10 Cool Ice-Climbing Destinations

Ice climber on the frozen Upper Falls of the Johnston Creek
Johnston Canyon in Canada's popular Banff National Park is a hotspot for ice climbing. Ferenc Cegledi / Getty Images

Ice climbing is an extreme version of climbing that involves using axes, crampons, a rope, and screws to scale frozen waterfalls and steep glacier walls. In the U.S., folks flock to Colorado, the Eastern Sierra Nevada, and even Michigan, where the oldest ice climbing festival is held, to get their fill of the adrenaline-packed sport each winter. Being an international pastime, however, ice crags have been established all other the world.

From Patagonia and South Africa to the Alps, where the extreme sport is believed to have been invented, here are 10 cool (pun intended) ice-climbing destinations around the world.

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Ice Factor

Climber scaling a human-made ice wall inside Scotland's Ice Factor

subflux / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Historically, one could only ice climb when weather conditions permitted it. These days, though, indoor facilities mimic the ideal temperature—about 30 degrees, so that the ice is soft and not too brittle—for ice climbing, therefore providing a safe practice space year-round. Ice Factor, or the National Climbing Centre, in the Scottish Highlands is one such facility. It has a 40-foot wall made of 500 tons of real snow and ice, speckled with a range of routes graded for beginner to expert climbers.

The temperature inside is kept consistently below freezing and the facility emulates the natural freeze/thaw cycle ideal for climbing. It allows the ice to soften up in "warm" temperatures during the day, then refreezes it at night. Instructors are always available to help novices learn the proper techniques, and the center also offers outdoor excursions to some of the U.K.'s most famous peaks, including Ben Nevis.

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Ouray Ice Park

Footbridge between two ice-covered cliffs in Ouray
Mark-Smith / Getty Images

Located in the San Juan Mountain Range, Ouray, Colorado, is the site of the largest ice climbing festival in North America, held every January. Climbers first discovered the walls of ice running up the side of a steep gorge 25 years ago. In the early 1990s, the alteration of local water sources created even more routes, putting Ouray on the climbing map for good.

The Ouray Ice Park, a mile-long climbing venue built in the Uncompahgre Gorge, opened in the winter of 1994, and the Ouray Ice Festival celebrated its first season two years later. Since, it has become one of the sport's biggest events, hosting competitions, vendor demonstrations, seminars, and clinics. The Ouray Ice Park has 11 climbing areas with more than 100 human-made ice and mixed climbs on three miles of vertical terrain. It's open whenever weather conditions allow for safe climbing; it can close as early as February or stay open into spring.

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Johnston Canyon

Ice climbers gathered at the base of frozen waterfalls
Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

The ice in Johnston Canyon, near the popular Canadian wintertime sports destination of Banff, Alberta, is an attraction for ice climbers and casual hikers alike. During the warmer seasons, trails through the canyon are incredibly scenic and ideal for all-ages hiking. From November to the end of April, the hikes are more difficult (i.e., snowshoes or ice cleats are necessary), but they lead to frozen, climbable waterfalls graded WI2 (beginner-friendly) to WI6 (very difficult). Area outfitters rent out gear and hold courses to teach the fundamentals of the sport.

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Climber ascends a frozen ravine in Rjukan, Norway

subflux / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Scandinavia, in general, is a haven for skiing, ice skating, mushing, ski jumping, and, of course, ice climbing. Rjukan, Norway—a town that sits along a deep ravine—is the premier place for the latter. In the winter, the sides of the ravine acquire sheer, whimsically shaped ice formations.

Special operations troops famously scaled the icy walls during World War II to thwart a Nazi attempt to develop a nuclear bomb. In modern times, skilled climbers try to conquer the seemingly impossible formations for sport. Like Ouray, Rjukan has its own ice climbing festival. And while much of the focus surrounds the most challenging routes, Rjukan's numerous frozen falls provide easier options as well.

