How Ice Climbing Moved From Niche to Mainstream

In just two decades the esoteric activity has grown from some 50,000 active participants to over 3 million in American alone

How Ice Climbing Moved From Niche to Mainstream

Author

Andy Cochrane

Photographer

Travis Perkins

Photography by Travis Perkins shot at the 2020 Ouray Ice Festival

With the crowd swelling to 25,000, attendance for the 2019 Ice Climbing World Cup was larger than the biggest arena in professional basketball. Based in downtown Denver, hordes of onlookers watched 64 athletes from 19 countries go head-to-head, using metal tools to climb vertical walls of ice. According to the UIAA, the official organizing body, millions more live streamed the competition from home.

Participation

In the early 2000s, ice climbing had an estimated fifty thousand active participants. Today the OIA reports that there are over 3 million ice climbers in the U.S. annually. Following the rapid rise of rock climbing, ice climbing has seen double digit growth for a handful of years and shows no sign of slowing down. With ice climbing crags across the country in Montana, Colorado, and dotting the northeast, there are ample places for new climbers to get out and try the sport.

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Sure, for those outside of ice climbing, the idea of hauling yourself up a frozen waterfall with just ice axes and crampons likely sounds ludicrous. A half inch of steel is all that is holding me up? No thanks. But for a quickly growing community, the sport is as pure and adventurous as any outdoor adventure. Despite being gear intensive–a basic kit includes two axes, helmet, harness, rope, ice screws, crampons and a lot of warm clothing–the community finds creative ways to bring new climbers along.

A Slow History

The origins of the sport (in official terms) dates back to 1912, when the first known ice climbing competition was organized on the Brenva glacier in Courmayeur, Italy. At the time, mountaineers in the Alps were often climbing steep, icy terrain, and small events would help put it on the map.

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Still, it wasn’t until 60 years later that the sport found interest outside the most elite mountaineers in the world. When Hamish MacInnes invented the drop-curved axe with a short handle and angled pick, the sport took hold. This tool was designed to be used for climbing–swinging into ice from above your head–as opposed to being used like a cane on steep but not vertical ice. Combined with innovations in crampon design, ice climbers were able to climb much faster and more efficiently. 

In 1978 Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard wrote Climbing Ice, which helped establish widespread etiquette and technique. Still slow to grow, the first World Cup was held in 2002, but even this was a small affair. A few years later the International Olympic Committee sanctioned the sport, giving it both a path towards the Olympics and much-needed validation outside its niche community.

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A Growing Business

In parallel with participation, ice climbing now represents a large industry. According the State of Climbing Report by the American Alpine Club, ice climbing crampons, axes, and hardwear topped $15 million in U.S. sales in 2019 alone. Other requisite equipment such as ropes, harnesses, helmets and apparel are all large parts of the American outdoor recreation economy as well. Established climbing manufacturers have been some of the first to notice, developing entire lines of hardgoods and clothing directly towards the quickly growing sport, hoping to establish themselves early. 

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Key Events

There are many events outside of the six competitions of the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup, and these festivals are some of the best ways to try the sport. Some of the longest running and most well known include festivals in the Adirondacks, Duluth, Minnesota, and Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, with the largest two being Bozeman, Montana and Ouray, Colorado, which celebrated 25 years this past month.

These multi-day events are attended by thousands and sponsored by dozens of brands who offer rentals and onsite lessons for newcomers. For many, ice festivals are the easiest way to try the sport, especially if you don’t have the gear or friends that have the knowledge to teach. Ouray in particular has a fascinating story, as  an established ice climbing mecca, the sport helped save this remote and rural Colorado town without other viable industries to live on.

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With a sizable international audience and growing participation stateside, perhaps ice climbing will follow rock climbing's path to an Olympic spotlight. Many hope 2026 will be its year. Until then, the festival will remain the most prominent entry-point for curious onlookers and future athletes alike.

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How Ice Climbing Moved From Niche to Mainstream

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Photographer

Travis Perkins

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