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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:

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 necessary, learning to place pro while hanging from tools. Of course the screws available at that time led to some interesting techniques. For instance, 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 could be placed by hand the age of pound-ins would be quickly eclipsed. And so 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 intimidating then.

Reader's comments

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 Express screws.
Contributed by Dennis Roscetti (roscetti@execpc.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 (hal.throolin@pss.boeing.com) on April 11, 2000.

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