Making Use of Ice Grades

Well, since there is precious little ice to climb, I’m stuck just thinking about it, and talking about it. Thanks La Nina. Bitch.

Anyhow, the WI grading system has always perplexed me a bit. Other ice climbers seem to feel the same way, since they use it either as a means of keeping score or a general guide to stay within their comfort zone when picking out a climb to do. But I’ve come to see the sense of it over time, and I think it is a valid scale. It does sort out distinct, progressively more difficult types of climbing, each associated with a unique set of hazards and opportunities. Here’s how knowing the grade may actually help you out on the climb.

Disclaimer: The thought of leading WI 6 doesn’t give me instant diarrhea anymore, but I am not an expert. I’ve climbed ice for over twenty years now at levels of activity from weekend warrior to marriage-threatening, though never as my primary occupation. But what I’m going to say isn’t for experts either, it’s for my fellow proletarians. In addition, I am not addressing the Red Bull-swilling, whipper-taking dudes dossing on a floor in Canmore December through February, living for the thrill of the thirty foot run-out. You guys grab your tools and snowboards and get the hell out; you will find this quaint anyway.  This is for those of us who view trying to make it safe as part of the game.

  • WI 1-3 : With a modern set up, the tools are used for balance only. The ice is thick and the only vertical sections are bulges. Good protection is available almost anywhere, so pick a comfortable stance to place it. This allows you to climb from stance to stance, rather than trying to climb to  the most promising screw placement. The commitment level is low, since the option of placing a good piece of gear and hanging on it or lowering is always available. The big dangers are having the ice plate-out, or your calves melt-out, from under you.

3rd pitch of Broken Hearts, WI 4

Wicked Wanda, WI 4

California Ice, WI 4

WI 4 : These climbs are steep enough that you have to pull on the tools to make upward progress, but not so steep that you can’t get your weight entirely back on your feet when you stop. Many of these climbs have multiple “steps” of vertical or near-vertical ice. Running out of gas in the middle of a step can be problematic, so the commitment level is higher. Beware the bulges, where a steep section transitions onto a ledge. The ice there tends to be brittle and may fracture into large plates. However, snow sticks to the ledges too, where it forms a shell of hollow ice above the bulge. These flat spots look like a good location for gear, but often they are not. Pulling over a bulge can be dangerous regardless of the ice quality, as well. Climbers have a tendency to step too high or lean over the ledge too soon, levering the lower crampon out of the ice. With WI 4 like this, the best places to set a screw are standing on top of the bulge or just below the bulge, with at least one tool over the top to take some stress off your arms.

My Only Valentine, WI 5

Community Pillar, WI 5


Drumstick, WI 5


  • WI 5: This is the grade where muscle fatigue and fickle gear become big factors. The ice is steep and unrelenting. The bonus is the appearance of mushrooms, blobs, columns, candles – all those irregularities in the ice commonly called ‘feature’.  Making use of the feature is key. Stepping onto a blob of ice instead of kicking the crampon’s frontpoint into a flat section of ice saves energy and may yield a more secure foothold. Hooking over gaps in the ice or swinging the tools at junctions in the features makes for fewer swings to get a solid pick placement.
  • Aside: Before I say anything about protection, I should explain the rationale behind my approach to placing ice screws. First of all, it’s worth it. Gone are the days when climbers could make a cogent argument that screws made things more dangerous because of the effort required to place them or that screws were so unreliable that they amounted to confidence boosters only. Ice screws work. We now know a bit about how they work and what makes a placement better or worse, (see http://www.jjgeng,com/html/body_ice_screw.html for an excellent summary) . Still, field assessment of placement quality is problematic. All you can do is avoid the two situations that make for a sketchy piece of gear: weak, unsupported ice under the hanger and areas where the screw doesn’t ‘bite’ all the way through the placement, indicating an air pocket in the ice.
Oh Le Tabernac, WI 5
  • More WI 5: Features can guide your choice of protection points as well. Again, the junctions of columns are places where water has stopped during ice formation, eliminating air pockets. Knocking the lip off these junctions can make for a good placement. Sections where columns protrude from the main body of ice also tend to make for better protection opportunities. At this grade, if there is a good stretch of ice for gear, take it, even if it is not the most comfortable stance. Full on rests are rare and not so restful at this angle if you are trying to drive a screw into the ice. Besides, any ledges are typically located where water has dripped down from just above to form the ledge, leaving aerated ice above the stance. Not always, but often enough that you shouldn’t simply count on running it out to a ledge and getting decent gear there.
First pitch of Ovisight, WI 6

Nemesis, WI 6

Whiteman Falls, WI 6

  • WI 6: Two things, chandelier and overhanging ice, characterize this grade. Sometimes it’s given to climbs where the ice forms up steep and thin or hollow as well, but those are rare. Chandelier, the bundles of small icicles that look like a crystal chandelier, is impossible to protect unless it overlies a more solid column which is accessible with minimal chopping. Stopping to clear bad surface ice and drive a screw on a section of climbing angled at 105 degrees is a non-starter, too. Expect to commit yourself to trust in the sticks. Look for the junction of features and dare to hope you’ll get a screw to bite all the way in there. Fortunately, you’re often climbing toward safety, as the ice usually gets thicker and less fluffy towards the middle and top of these things. The sticks do tend to be good in solid chandelier, too.

So, for WI 3, keep moving from stance to stance and don’t burn your calves out. For WI 4, gun it through the steep sections and learn how to deal with bulges before leading. For WI 5, learn to read and use the features; don’t get suckered into just climbing from stance to stance, the gear may suck when you get to a ‘nice’ place to stand. For WI 6, get your head together, climb to safety, don’t try for gear where there can be none, be sure you trust your sticks, and hope for the best.

  • WI 7  ? I have never knowingly climbed this grade, though I have climbed some WI 6 that felt noticeably different, and harder, than the rest. Is a 10 foot roof still 6? Is an overhanging pile of translucent candles for 25 meters still 6? What about a 3 foot diameter pillar that goes to an 8 foot diameter in 30 meters, is that still 6 (I have kids, so I followed that – and stood well away from the base to belay)? Besides feeling extra hard and scary, the few climbers I’ve spoken with about this grade can’t characterize it further. It sounds like the old 5.9+ rock grade in the Black Hills, devised when the scale ended at 5.9. Besides, hasn’t Will Gadd proposed skipping to WI 10? Splatter climbing, he calls it, doesn’t he? Oh well, I like the sound of that, and I suppose the kids need something to look forward to, especially if it gets them out of their fruit-boots.

4 thoughts on “Making Use of Ice Grades

  1. Borut Kantušer says:

    Great post! I wasn’t aware of the higher ice quality at junctions. Thanks for explaining.

    The link changed to:

    • keithnoback says:

      Thanks for fixing the link, that’s the best illustration of how a screw works I’ve ever found! I can’t speak for the strength of the ice at junctions, but at least the threads seem to bite all the way more often at those points.

  2. Reblogged this on home and commented:
    One of my favorites :

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