:requires a certain technical fluency. Good length on quality ice.
  • Level 6:very sustained length with little rest and hanging belays. High level of technique essential.
  • Level 7:for experts only! Thin ice or ice with poor cohesion over a significant vertical length.


  • Grade I:short climb, protected belays, easy descent. No commitment.
  • Grade II:one or two lengths. Caution, abseiling.
  • Grade III:several pitches or long approach requiring a good knowledge of winter travel. Objective dangers on a good part of the route.
  • Grade IV:objective dangers during approach or ascent. Long descent or obligation to continue to exit.
  • Grade V:long climb on a high mountain face requiring a good level of skill and commitment. Difficult descent, random retreat.
  • Grade VI:long route on an alpine face that can only be climbed in one day by the best climbers.
  • Grade VII:same as grade VI but with such breadth and continuity that the route warrants an additional grade.

Let's go for new adventures

Now that you know everything about icefalls, it's time for you to gear up and challenge the most beautiful icefalls. We have selected a few sites to start this new frozen adventure .

Cascade Sector

  • Valley of the Durance
  • Crévoux
  • Upper Queyras

Chute sector

  • Black Glacier
  • The Pavement

Corridor area

  • The Berard
  • Small Tabuc