Ice Climbing Participation Trends and Analysis
by Tom Stuessy
In the spring of 2005 NEIce was asked to help with an ice climbing
research effort. The site’s owner, Doug Millen, agreed to assist
and posted the survey on the web page.
The study focused on how perceptions of risk, creativity, and
challenge while at work influenced the way people participated in
ice climbing. In addition to the correlations between work and ice
climbing, trends in ice climbing were also investigated regarding
gear and type of participation. Trends investigated included
soloing and leashless climbing. These two dimensions of climbing
were isolated due to the consequences of making a mistake while
performing one of them.
As can be seen in a recent article written by Will Gadd (2006) in Gripped magazine, climbing is in fact a risky endeavor. It is
not the focus of this article to argue for or against what Will Gadd
has done to promote or discourage risky climbing, but rather to shed
some light on our current participation trends that increase risk to
the sport of ice climbing such as leashless climbing.
Participation in risk recreation is the act of
intentionally putting oneself in harms way. The motivations to
engage in high-risk recreation range from social pressure, seeking
an identity, adrenalin, or testing one’s skill (Ewert & Hollenhorst,
1989). Testing one’s mettle is primal. However, society takes great
measures to protect people from danger at all levels. Most of what
is needed for basic survival can be ordered over the phone or
Internet. Humans no longer have to physically fight in order to show
dominance or survive; yet these urges are still present. High-risk
recreation is the most socially accepted and convenient way to
engage with these urges. To experience risk, employ skill, and to
survive is a primal requirement.
The sample was comprised of 67 climbers at “Ice Fest” in North
Conway and those solicited on NEIce during the spring of 2005
(N=358). Among the sample 92 % were male and the average experience
level was 7.9 years of climbing. Ages among ranged from 18-65 with
74% falling between 24-49 years of age.
Participation Trends and Data Analysis
The survey asked questions regarding solo and leashless
climbing. Perception of risk associated with climbing solo or
without leashes was correlated to how confident subjects were
regarding climbing skill. In addition, measures of control,
freedom, and challenge will be shared.
Subjects that rated their climbing skill as better than
average perceived climbing solo as more dangerous for themselves
than others. Conversely, risk recreation literature illustrates
that risk recreationists will typically rate their own skill as
superior to others, which would have resulted in a perception that
climbing solo for others is more dangerous than for themselves.
This finding is encouraging as it lends some support to the notion
that ice climbers can effectively decipher their own skill base and
can choose appropriate challenges while ice climbing.
In addition to rating the risk associated with solo climbing,
perceptions of leashless climbers were also collected and analyzed.
Those climbers among the sample that rated their own climbing skill
above average did not perceive leashless climbing as being easier or
more liberating to movement while climbing, nor was it perceived as
being more dangerous.
It is a commonly accepted notion in adventure recreation literature
that feelings of control are a motivating force in participation.
Data analysis determined that those climbers that perceive their
skill as above average had strong correlations with feelings of
control and confidence while ice climbing. Feelings of control
while ice climbing were highly correlated with perceptions of
confidence while at work. Feelings of expression and creativity
while ice climbing were also highly correlated with feelings of
freedom and creativity while at work.
These relationships were not inverse, meaning that climbers did not
seek feelings of control and freedom while ice climbing because of
low perceptions of control and freedom while at work. Instead,
feelings of control and freedom transcend both dimensions of the
The data collected as a result of this research effort
supported the notion that ice climbers are a motivated, creative,
and educated group of people. This research points to ice climbers
having accurate meta-skills (ability to judge one’s own knowledge)
and work lives that allow for expression and freedom.
Leashless climbing will continue to grow given the data
collected here. Among the sample leashless climbing was not
perceived as more dangerous. However, it was also not perceived as
being to the climber’s advantage. This issue will continue to be
controversial among student climbers. While a student can hang from
a leash and not drop a tool because of a leash, they can ignorantly
commit to a section of ice that will break leaving them connected to
a large fallen piece of ice via the tool’s leash. The pedagogical
use of leashless tools is still up for debate.
The data presented here lends support to the notion that climbers
can effectively assess the dangers associated with solo climbing,
particularly for themselves. Future research needs to better
address perceived skills in all areas of climbing such as when
climbers are ready to lead or how different types of climbing
environments influence climbing participation/decisions.
It is obvious that more data collection focused on trends
exclusively is needed. It is hoped that this collection will take
place in the near future and shared among the greater ice climbing
community. During data collection subjects emailed the primary
investigator with great suggestions. These suggestions will help
mold a subsequent data collection process.
Tom Stuessy is a professor at Green Mountain College in Poultney,
Vermont in the Recreation and Outdoor Studies Department. He would
like to hear your suggestions for future research. What research do
you think will help the climbing the community the most? If you
have suggestions please send them to Tom at: [email protected].