Avalanche Safety for Ice Climbers

Ice climber approaching Whorehouse Hoses (WI4, 3 pitches) in the San Juan Mountains, CO


By BCA Ambassador Matt Wade

While giving a presentation on avalanche safety for ice climbers in the ice climbing capital of Ouray, Colorado, I asked the audience, “Who has gone into the backcountry to do an ice climb in known avalanche terrain, and has not taken avalanche safety gear?” From the room of 50 people, almost every hand went up. Next, I inquired, “For the skiers in the room, raise your hand if you ever go into the backcountry without avalanche safety gear.” An awkward silence descended over the room and sheepish grins stared back at me as not a single hand was raised.

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 Avalanche awareness class for ice climbers.

Ice climbers are not alone in foregoing avalanche safety gear. Most user groups have gone through a cultural shift that began with not carrying avalanche gear and gradually shifted to widespread acceptance of carrying avalanche gear. For backcountry skiers, it was not until the early 1980’s that carrying avalanche safety gear became standard practice. For snowmobilers, it was in the 2000’s and still growing. For ice climbers, the time is now.

In the last five years, there has been a growing movement amongst the ice climbing community, spurred at first by the professional sector, to carry avalanche safety gear when climbing in avalanche terrain. Check out this quote from Peter Tucker, Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG):

“Given that the ACMG’s prime directive is the protection of the public interest, we are looking to advocate for a significant change in best practices for travel in avalanche terrain. The ACMG is promoting the use of avalanche safety gear for waterfall ice climbing as well as for summer mountaineering when avalanche hazard may be present”
– Peter Tucker, ACMG, December 2013

The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) has a similar stance. Here is a statement from AMGA Technical Director, Dale Remsberg:

“The American Mountain Guide Association strongly believes that anytime ice climbers are in avalanche terrain that they consider using companion rescue equipment and match that with the appropriate level of avalanche rescue training”
– Dale Remsberg, AMGA, December 2016

In response to this guidance, professional guide services across North America have adopted protocols that require carrying avalanche safety gear in avalanche terrain. As new ice climbers learn this mentality from trained guides, and avalanche safety concepts become more widely advertised and understood, we are seeing a gradual shift in the cultural norms of the ice climbing community. Since climbers are the third largest user group involved in avalanche accidents, this is a good thing.

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Graph of avalanche fatalities by activity.

But, hey, we’re climbers, and we want to focus on ice climbing, not schlepping gear. We all know that when you’re on the crux of a WI5 pillar, every ounce counts. So, let‘s look at some ways to make this reasonable. It doesn’t have to be black and white – you always carry avalanche safety gear or you don’t – but instead, the type of terrain you plan to enter and the potential for avalanches to occur might dictate your choices.

Consider the following avalanche safety concepts for ice climbers as food for thought.

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As the illustration points out, it might be reasonable to leave your gear at the base of the route if there is no avalanche terrain overhead and your chosen descent does not involve avalanche terrain. Or, if there is avalanche terrain overhead, you might be able to leave your gear behind if you won’t be entering that terrain and the bulletin indicates natural avalanches are unlikely.

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Stairway to Heaven (WI4, 6 pitches) in the San Juan Mountains, CO. In periods of lower danger, avalanche safety gear might be carried during the approach to the base, which crosses avalanche terrain, but not on the route.

Conversely, if your route traverses avalanche terrain mid-climb (think Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies) or your descent requires travel through avalanche terrain, it might be a good idea to have your gear with you for the entire outing.

Keep in mind, if human triggered avalanches are likely, or if it is possible for natural avalanches to occur from above, which, by definition, falls under a danger rating of Considerable, it is best to choose a route and approach that doesn’t go anywhere near avalanche terrain. And if you avoid avalanche terrain altogether, you can safely leave your avalanche gear at home.

Next, let’s look at some gear options that are consistent with a climbing mindset. Every climber wants to minimize weight and save space. Here are some avalanche safety tools – avalanche beacon, avalanche probe and shovel – that will get the job done without weighing you down.

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Chart of avalanche safety gear for ice climbing.

All of these points are provided here as food for thought. There could be many caveats along the spectrum of terrain, weather, and snowpack conditions. Some climbers may choose to carry avalanche gear all the time, regardless of terrain and snowpack conditions, as many backcountry skiers do. Others may take a more discriminating approach. As such, think of the aforementioned points as potential considerations rather than new rules.

As I concluded my presentation in Ouray, a climber approached me with a shovel in his hand, cocked back at a threatening angle, as if to strike. Thinking I had just become the village witch, I gulped and prepared to be beaten for my heretical comments. Much to my relief, he lowered the shovel and thanked me for the thought provoking discussion. He said he wasn’t convinced he would carry avalanche gear all the time, but he might carry it more frequently than in the past. And this, fellow climbers, is how cultural shifts happen.


W. Matt Wade is president, Peak Mountain Guides, LLC, AMGA certified rock & ski guide, and AIARE instructor trainer. Contact Matt to sign up for a avalanche safety class.