Learn the Winter Sport Ice Climbing in Canada, Colorado, California, Michigan, and New Hampshire

These North American destinations offer pristine routes and expert guidance for climbers of all levels.

Published November 22, 2022

7 min read

Ice climbing is a cool way to spend a chilly winter day. But using axes and crampons to scale a frozen waterfall is definitely not something you want to try on your own. Fortunately, you don’t have to because ice climbers love to show those new to the sport the ropes.

These North American ice climbing hot spots have experts who can get you geared up and on the ice. How far you go is up to you.

North Conway, New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley has long been a center for Northeast ice aficionados—that’s why a number of world-class climbers live and guide here. Set up in historic North Conway village, where you’ll have your choice of top-shelf guide services and easy access to venerable ice at places such as Cathedral Ledge and the not-as-scary-as-it-sounds Frankenstein Cliff. With a bit of experience, Mount Washington awaits—the smallish peak famously offers climbing and weather that resemble the world’s great ranges.

Held in February, the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest is a great way to get your feet wet on the ice. Clinics include everything from Ice Climbing 101 to Alpine Style Climb to Women’s Ice Climbing.

Canmore, Alberta

The Canadian Rockies has some of North America’s best ice climbing routes. Surrounding all those stomach-turning, 3,000-foot vertical epics is a seemingly limitless selection of reliable ice that’s suitable for beginners and intermediates. With many elite climbers living in Canmore and the surrounding area, your odds of getting rockstar instruction are very good.

Among the many excellent choices for schooling on ice, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures has been a local standout for 40 years. A weekend-long Basic Ice course helps build confidence on easy-to-access frozen waterfalls. After, students can sign up for a “plus day,” or extra day, to test out new skills on a classic, multi-pitch guided climb.

Ouray, Colorado

If the climbs at Ouray Ice Park seem too good to be true, it’s because humans give Mother Nature a hand in this slice of southwestern Colorado. Each winter they tap this mountain town’s runoff-driven surplus water supply to “farm” ice on the walls of Uncompahgre Gorge. The fruit of their labor is a legendary ice climbing area with over 200 named ice and mixed climbing routes, a total of some 17,000 feet of vertical ice that’s free for all. The park is a 10-minute walk from the scenic mountain village of Ouray, but it draws climbers from around the world and is home base for a long list of local guides who teach ice climbing all winter.

Better yet, for a crash course introduction into the wild world of ice climbing, check out the Ouray Ice Festival each January. You can choose from dozens of climbing clinics, try out gear, and watch the world’s best compete, then hang with your new climbing buddies at the many parties and after-dark events.

Lee Vining Canyon, California

The American Alpine Institute (AAI) says Lee Vining Canyon and the June Lake area in the Eastern Sierra provide “some of the finest steep water ice climbing in North America.” Spend some time here with that venerable institution’s guides and you’ll soon see why.

In the 1970s, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Robinson began pioneering the tempting routes that line the canyon road into eastern Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows area. Today you can follow in their footsteps, or at least see those famed climbs en route to your own tamer adventures on one of the AAI’s guided ice climbing courses. Courses typically run two or five days, but you can customize programs too. If you get hooked on swinging an axe, you won’t have to leave the canyon to find some of the steepest—and most demanding—multi-pitch ice routes in California.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may be short on big mountains, but you can certainly count on frigid winter weather. Combine the cold with reliably humid conditions and miles of porous sandstone cliffs along the shores of Lake Superior, and you’ve got an incredible climbing destination that might surprise many mountain-dwellers. But the secret is getting out. The northern Michigan town of Munising has become an ice climbing destination thanks to the precipitous cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Its ice routes tower up to 200 feet above the churning, frigid waters below.

A heli-skiing guide stands atop Osprey Spire in Canada’s Purcell Mountains.

A heli-skiing guide stands atop Osprey Spire in Canada’s Purcell Mountains.

Photograph by Kennan Harvey, Aurora

The area hosts its own winter extravaganza, the Michigan Ice Fest, a heady combination of climbing and camaraderie that draws some of the sport’s biggest names, such as Conrad Anker, who once presented here. If you can’t make the festival, the Michigan Ice Fest guides run beginner classes whenever the ice is good. It’s a long winter in the Upper Peninsula, and climbing ice is a favorite way to spend it.

Brian Handwerk is a New Hampshire-based writer covering travel, adventure, and science.

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