Broomfield’s Aaron Montgomery, recently returned from demonstrating ice climbing as a potential Olympic sport at the Winter Games in Sochi, walks us through scaling Vail’s difficult 35-meter Rigid Designator.

Ice Sculpture
The ice on Designator forms from the top and the bottom and meets in the middle. The ice at the bottom is referred to ascauliflower ice; it forms from the splatter of water hitting below. The section in the middle—the dagger—is free hanging.

Safety First
The first thing you look for at the base of a route is where the belayer will stand. You shouldn’t belay off the left side of Designator because there’s usually a hanging dagger that can fall. It’s actually killed someone. Ice is like that. It falls down.

Temp Control
You’re constantly reading the medium, which is ice. It changes with temperature. Ice is awesome a little above or a little below freezing, but if it gets below like 10 degrees, the ice gets very hard and very brittle.

Route Finding
Climbing cauliflower ice is awkward. You’re standing on it, but not really kicking in, and your tools are slopped over the ice above you. It’s very funky, but you can get screws—used to anchor climbers to the ice in a fall—in there pretty good.

Placing Protection
You’re looking for a place that’s thick enough to take the screw, which is between 11 and 19 centimeters. You want the screw to be in as deep as possible, pointed five to 10 degrees upward.

Emergency Maneuvers
If you fall—even if the screw catches you—crampons make it easy to sprain or break an ankle. If you feel yourself falling, give a little hop or kick your feet back and get away from the ice.

The Crux
The last moves before the top are the hardest. As the steepness gives way, you have to pull over the bulge. It’s hard to stick your tools because Designator gets a lot of snow on top, so you have to trust your feet.


In the United States, ice climbing routes are typically graded as WI (water ice) one to seven, with one being low-angle ice that doesn’t require tools and seven being highly technical, overhanging routes with little protection and very few rests. Rigid Designator is WI5. Exclusive: Will ice climbing be the next Olympic sport? Learn about it.

—Image by D. Scott Clark/Tandemstock