Ice climbing FAQ, Part 2: style
By Q.-Tuan Luong © 1996
What is free climbing in ice ?
To be considered "ethical" or "free", an ascent has to be done
without hanging in one's harness using a leash, fifi hook, or
clipped rope to rest on the tools. This means that the climber
relies only on his own strength. Using wrist loops to help
holding the tools is permitted, as well as clipping a tool for
protection, as long as you don't hang from it.
But isn't it ice climbing aid anyway ?
This is more a vocabulary problem than anything else. "Aid" to the
best of my knowledge refers to a particular form of rock-climbing
where anchors (= protection points) are used for progression. There
is no definitive transposition of this definition to ice
since ice-tools might or might not be considered as anchors depending
on the way you use them. However, the consensus nowadays is that
there is a good, ethical style (= not hanging from your harness).
Because one needs an easy way to call things, it has been designated
by "free", and by contrast the other styles (note that I don't say
"bad") are "aid". There is some consistency because in aid climbing,
except for some easier stuff, climbers use fifi hooks or clip-in loop
to spend most of their time hanging from harnesses, to the point that
doing an A2 route without hanging seems inconceivable to me.
What difference does it make ?
Everyone agrees that it is harder to climb "free". You don't get any
rest while placing your pro, unless you have been able to find a
natural stance. It is not that easy to place a screw anywhere next to
you, unless you have positionned yourself properly with respect to
your potential placement. Because of the combination of more
continuous effort and worse pro, most people can climb at least a full
grade harder when using the old style vs the free.
Isn't it hanging from wrist loops similar than hanging from your harness ?
On very steep ice, some form of support is necessary. However, it is
considerably more difficult to hang from your wrist loops than from your
harness. In the first case, you don't get a very good rest if you are
not well positioned, and you are still in a position which is similar to
the one you assume when you are climbing. In the second case, you can
relax totally at any spot, including an overhanging one. This looks like
a subtlety, but in fact is a big difference: climbing vs hanging.
Why should I climb free ?
This is a purely personnal matter. You should climb free only because
you feel like doing it. The most important is to remain alive, to have
fun, and to be honest about which method you use.
There is a number of personnal benefits:
- challenge: if you climb for a sufficiently long time, you will
find that by taking rests and placing pro when needed you can climb
everything, at least given enough time. It first takes some confidence
to learn to be confident being clipped into tools (which is purely
psychological since you are totally depending on them anyway), and to
be able to leave there security then. Once you learn this, then you
might have the feeling that any climb is accessible, since as soon as
you feel tired/scared, you can stop for a rest and place the best
If there is no more uncertainty, where is the
adventure and the challenge ? As a matter of fact, guides who have been
ice-climbing for twenty years told me that the new approach has reneweed
they interest and pleasure in climbing, to the point that they retry all
the stuff they did before with the new style.
improvement of your technique: you will have to find a way to rest
in natural positions, to save your energy, you will need to think
"strategically" about the
pitch, in terms of where to climb to be able to find protectable ice,
resting stances. You will therefore develop new skills. After a period
where you have to restart at a lower level, you will eventually be able
to do harder stuff.
speed: everything else being similar, it is faster to place pro
free than to hang on your harness, because there is less operations
natural style: the climb is a single effort, like when you
do a pitch on rock, there is no succession of hanging periods and climbing
periods and no awkward transitions. If it always take some time for one
to feel comfortable hanging from his tools, it is because it doesn't feel
very natural. When you are on
on a hard pitch and sink both your tools and clipped in, there might be too
much security in the sense that you might find it difficult to
leave this position and continue on the climb.
So should I forget totally about the "old style" ?
It is useful to be able to hang on your tools if needed.
Consider this skill only for emergency, for instance if your
crampon pops up, or if you happen to be on something too hard.
It is certainly better to finish the climb safely than to
risk taking a dangerous fall to free. The technique that I
recommend is to use a fifi hook to hang from a tool.