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Frozen waterfall and mountains at Oeschiwald Lake
Sjo / Getty Images

Dramatic Swiss Alps scenery dominates Kandersteg, a farming village in the Bernese Oberland. The different winter sporting opportunities on offer here—skating, alpine and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tobogganing, and curling, even—make it a well-rounded destination for those who might like to try ice climbing among other activities. The mountains here offer an assortment of challenging longer climbs, but the Oeschiwald Area, in particular, is popular among outfitters who offer hands-on frozen waterfall-scaling courses to newbies. Gasterntal, a wilder corner of the Alps, is more popular with experienced ice climbers.

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Viedma Glacier

Ice climber on the bright-blue Viedma Glacier
Peter Essick / Getty Images

The Viedma Glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field between Chile and Argentina, is ideal for combining a basic ice climbing experience with an adventure-packed glacier walk. This is a spectacular place to hike because whimsical formations, deep ice caves, and steep ridges have formed from various parts of the glacier moving at different speeds. Ice climbers here will get to say they've scaled the largest glacier within Los Glaciares National Park and the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Viedma is on the edge of its namesake lake, and many tours arrive by boat, which provides unmatched, panoramic views of the 380-square-mile glacier.

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Drakensberg and Maluti Ranges

Smiling climber on frozen waterfall next to red rock formation

Fiona McIntosh / Getty Images

The Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa and Lesotho's Maluti (also spelled Maloti) Range experience snowy conditions and below-freezing temperatures in the winter. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the streams on the south-facing slopes at high elevation freeze between June and August. The ice formations are rather consistent because they rely on wet-season runoff. This means that even if there is little snow during the coldest months, there still may be good conditions for ice climbing.

Lesotho's Maluti Mountains have several challenging climbs, including the ascent of Lepaqoa Falls. South Africa's Drakensberg boasts the Sani Pass, which has a collection of routes ideal for beginners, and Giant's Castle, a site with easy routes and multipitch climbs to challenge even skilled climbers. This area includes some routes that have never been climbed before, too, mainly because the lack of infrastructure prevents climbers from getting there easily.

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Vatnajökull Ice Cap

Person standing at the entrance to an ice cave

David Clapp / Getty Images

It comes as no surprise that Iceland—an adventurer's paradise that's home to 269 glaciers covering a total of 4,500 square miles—is a serious ice-climbing destination. One of the most accessible frozen playgrounds is the country's largest and most voluminous ice cap, Vatnajökull, whose Svinafellsjokull and Breiðarmerkujökull (the ice cap's largest outlet glacier) are popular among ice climbers. The "Glacier of Lakes," as its name translates, has opportunities for glacier walking and vertical ice climbing for both beginners and experts. It's in southern Iceland, which makes it relatively easy to get to from the capital city of Reykjavik.

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Frankenstein Cliff

Climber with legs splayed on frozen waterfall

Robbie Shade / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Frankenstein Cliff is an ice-climbing destination in Crawford Notch State Park in New Hampshire's White Mountains. This area is known by many East Coast ice climbers because it offers a variety of different routes, from beginner challenges to multipitch routes that only the most skilled would dare to attempt. Though consistency varies here, there are near-endless options—but only between December and March. Mountain Project, a global virtual climbing guidebook, lists more than 30 ice (or mixed) routes at Frankenstein Cliff.

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Matanuska Glacier

Person standing in the shadow of the Matanuska glacier
Piriya Photography / Getty Images

Alaska is the land of 100,000 glaciers. Most of these ice formations are in remote corners of the state, only accessible to professional climbers and adventurers who can afford to fly in. But the Matanuska Glacier is different. The 108-square-mile frozen mass is the U.S.'s largest glacier accessible by car. Located just off the Glenn Highway, about 100 miles from Anchorage, Matanuska is a favorite of tour guides because it offers easy hikes and has a number of short ice walls where novice climbers can learn the ropes.

Of course, there are also challenging walls on Matanuska. The whole glacier is climbable, so experienced athletes can set up routes just about anywhere for a challenge of their choice.