How to Begin Glacier Climbing

Glacier climbing is an exciting but inherently dangerous sport. For those seeking to mountain climb, knowledge of glacier climbing is essential as climbing glaciers often form a part of reaching a summit. For others, the thrill derives from glacier climbing for its own sake. If you're a beginner, you are strongly advised to learn under a guide, to attend an ice climbing school, or to practice with experienced glacier climbers before attempting the sport alone. This article is only a short summary of the activity.


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    Be in good shape. Glacier climbing is a strenuous activity and demands a high level of fitness.
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    Take a safety course to learn the best methods of glacier climbing. The knowledge is essential; glaciers are not your average hike up a hill. There are many dangers present, as well as techniques that you need to be aware of to ease the travel on a glacier.
    • Glaciers change over the day as the sun impacts them; flows change, strength of ice changes, etc., and it is important to have a solid understanding of these realities.
    • It is also crucial to know how to use crampons, ice axes, harnesses, and safety ropes.
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    Understand glacial terrain. Glaciers generally consist of both ice and rocky material. You will need to be proficient at scrambling over the rocky material as well as climbing the ice. This necessitates carrying gear, putting it on, and removing it at various stages.
    • Understand different types of moraine (i.e., the messed up debris part of the glacier): lateral, medial, and terminal. The moraine can impact your experience quite dramatically. For example, if the moraine contains sand and silt as well as rocks, this can make the surface slippery, and when there has been ice melt and refreeze, there can be a lot of mud as well.
    • Some countries rate the glaciers according to terrain and difficulty; consult tourist centers or guide books for more information.[1]
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    Learn about glacier hazards. As part of your initial learning on climbing a glacier, be sure to learn glacier rescue techniques. Some important things to understand about glacier hazards include:
    • Glaciers have crevasses (i.e., large cracks) and falling down one often means death. Learning to avoid crevasses is the first step; learning to arrest yourself or to help another person when fallen down a crevasse is the next crucial step.
    • Crevasses are often very difficult to spot because they are hidden under snow.
    • Snowbridges form across glaciers. Sometimes these can be crossed by humans; other times they will break under the weight. The strength of such snowbridges is weather dependent.
    • Mill wells are present at lower altitudes. These are the melt water channels and chutes where water runs into. Falling into a mill well can be extremely hazardous as the tendency is to become trapped under the glacier, making rescue highly difficult, if not impossible.
    • Seracs are large ice towers that can easily become falling blocks of ice as the sun warms them. They are always potentially hazardous and should be passed quickly, without lingering.
    • Boulders can become loose from anywhere around or on the glacier at any time. Climbing near lateral moraines is most risky because rock falls can occur as a result of warming; try to schedule climbing time near lateral moraines early or late in the day.[2]
    • Glacial streams are full of silt and can behave like quicksand; take great care in crossing them.
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    Practice glacier rescue techniques. The importance of knowing rescue techniques until they are second nature cannot be overemphasized. Know how to self-arrest with the ice axe, how to use a z-pulley rescue system, etc.
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    Be a good compass and map reader. Glaciers are subject to mountain weather, and therefore are subject to whiteouts. The only sense of direction that you can rely on in a whiteout is your compass and map.[3]
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    Learn to read weather reports. There are some days when it is just better to stay off the glaciers. Be aware of upcoming weather before attempting any climbs. Understand the hazards of being caught in a whiteout when a storm descends upon the glacier.
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    Have the right gear. It is not possible to climb a glacier in your hiking shoes. Many tourists turn up to glacier hikes with the expectation that they can do so. Occasionally this is possible on small roped-off areas provided for tourist amusement, but this gives an unrealistic impression of climbing and still is not guaranteed to be safe. The right gear includes:
    • Solid climbing boots
    • Crampons
    • Helmet (yes, falls and blows to the head happen)
    • Waterproof jacket (e.g., Gore-Tex)
    • Gloves (suitable for ice/snow)
    • Layered clothing for mountain hiking or climbing
    • Ice axe (for self-arrest, boot axe-belay and ice testing)
    • Waterproof trousers/snow pants
    • Thermals, polyprops (layering is important as you can get hot when climbing)
    • Socks (hiking/climbing, not cotton)
    • Hat suitable for climbing/balaklava
    • Sunglasses/goggles for glare and cold protection
    • First Aid equipment
    • Ropes (you should know how to use these from your training); z-pulley rescue system
    • Harness
    • Gaiters (some prefer the gaiter/thermal/shorts combination, some add gaiters as well as pants - dependent on temperature)
    • Sunscreen/zinc cream (even if there is no sun, you can still be burnt badly [4])
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    Know your chosen glacier. Every glacier has its unique characteristics. Read books about the glaciers you choose to climb; other climbers' experience is invaluable. At the same time, read website information for up-to-date information on the glacier, given the rapid rate at which they change. Such resources as the National Parks sites, local tourist information sites, and hiking or mountaineering club sites provide reliable information.
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    Know your teammate. How is with you in your claiming process. You have to know his ice and glacier climbing techniques, abilities, attitude and be sure about his equipment. Of course you must have enough harmony between yours according your privies activities.


  • Anyone venturing into extreme snow sports should know how to build shelters in the snow. Weather can change very quickly and accidents can cause life-threatening delays. A shelter can make all the difference when it comes to survival. See How to Build a Snow Cave and How to Build an Igloo.
  • Ensure that anybody you climb with has rescue knowledge. Even one person without such understanding can be a dangerous liability.
  • Be comfortable with First Aid for cold injury treatment, such as for hypothermia, frostbite, etc.
  • There are basic glacier climbing courses available; do a search online to find one in area suitable for you. Search terms include: Glacier Basics, Glacier Climbing Lessons/School/Courses, Glacier Safety, Glacier Rescue, etc.
  • If you need to cross streams as part of the glacier climb, remember the tendency of streams to widen in the afternoon as more water melts.
  • When selecting a guide to train you, check their accreditation and be certain that it is acceptable (for example, in New Zealand, reputable accreditation includes the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association).


  • Avoid drinking water from glacial streams where silt is present. The silt can irritate the digestive system.
  • Respect the rules posted around a glacier; they are there because of negative experiences of people, flora, and fauna in the past, not because somebody is trying to take the fun out of your experience. Tragic accidents are all too frequent around glaciers when people disregard the rules.
  • Never climb a glacier alone. The ideal minimum is three people roped together. If you climb a glacier alone and disappear, there is nobody left to help you.

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