How did the concept of free appeared ?
The interesting point is to see how things change. "God" Perroux, one
of the pionneers of water ice, told me that back in the 70's, they
didn't use wrist loops because they didn't understand yet the benefits
of using them. Similarly, they didn't hang in their harnesses to place
pro, because they didn't realize that this could be done, and
therefore the vertical parts were just ran out. It took them a couple
of years to perfect the "old style" technique of placing pro (it is
not that obvious to do if you want to be fast). The debate aid/free
had another meaning then, when Bugs Mc Keith in the Canadian Rockies
used direct aid techniques with aiders (and sometimes four tools ?) to
do the great walls like Nemesis or Polar Circus. As a matter of fact,
he was most criticized for "bad style", and his ascents took several
days. Using "free climbing" (ie climbing with two tools as we all do
now, but hanging to place pro) allowed to repeat the climbs in a day.
It is partly the realization that given enough time this technique
would allow to climb anything which lead to the "new style" of placing
pro called "free". This happened mainly in the Canadian rockies in the late
80's, although this style had already been advocated in other regions
of America in the early 80's.
The level of climbing has always been extremely high there,
compared to other parts of the world, and in the last edition of
"Waterfall Ice", Joe Josephson writes that nowadays, using the "aid
style" is no longer considered to be an option there.
Another important contributing factor was the introduction of
the new Chouinard (now BD) ice screw. Although it could be done (and
was indeed, on this side of the Atlantic), it was not practical to
place previous screws with only one hand. The issue of free has been
discussed for a long time, but back then the challenge of just getting
up the climbs appeared enough so that most climbers did not bother,
according to Clint Cummins, the author of several significant
New England cutting-edge first ascents back then. Denis
Roscetti writes "When I was learning to
ice climb in the early '80s I went to climbing schools in Colorado and
New Hampshire (North Conway). Already by 1984 they were teaching the
"free" style: not hanging off your harness unless absolutely
learning to place pro while hanging from tools. Of course the screws
available at that time led to some interesting techniques. For
opening the off hand wrist loop so you could shove your arm through up
to the elbow; this was supposed to hold you in place and let you use
that hand to steady an ice screw while you drilled it in with your
dominant hand (with the leverage of an ice hammer or another screw). I
never could get this to work. Another "fix" was the "Ice Wench", a
ratchet like the ones in socket wrench sets. With this you could
one-hand the old Chouinard screws in, though it was not easy. The
problems with these twist-in screws led to the invention of hollow tube
pitons (Lowe Snargs being the first). With these, even a clutz like me
could hang off a tool and use the other to make a starter hole, place
the Snarg, and pound it home. Of course the difficulty of removing
Snargs meant that as soon as someone came up with a twist-in that
be placed by hand the age of pound-ins would be quickly eclipsed. And
it has been."
The ease of placement of the Chouinard screw made "free" look more
attractive to a vast number of people. It is at that time (in the
early 90's), that the free style was adopted in the alpine countries.
Climbers who had been refining the "old style" for years where first
reluctant, because they had to start over at one full grade below
their old standard. However, climbing free had soon its payoffs. The
technique, and the vision of the climbs improved very fast, and the
90's saw a significant number of grade 6+ and grade 7 climbs, as well
as the completion of long and sustained grade 6 routes which had
formed and had been spotted for 10 years, but appeared too
Black Diamond has now made the next logical step
in ice pro with the Express screws. It seems such
a simple addition, that little flip-up knob, but
it makes firing in a screw on lead about 1/3 of
the work it is with the standard screws. Amazingly
fast too. I haven't rushed out to replace my
entire rack or anything, but if I had to BUY a
complete ice rack I'd look very seriously at the
Contributed by Dennis Roscetti (email@example.com) on September 10, 1999.
Perhaps the next stage will be an even more free,
more pure form: Ice climbing sans wristloops!
Contributed by Hal Throolin (firstname.lastname@example.org) on April 11, 2000.