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Play Safe, the “Ice Climber’s Responsibility Code”

Date: 9th December 2017

Chamonix-Ice-Cluster“Well, I didn’t hit him the picks so I wasn’t trying to kill him!” Twenty years ago two enraged Colorado ice climbers in Boulder Canyon went at each other with their ice tools. One of the defendants used the “hammers, not picks” argument, which I’m paraphrasing roughly. As insane as this sounds, people get territorial over ice and rock climbs. Fortunately the vast majority of ice climbers share the ice well, but ice climbing is really different than rock climbing, and what works on rock doesn’t work on ice. Recently here in the Canadian Rockies we had a dangerous and odd situation arise between some visitors and locals that, of course, turned into the internet equivalent of an ice tool war. Out of the messy dialogue came the realization that a lot of new ice – or foreign – climbers don’t understand some of the basic etiquette of sharing ice climbs safely. A group of active climbers and guides including some ice legends and stoked locals went to work on the idea, and came up with the following principles based on how we do things in the Rockies, subject to on-going editing:

Ice Climbing Responsibility Code

  1. BE RESPECTFUL – Everyone deserves a safe and enjoyable experience. Educate others with respect, and be educated with grace. Engage in online forums as you would when face to face. Pack out trash, cigarette butts and excrement (bring a wag bag to popular venues). Urinate away from the base.
  2. LEAVE A NOTE – on your dashboard or in the dirt on your rear window, with route name, party size, and time, to aid others in their decision making at busy venues. Have a backup plan for when others are on your intended route, if it will not accommodate multiple parties.
  3. PARTIES AHEAD HAVE RIGHT OF WAY – It is your responsibility to steer clear of them. Do not climb beneath, or pass others, without clear communication and a plan to which all parties agree. Multipitch climbers have right of way over those only climbing the first pitch of established multipitch climbs.
  4. EXPECT FALLING ICE FROM OTHER CLIMBERS– Falling ice is inevitable. Climbing beneath others is dangerous to you, and compromises their security. Plan your movement and belay stances to maximize shelter from ice fall, which can bounce far, and in unexpected ways.
  5. AVALANCHE RESCUE EQUIPMENT A transceiver, shovel and probe should be carried by all party members in avalanche terrain, when sufficient snow exists for an avalanche hazard to be present. This may be on the approach, the climb or the descent.

Play safe. Play fair. Play by the Code.
Grimper à la mode. Respectez le Code.

The above are guidelines, and ideas to make everyone’s experience safe and fun. Really it boils down to people recognizing that falling ice is dangerous, and then working together to keep everyone safe. I see the biggest clusters occur with rock climbers getting into ice climbing; they tend to think falling ice is rare, like falling rock, and don’t give it the respect it deserves. We’ve had more than a few bad incidents here in the Rockies with falling ice hitting people, and all were really preventable. Note that communication needs to be respectful and with an assumption that everyone can work it out, but bottom line it’s also your responsibility on the ice to protect yourself. In the Visitors/Canadian incident the Visitors climbed up under the Canadians, then proceeded to climb UNDER their leader’s ropes and above the belayers. This is really dangerous not only for the falling ice, but because if the Visitor leader falls with his ropes running over the Canadian ropes he will “clothesline” the belayers, or possibly cut the Canadian leader’s ropes or the ropes holding the belayers to the anchors. Passing people on a rock climb is common and more expected, but you’ve got to manage the ropes and situation so that the passing team won’t clothesline the slower team. Again, communication and respect are critical. In this situation the Vistors endangered the Canadians, but the Canadians should have spoken up and stopped the visitors from passing. If you get hit with falling ice it’s your own fault ultimately, protect yourself.


Don’t do this, or let someone do it. The “Green Jacket” leader has climbed under the Red Jacket’s leader’s ropes; if Green Jacket falls before he gets a piece in his ropes will saw across Red’s ropes. A sliding rope on a piece of fixed nylon cuts it very quickly… Best case, if the Green guy falls off over the Red Ropes he will pull the Red leader off… Or Green falls to the looker’s left of Red he will “clothesline” Red, likely injuring him. In this case Green and his party continued above red, and pelted him with ice. In addition to the rope work being dangerous, the lack of communication between teams led to a really dangerous situation. Don’t do that.

Posted in: Blog


  1. Aaron Sheldon   December 22, 2017 4:30 pm

    …and being over the age of forty I also live by:

    6. Choose your battles wisely.

    I have backed off of rock and ice climbs, and particularly ski descents in popular areas because the other parties were unsafe or unreasonable. On elevated avalanche hazard days when everyone is confined to the same “safe” slopes I find myself doing this quite often.

    But it took time and experience, and most importantly retreading the same popular routes and trade routes to get to the point where I could postpone my ambitions to another day.

    I have found that sometimes my best option is to walk way, shaking my head at the nonsense of it all, and taking comfort in commiserating with my solid partners.

  2. Alexander   January 22, 2019 7:39 am

    These sound like sound principles! Personally, I’ve never ice climbed myself and I did not expect crowded places to be such an issue. Ice climbing terrifies me way more than rock climbing, I’d be really scared my holds will just break and fall off. Might have to add it to my to do list though ^.^! Thanks for this article, I loved your anekdote at the start.

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