The season from ice climbing in New Zealand is confined to the shortest days of winter. Water ice climbing in New Zealand is mainly confined to cold, higher elevation, and south-facing aspects with a good supply of drainage. These venues see little sunshine, and later in the season, snow can accumulate, covering less steep climbs and more consideration needs to be given to the increased avalanche risk.
Ice Climbing Venues
Wye Creek and the peaks and faces of the Remarkables near Queenstown offer the most accessible winter climbing playground. Wye Creek provides extensive and varied water ice climbing. The Remarkables provides the full range of experiences from classic winter gulleys and ice flows to technical mixed climbing high above the Whakatipu basin.
Great alpine ice can be found in the high mountains of the Aoraki/Mount Cook and Westland regions well into spring when longer daylight hours reduce the time pressure on longer routes. At this time, winter snows have consolidated to make firm cramponing conditions and more stable avalanche conditions. Classic areas and routes include the South Face of Hicks from Empress Hut and the South Face of Douglas and the Mallory-Barnicoat ridge from Pioneer Hut.
Ice Climbing Hazards
Whenever snow is above threshold above or at an ice climbing venue, an avalanche hazard may exist. Ice climbing areas are often found below slopes that provide drainage to the ice formation. If these slopes are between 30 and 45 degrees, it is avalanche terrain and exposes the ice climbing venue. Similarly, approaches may cross avalanche terrain. It is well known that even small avalanches are severe for climbers due to the equipment used and carried and their inability to move quickly out of the path compared to skiers.
Climbers should be aware of the avalanche conditions from the public forecast and be cautious whenever there is a change from new snow, rain, or rising temperatures. Avalanche safety gear (shovel, transceiver, and probes) and knowledge of how to use them are essential for most ice climbing venues. For more information of managing avalanche risk for mountaineers, check our our article on Avalanche Skills For Mountaineers.
Ice expands when heated and contracts when cooled, which can introduce mechanical stress. If cooling is slow, the ice can adapt to the stresses and deform plastically. However, if cooling is quick, the ice becomes brittle and additional stresses, such as those created by an ice axe, can create cracks. During contraction, a free-standing column will shorten, creating strong vertical mechanical stresses in the structure.
Thaw can be experienced at any point of the season in New Zealand. A spike in temperatures or strong winds can affect safe climbing conditions. Prolonged periods of mild temperatures above 0 °C, including at night, can cause running water behind the ice and can result in the separation of the ice from the underlying rock. Particularly early in the season when hanging daggers and freestanding ice forms that have not been connected to the ground can collapse with little warning. By late August, the sun is higher in the sky which can quickly lead to the deterioration of conditions. Under these conditions, avoid being under hanging or steep features that may come down on top of you.
Periods with stable temperatures of around 0 °C (little warming during the day, no drastic cooling at night) generally provide the most favourable climbing conditions.
Us and Other Climbers
Other climbers can knock off ice or ice daggers or drop (sharp) ice climbing equipment so helmets should also be worn when at the bottom of ice climbs. Belayers should position themselves away from the firing line, especially in multi-pitch situations where they are attached to the mountain and can’t quickly move out of the way of anything falling. Similarly, never climb under another party.
Ice climbing uses sharp equipment so skin should be covered and some form of eye protection is good to prevent injuries from ice tools popping out of the ice.
Any lead fall whilst wearing crampons and using ice tools has the potential to cause injury. It is not sport climbing and climbers should climb within their limits focusing on good feet, often the first thing to blow during a fall, and good, secure sticks with tools.
Equipment for ice climbing in New Zealand
Technical and overnight gear for ice climbing in New Zealand.
For technical ice and mixed climbing, a fully rigid (full shank) mountaineering boot is required. Single boots constructed from leather or more modern synthetic materials (some newer models have an integrated gaiter) are suitable for conditions encountered during winter and spring in New Zealand. Double plastic or synthetic boots, designed for higher altitude alpine climbing, do provide extra warmth and have the advantage of being easier to dry out on multi-day trips camping in the snow but are often excessively warm for New Zealand conditions. Whether boots have an integrated gaiter or not, a separate snow gaiter is useful for approaching through deep snow.
While general mountaineering crampons and axes can be used for ice and mixed climbing, a range of specialist ice gear is available. Crampons used for ice climbing need to be sharp so if you are using crampons for general mountaineering in the summer months, they will need to be sharpened for use on the ice. This eventually reduces their lifespan so if you plan on spending a lot of time on ice or mixed climbing, having specialist gear can save money in the long term.
Vertically aligned front points penetrate harder ice more easily with less shattering. Dual vertical front points provide a more stable platform to stand on but in hard and brittle ice they can cause the ice to dinner-plate or shatter, requiring several more kicks to ensure secure placement. Mono vertical front points excel on hard brittle water ice where the points can be placed in the holes left by ice tool placements and allow very efficient and positive climbing. They are also good for mixed climbing and provide good balance on small rock features.
On steep water ice, modern highly curved ice tools make a big difference, especially when making placements over bulges and generally minimising effort on steep terrain.
Dedicated ice tools are shorter than general mountaineering axes and the curve and any handle will make it more difficult to plunge into the snow for security on the approach and descent.
When using curved ice tools with ergonomic handles, wrist leashes are often not used at all. This makes it easier to place and remove ice screws, and opens up a variety of techniques to make things more efficient on technical climbs. If climbing without a wrist leash, an umbilical leash is recommended as they provide the benefits of leashless climbing whilst still maintaining an attachment and limiting the potential to drop the tools. Dropping ice tools could be a potentially serious issue on a long mountain route.
Wrist leashes, whilst not as popular since the arrival of umbilicals. They provide support and can promote a more relaxed grip on the ice tools which conserves effort but makes placing ice screws more awkward. Clipper wrist leashes allow the leash to be quickly detached from the tools, providing the benefit of having wrist leashes while making it easier to place ice screws and shake out tired arms.
Keeping hands comfortable ice climbing takes a bit of management when ice climbing. It is good to have a range of pairs available to swap between for different tasks and to keep your warm pairs dry. Thin softshell or freezer worker gloves are dexterous for leading, especially on mixed terrain, and usually warm enough for the duration of a pitch providing tools aren’t gripped too hard. Warmer, more durable, leather palmed gloves can be swapped into for belaying and abseiling or mitts for long stints belaying a lead climber. In between use, gloves can be kept warm and dry inside a jacket.
Overnight temperatures at venues such as Wye Creek can drop to around -10 degrees Celsius. Being NZ, it can also be a lot warmer. A warm ‘belay’ jacket is useful for evenings and belaying but otherwise it is good to have lighter weight layers that can be adjusted for flexibility. Clothing can get damp so synthetic materials or modern hydrophobic down is proffered as they maintaine their warmth when damp,
Other useful items
A V-Thread tool, whether it is a purpose-made one or a homemade one from a wire coat hanger, is a vital piece of equipment for making V-Threads. The Petzl Multihook® combines a V-thread tool and knife for cutting tat.
A good method for racking ice screws is also useful. The most popular nowadays are ice clippers. These are inverted plastic carabiners that can neatly rack a number of long handled ice screws. Other options that can be attached to the harness include flutes or tubes that hold an ice screw each.
For more information on our ice climbing trips and courses visit wanakamountainguides.co.nz