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Ice climbing FAQ, Part 3: technique

By Q.-Tuan Luong © 1996

A few technical explanations, in particular on protection.

Why is ice-climbing so scary ?

Easy climbs are actually not scary at all. The placements feel incredibly solid, and actually they are ! Very steep climbs are quite scary. The steeper it is, the more strenuous it is. The steeper it is, the less obvious are the good placements. So you would want more protection. But it takes you a lot of time and energy to place a screw, much more than to protect yourself on rock, so you'll have to do a pitch with something like half a dozen screws at most. And the more difficult the climb is, the less likely also are the screws to hold your fall, because the ice is too roten or thin (or both). Besides, some climbs have a non neglectible danger of collapse, and these climbs also happen to be technically difficult, so that you will stay longer on them.

Ice requires so much strength and endurance compared to rock ?

No. I find it to be just the opposite. Personnal illustrations: One of the key to save your energy is to take your time. This is possible if you make a proper use of the wrist loops in order to hang from your bones, and not your muscles. By placing your body is rest positions, looking for good foot holds, looking for easy tool placements, taking the time to put your weight on straight arms every few moves, you can save a lot of energy. This is why I can stay one hour and half on a vertical pitch (although I cannot do 5 pull-ups). My partners are sometimes surprised that I can hang that long, but the truth is that if I tried to complete the pitch in 45mm, I wouldn't be able to (we are talking about hard stuff here).

How to place a screw on vertical ice, free-style ?

Personnally I find the hip height gives me the most force to start the screw (the most critical part).

There are two techniques that I can recommend. I have gotten used to the safety of the first one, but latter, I favored the second one, which I find is more elegant and efficient. However, in light of recent findings about tie-offs (the screw bends, the tie-off slips and then is cut at the hanger. see Climbing no 172 (Nov 97), pp 106-115), I would think twice about it.

The resting position is standing on right foot with the leg straight, hanging straigth armed. The left foot is used to stabilize the diagonal. The vertical angle between the left tool and the right leg determines the energy to spend, so you try to minimize it by finding a hole for the tool and a bump for the foot. Also try to stand on your edge, which might require to kick the ice away.

The ice in the area where you are going to place the screw has to be reasonably solid (after cleaning). Hollow or thin sections do not provide good pro.

What to do if the screw sticks out of the ice ?

The traditional method has been to tie it off, possibly using a preplaced tie-off. However, in light of recent findings about tie-offs (the screw bends, the tie-off slips and then is cut at the hanger. see Climbing no 172 (Nov 97), pp 106-115), it appears that if the screw sticks out of less than two inches, it might be better just to clip the eye. BD now makes a very short screw. In the book by Jeff Lowe, "Ice world" an interesting system is described, placing ice screws in series, however the goal of the system is to avoid having the screw shear through ice, and it might not prevent the failure mode described in the cited article.

Do ice-screws hold falls ?

There is a huge variation, between "basically useless" and "totally bombproof", depending on the ice. Because of this variation, tests are not very meaningful. To my knowldege, screws placed in ideal conditions have been statically loaded to 2000kg, and I have heard reports of tests where they threw heavy sand bags to generate fall factors of one and where the screw held. In test conducted at BD, the hanger or the tube broke before the screw pulled out. Therefore, if the ice if perfect, I would say that they are incredibly strong. I have personnally seen two leader falls on vertical ice, one of 5 meters, one of 10 meters, where the leader resumed the climb. Now the problem is that ice is not always perfect, you don't always get the best placement you could (esp. if climbing "free"), you cannot or don't want to usually place that many screws, and the more difficult the climb, the poorest the protection is. F. Damilano writes that in the extreme climbs, the leader is virtually in a solo situation.

How dangerous is it to fall ?

Falling is not as feared as it used to be for two reasons: the protection is better than before, and people tend to climb steeper climbs. However it is still a very serious proposition. Even if the screws don't pull out, your risk of being injured is still serious. Remember also that even if the screw holds, you are wearing a lot of sharp objects. And you can easily sprain your ankle even with a ridiculously short leader fall (I have heard of this happening several times) because of your crampons bitting the ice. Someone was thinking about designing a crampon with a releasable set of front points (like a ski binding) to address this problem, but it doesn't seem that this project is going to be completed.

Most of the ice climbers that I know have never taken a leader fall, and don't intend to. For the rest, I would say that most of them took only one very lucky fall. My advice is to back up before it is too late. You can rap down from almost any point in an ice climb. If you know you must not fall, you will climb in consequence.

What to do with glasses on wet spots ?

In ice-climbing, there is a combination of two problems: fog from your own heat, and water which changes the refraction index when it stays liquid, and ices up otherwise. There is very little which can be done in wet and cold situations, short of getting contacts. Personnally, when I get into a wet spot, I just remove my glasses, and put them on again when it is dry. I have a very bad sight (I can barely read on the screen without glasses) but have not found that this does not prevents me from climbing since I can judge the placements by the sound and the feeling. My advice is to try to get used to this situation. The main problem is for feet placements, but they are less critical if you have decent tools placements.

Misc. tips

A wart-hog on a rubber leash attached to the climbing harness is very useful when seconding an ice pitch. It is easier to insert it into the eye of a screw to get it started out than the pick of an axe (and saves wear on the axe pick). It can also be inserted into the tube of the screw to encourage ice to leave (especially handy if the leader uses pound-in screws, e.g. snargs). Finally, it is a spare piece of pro'. ( suggested by Everett Fee )

Reader's comments

It is important to note; on the subject of the short screws that BD is making, that the short screws are NOT rated by the UIAA the same is true of most ice pitons (such as the Spectre by BD). They do not feel that secure protection can be obtained by using these screws. In North Carolina; however, you are lucky to get more than six inches of ice in one spot, and so the short screw is considered better than nothing. I hope this is info someone can use. Thanks for the awesome site!
Contributed by Rob Thompson (sicboater@yahoo.com) on November 24, 1999.
RE: Technique/Gear. Ice fall climbing and alpine ice climbing are very different. Personally I use a different set of tools for each activity. I use Grivel Rambos for ice falls and Mountain Technology "curver" axes for the alps. These are significantly lighter than the Rambos and much better suited to general mountain use as they have straight shafts and curved picks. I find these features make Piolet Canne, Piolet Troisieme and ice axe breaking techniques easier to use without compromising the the advantages of reversed picks too much. The downside is that I sometimes agonise for hours about which tools to take in a given situation as there is no doubt at all that reversed picks are better on technical ice. Something like the Chere Couloir is a classic example. I have not yet done it but intend to do so this year and I have not yet decided which axes to use??

With regard to placing ice screws on steep ice. A method I use is to bury one axe high and hang straight armed from it. Place the other axe deep and slightly lower, place the rope over the head of this axe to give temporary protection, remove your wrist from the loop of this axe and place the screw just above waist level. This saves having to mess about with additional carabiners etc. and is very quick. Even if a carabiner is clipped for greater security it is worth considering doing this in the first instance.

Contributed by Al Randall (al_randall@abbeymeadow.freeserve.co.uk) on January 6, 2002.

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