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Ice climbing FAQ, Part 4: gear

By Q.-Tuan Luong © 1996

Some general discussions about ice tools, ice screws, ropes. Note that I haven't followed the latter developments in that area.

Should I get tools or ice axes ?

You almost cannot do technical water ice with traditional axes, but you can use a tool in mountaineering, even if this not optimal. The main problem will be the length of the shaft. However, if it is not steep, you don't really need an ax (except to glissade). The banana-blade will make chopping steps very difficult, but it is not a very useful technique. Self-arresting is also a bit more difficult, but still possible.

Should I get bent shaft or straight shaft ?

What are curved and banana-bladed axes designed to be used for ? Curved axes are traditionnal axes designed for all-around mountaineering and "classical" ice climbs where the angle is less than 70 degrees.

Banana-bladed axes are modern tools designed for very steep to vertical ice.

Reasons for the difference:

Are the banana-blades solely for vertical ice climbing?

No, they also work well on 85 degres :-)

Seriously, the banana axes are not good for easy climbs, but this has more to do with the length of the shaft. They work well on steep (55) climbs, even if they are not optimal. Personnally I prefer to take technical tools since if it is not that steep I don't really need them, and thus the fact that they are sub-optimal does not matter, and if it gets steep, I want to have the right tool. The only thing which really bugs me in using banana axes in mountaineering is that they are too short for glissading.

Is there any difference in the longevity of forged heads and bolt together heads ?

Yes, one crucial difference. Once your blade is broken on a forged axe (I have broken 4 blades so far, and I am not counting the blades that I had to retire because they were worn out), you can just throw away your axe. This is the reason why I use exclusively modular tools now.

Is there a wrist loop which works well ?

A non-trivial question, since they all seem to suck. The two important functions are: Wrists loops are a crucial (and relatively cheap) component of ice-climbing gear, although people pay more attention to tools, crampons. Proper use of wrists loops will reduce considerably the strength needed for a climb. I suggest that you spend some time investigating several wrists loops for yourself and see what works best for you. Generally speaking, I have found that all the velcro-based wrist loop suck. A system which really locks your wrist well enough will require operation with your teeth to close and open. Check to see how easily you can do that. Two alternatives are the self-locking Simond loop, and various systems which were recently introduced which let you detach the loop from the tool. Generally speaking these alternatives are more convenient than a classical loop, but can also be less reliable. Some of this stuff is discussed further on the gear review section.

Is there a quickfit crampon that can be used with a Telemark skiing boot/ leather hiking boot ?

This is very possible, and I have indeed done this several times with a very lightweight tele boot and several leather hiking boots. With tele boots, Because the front fits the toe bail of quick-fit crampons very well, he set-up is very secure and not likely to pop up. The drawback is that if your front point are short, they might not be protruding enough for front-pointing.

One of the ways to take care of the rigidity problem would be to use a rigid crampon. Contrarily to the common wisdom I have found that flexible boots work best with rigid crampons, the crampon giving the rigidity which is required for ice climbing. I have climbed several times vertical ice, sometimes on lead or solo, using not-so-rigid leather boots. Some manufacturers have warned against possible breakage, and you have to be careful to pickup a crampon which is strong enough. Those which have a vertical design like the footfangs, switchblades, ice invaders, or rambo, to cite a few, look quite unlikely to break and it might be that the warning is more for liability than anything else.

What do people carry for a standard ice rack ?

Personnally, on a difficult lead I will take: BD type screws can be placed quite easily with only one hand. This is very important if you want to climb free. The introduction of the lattest Chouinard screw (an earlier version of the current BD) was a real breakthrough. Since then, many manufacturers have introduced new screws with about the same characteristics. Some of them are cheaper than the BD, which may not have been surpassed.

Longer screws have the advantage of reaching better ice when the ice in surface is rotten/hollow. On solid ice, I doubt that the extra length would make them significantly more solid. They take more time and energy to place. Nobody is really sure whether long screws hold better than short. But clearly, there is a point at which short becomes too short. Due to leverage, the outer-most ice plays the most crucial role in holding a fall, so there is also a point at which long becomes too long.

Non-tubular screws are out, because of reduced holding power, difficulty to place or remove, or a combination of these factors. Ice hooks have a limited holding power but can be placed on thin ice. Hammer-in screws need two hands to be placed.

The Lowe RATS is difficult to place with one hand, but it makes a very good belay screw because of the thickness. The first model is superior to the current one.

What ropes to use ?

For ice climbing, I recommend to use thin and long ropes. I don't recomend single ropes, since they are thick and you need anyway two ropes to be able to rappel from many climbs. Personally I have two 8.5mm 60m dry ropes. I know that Godefroi Perroux uses two 8.0mm 70m ropes. He has been guiding ice for longer than anyone else I know and does not care about the fact that these ropes are not even UIAA-certified.

A good alternative is to use one 100m 8.5 double-colored rope. These are popular in Europe and almost impossible to find in the US. It can be used as a twin/double 50 rope, or you can use it as a single 100m rope on easier terrain. The main drawback of this system is that you have to be a bit more careful with rope management. In addition, you cannot divide the weight of the rope. It is essential to have a double-colored rope so that you can identify each strand. It also helps find the middle easily.

To have long ropes let you reach for good belay spots, and also have to set up less belays. On ice there is less pro and less friction than in rock, therefore rope drag is not a big problem.

The advantages of thin ropes are many: they are lighter (important if they are long), and more manageable, esp. once frozen. They will also stretch more, therefore reducing the impact force on your gear in case of a fall, an important point considering the reliability (or lack of) of ice protection. On ice there is abrasive surfaces or sharp edges like on rock, so even thin ropes are unlikely to fail.

Your ropes will freeze even with a dry treatment, but that will reduce a bit the problem.

Reader's comments

I wanted to tell everyone about THE ice axe leash. I've spent hours hanging from the Yates Ice Axe Handcuffs and can't forge a single complaint about them. They are reasonably priced and work very efficiently. Check em out.
Contributed by Joshua Hubbard (Denaliprim@aol.com) on December 7, 1998.
I never knew why half-tubolar blades for water-ice axes are few popular in Europe and almost unknown in US. They are really good and they brake much less ice than classical banana-blades ! If you can, try the tubolar blades by Simond: it's worth !
Contributed by Paolo Mainotti (paolomainotti@cariplo.it) on March 15, 1999.
This is on your ice screw protection section. Without going into to much detail. The lenght of the screw is not really inportantant. If the surface ice is garbage the screw will not hold even if was a foot and a half long. What is impottant is that the surface ice is of good quality. 80% of the holding power is in the first 4 diameters of the screw. Compramise this and you have placed a questionable screw. Thats why 10cm screws hold factor 2 falls. Leave the eye of the screw out of the ice by a single diameter and you have a 40% compramise of the screws strenght, two you have 60%. To infure that a loonger screw is going to help is a disinformation service. Joe Mckay ACMG Alpine Guide Canada
Contributed by Joe Mckay (mckay@mountainguide.com) on September 2, 1999.
If you're worried about bolts in your tools working loose then use a nut-lock compound on them. Superglue also works well. I've used this on my tools for years and never had a bolt work loose.
Contributed by Ade Miller (ade@summsoft.com) on December 20, 1999.

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