Monday, May 17, 2010

DIY Leashless Ice Tool Tether/Umbilical

With more and more climbers going "leashless" these days, companies like Black Diamond have a large enough market to make a product like their Spinner Leash profitable. However, before you go out and drop $49.95 on a manufactured leash, don't forget that people have been making them at home for years. Here is one way to do it...

  • 12 feet of 1/2 inch webbing
  • 1.5 feet of 1/2 inch webbing (different color than above)
  • 12 feet 1/8 inch elastic shock cord
  • 3/8 inch swivel or bigger
  • 2 carabiners or Spring Snaps
Take the 12 feet of webbing, put one end in your hand and stretch it out to full extension. At your farthest reach, pull the middle of the webbing to your waist.

Take double this length (plus a little extra if you need room for error, like me) and cut it.

Cut the elastic shock cord to mimic the length of the webbing. Open up the webbing and insert the shock cord into the webbing until it is all the way in. If your webbing is closed or "melted" at the end, just cut a little behind the tip and it will be easier to open up. Be patient, putting the cord inside the webbing takes time.

After the cord is inside the webbing, feed the swivel onto the cord until it is exactly in the middle and tie an overhand knot.

Stretch the shock cord 6-12 inches out of the webbing so the webbing bunches up, and tie a knot in the shock cord to hold it in place.

Here comes the tricky part; tie an overhand on a bite in the end of the webbing so that when the swivel is attached to your harness and the overhand is clipped to your tool, you can fully stretch without the webbing becoming taught. I do not have a great way to explain how to do this, or how to measure in advance, except to say I messed up two or three times. That is why it is nice to have extra webbing/shock cord, and then just cut off the excess. If you are using spring snaps, make sure to feed them on the webbing and incorporate these into the overhand knot.

The shock cord is running inside of the knot, which is what holds it in place. Repeat this process on the opposite side. With the smaller piece of different colored webbing, tie a sling using a water knot to the opposite side of the swivel. This piece of webbing will not have any shock cord in it.

Attach the umbilical to your harness by girth hitching the small sling to your tie in points.

Attach the two ends by clipping a carabiner that fits into the bottom holes of your ice tools. If you attached spring snaps, use those instead of the carabiners. If you don't have holes at the bottom of your tools, get creative.

And there you have it, pretty awesome, homemade leashless tool umbilicals! Homemade gear always tastes... err.. works better right!?

A few notes regarding design:
  • Two colored webbing is not necessary, it's just nice to be able to distinguish between the separate pieces of the umbilical quickly.
  • If you are using spring snaps, make sure these fit in the bottom of your tool.
  • You can really use anything to connect these to your tools, from small plastic carabiners to key chain rings.
  • This took me about an hour to do, including an initial failed attempt.
  • Buying "12" feet of webbing is not necessary, you could measure the amount you need in store and purchase only that amount. I estimated 12 feet because I figured only a giant would need more than that.
  • You can use a lighter to melt the ends of the webbing back together so they don't fray. Kids ask your parents for help.
A few notes regarding safety:
  • These umbilicals are not meant to be used as a personal anchor system or as a "back-up" while placing a screw. They are not load bearing.
  • I used two small, C.A.M.P Nano 23 carabiners to attach to my tools. If you use any kind of attachment method that isn't "full-strength" make sure they don't accidentally get used on your rack. While they may be heavier, I opted for full-strength carabiners to avoid any mistake.
  • Notice where I girth hitched the blue piece of webbing, to my two tie-in points. If you girth hitch anything to your harness, be it a sling, daisy chain, or umbilical, do it to your tie-in points. Girth hitching to your belay loop limits its ability to rotate, which is important for reducing wear on one specific part of the loop. A good rood of thumb is that all soft goods should be attached to the tie-in points, and hard goods clipped to the belay loop.
  • Over time, I found that I prefer to actually clip these to my belay loop, instead of girth hitching.  Clipping allows me to remove it quickly with gloves, and is worth the little extra weight in my opinion.
Let me know if you try to make your own and have any improvements to my directions or materials. I would love to hear your feedback! I'm pretty excited that I did this at the end of the season, right when they are no longer necessary.... Wait, our ice season isn't over in the North Cascades! If I went out and climbed the North Ridge of Mount Baker I could get a ton of ice climbing in during the summer season! It's a good thing our Alpine Ice courses take people to the North side and climb that route. Make yourself a pair of these and come climb with us!

-Andrew Yasso, Program Coordinator


Unknown said...

Awesome, as always.. It definitely takes a bit of patience getting the shock cord through the webbing. Can go quicker if you borrow a crochet needle w/ shock cord attached to it..

James said...

I have a pair of the old style BD Fusions and don't have a spike on the end to clip like the new ones. Do you or anyone else out there have an idea on a way to attach umbilicals?

Andrew Yasso said...

@Springsyeti - I don't need to borrow a crochet needle, I crochet all my own belay jackets...

@James - I'm really not sure of how you would attach the umbilicals to something without a spike. I can't seem to find a photo of the older fusions, but is there a hole near the head of the tool? It might be more in your face, but you could probably clip into that hole? Let me know.


James said...

They have the same head as the Vipers/Cobras, so yes there is a hole there. I have thought about clipping in to there, but figured it would get in the way and soon get annoying.
I think I am going to buy some spare parts and do a little modding over the summer. I'll let you know how it goes. If you guys think of anything that might help, drop me a line.

Andrew Yasso said...


I know this sounds crude, but maybe it is time to break out the duct tape? You could tape a small piece of cord to the bottom of the tool and then clip the loop in the cord. I will ask around and see what others have done and get back to you if I hear anything new.


James said...

@Andrew - I finally got around to tinkering with my tools. Take a look at my album on Facebook for a quick walk-though of my mod.

Also made a set of leashes following your method. One slight deviation though - you suggest 2' of webbing for the tie-in point. I found that to be too tight and went with 3'. It was much easier to feed everything through at that length. I also think that 12' for the main webbing was right on the money. I trimmed about 12"-14" off of each end of the shock cord after I had stretched it and tied it off, but I don't think I would have bought it shorter to begin with. I think doing that would have made it more of a challenge to get if fed through and tied off at the length that I wanted.

Andrew Yasso said...

Huh, well I guess everyone works different! I actually found that I would rather clip my umbilicals in, instead of girth hitching it to my harness. I found myself wanting to detach the whole system quickly, and if it is girth hitched I can't do that. For that reason, I actually shortened the webbing for my tie in point so with the carabiner attached, the tools are still at full extension.

Regardless, I admire your ability to tinker the with the spike! It looks pretty darn good, even if it doesn't sit quite flush it still works. I also see you went with 1" webbing, which I suppose is more "full strength," but I would figure would absorb more water and be heavier. Again though, everyone has their preference. It looks great, thanks for sharing!

Paul Taylor, said...

One thing with these and the commercial elastic umbilicals is that the elastic still has significant resistance.
I tested the BD spinner ones and was surprised that each umbilical has about 200g of resistance, which is a significant extra %, considering each tool is about 600g.
Effectively you are having to overhead press an extra 200g with each swing. I have not seen anyone address this in reports. Thoughts?
Maybe I just should not be comparing the tool and elastic resistance on an apple to apples basis, because you have to swing each tool, whereas only lift and hold the elastic.

Paul Taylor
Calgary, Canada

Andrew Yasso said...


There is certainly some resistance encountered while using a set up like this, but I personally haven't found my homemade version's resistance to be excessive.

I guess this slight negative does not outweigh the benefit for me personally. I have not experimented with the commercially made options to really make an educated statement here, other than I assume they took this into account and used materials that did not increase this issue.

Great point though, and should definitely be thought of. I think your last statement is key though, especially since as an ice climber you should be comfortable keeping your hands above your head while holding tools most of the day anyway. If the slight resistance added by the elastic is a game changer, than perhaps a trip to the gym is necessary before climbing at all!

Colby Hubler said...

Andrew - great post. A tip on getting the shock cord through the webbing: use a fish-tape. Slide the metal tape through the webbing, attached the shock cord and tape it down so it does not snag the webbing in the way back through. Pull the fish tape through and you're ready to tie knots. After frustrating attempts at trying to feed the cord through, this took me about 2 minutes. Well worth it.

Andrew Yasso said...


That's a great idea! This is why I love the internet. Thankfully I haven't had to make another pair, my current ones are working well. They are also about to get some use this weekend, hopefully.

Thanks for sharing, hope you can get out this winter!


Friedrich, member of said...

Great instructions, Andrew. This is the best example of how to make a homemade tether that I've found.

For my version, I used 9/16" climb-spec webbing and skipped the hardware store swivel.

I've never used a swivel, so I don't really miss it. If I put just a little bit of thought into what I'm doing when traversing and switching hands, it doesn't get too twisted up. And it only takes a moment to untangle at the top of each pitch if there is a twist. These mods result in something more capable of load-bearing. Still not a good idea to fall on it of course, (the old "pick in the eye" thing) and the quality of the sticks is obviously the limiting factor, but a full-strength tether does give me confidence if I want to to gently rest on my tether (head down! bomber sticks! Straight lines!) when placing or removing gear. I like the results and really appreciated this article.

Andrew Yasso said...


Thanks for checking out this article! Because I rely on my tools for more convenience than as an additional safety measure, I require a swivel for my tether. It's good to see you are aware of your needs however, and the limitations/advantages of the tether's you've created.


Davi Marski said...

Andrew, Can I translate your article to portuguese and publish here in Brazil ? Thanks in advance !

Andrew Yasso said...


Feel free! Post a link to the translated copy afterwards if you don't mind.



Andrew Yasso said...


You are more than welcome to translate this article! Please just credit the author, and the American Alpine Institute. If possible, include a link to our homepage (

If you could email the article to me once it is up, that would be great too!


Davi Marski said...

I've done: This article in portuguese can be viewed at

Thanks again !

Unknown said...

Where did you get your swivel?

Andrew Yasso said...

@Eric Radack,

Any decent hardware store will sell a swivel like the one I used.

cragrat said...

This is what a NZ Mountain Guide showed me in the 80's

Unknown said...

Is the strength of th swivel why it's not load bearing?