Monday, December 18, 2017

Pro Tips: Ice Climbing

So somewhere along the way I got a bit of a reputation. Seems that folks think I’m some kind of ice climber. Turns out they’re pretty right.

In truth, I love all kinds of climbing. Depending on the time of year, I chase long alpine routes, big rock climbs, small rock climbs, ice routes of all shapes and sizes, and sport-rock, sport-mixed, and even some sport-trad (right…). I even bought a bouldering pad this year!  But one of the coolest mediums to climb, in my opinion, is ice. I just love winter climbing (almost as much as I like summer climbing)! The ice changes so much from day to day, even hour to hour. Ice climbing can be remarkably different, too, depending on where and when you climb it. Water ice routes in the northeast and southwest, summer glacier ice in the Cascades, bullet-hard alpine ice in Alaska, or even the semantically challenging “snice” that forms from hardening freeze-thaw cycles in snow.

One of my favorite things to teach, in fact, is ice climbing. I teach water ice climbing techniques in the winter, and teach glacier ice climbing in the Cascades in the summer. Both types of climbing certainly have their differences, but in general, the technique of ice climbing is transferable to all types of ice, just like how rock climbing skill transfers through its many flavors. 

This Pro Tips article is divided into three parts: form, gear, and clothing.

Part I: Form

The following picture will be good to dissect ice technique. It’s “mostly” all there. Let’s pick it apart, shall we? 

Technique 1: Arms

Picture 1: Arm Position

There are two basic positions for your arms. Number one, which is shown in this picture is the resting position. And two, which we’ll talk about below, is the lockoff.

Which would you rather do – hang from a pull-up bar with your arms bent or straight? Of course, we all find straight arms easier. In this position, you’re hanging with the help of your skeleton, not from just your muscles. The result is that your guns will last a lot longer than if you hang with bent arms. It’s hard at first, and takes practice to make it feel comfortable, but it’s worth it. As you progress to steeper climbs, this will make all the difference.

Compare that to the next picture. This climber is demonstrating the bent-arm technique that will get’cha pumped! 

 Picture 2: Bent Arms

Technique 2: The Lockoff

Picture 3: The Lockoff

This two-part picture demonstrates the sequence of swinging form. In the left picture, the climber is resting on a straight arm. In the right picture, he has moved his feel up (with arms still straight, right?) and is now swinging his left axe with a locked off right arm.

The “lockoff” is the second-easiest position to be in. This is the same place as when you are hanging from the pullup bar with your head above the bar. It’s easier than the mid-position, bent-arm hang, but is much more difficult than hanging from a straight arm. So, this is used while swinging for the next axe placement, but is much more strenuous than hanging as the climber is in the left picture. 

Technique 3: Kicking

Picture  4: Kicking

Okay, back to the demo picture. Ice climbers, with their penchant for politically correct slogans, use the term “Swing like you screw, and kick like you poo.” While funny in a cute, weird sort of way, this is really valuable. While you’re swinging, you want to be locked off, and have your hips into the wall. When you’re kicking new steps, you want to have your arms locked off and have your hips out from the wall. This allows you to keep your heels down and make direct hits into the ice with your crampons. In general, smaller steps are easier on your body than big steps. You may need to take a few smaller steps up as opposed to one big step. I like my feet to end up about where my knees were at the previous break.

Technique 4: Hand Position

Picture 5: Hand Position

There are a few things going on in this picture that I want to talk about. First, the right hand is using the higher grip on the ice tool. This is only possible with leashless tools (which I do recommend if you’re ready for it. But that’s a totally different issue). The top grips allow you to get another 4 inches or so above the bottom grip, which can allow you to have a straighter arm, and give you a little longer stride up. Only modern tools like the Petzl Nomic, Quark, Ergo, or Black Diamond Cobras have the second grips. The more comfortable, the better.
Second, the two tools are about the same height. I usually avoid this, instead keeping one tool higher than the other. This allows you to swing fewer times for each step up you take.  Sometimes, though, I will make two placements near each other, for traversing or for stability if the ice is a bit funky.
Last, try to grip the ice tool as lightly as possible. I often play “twinkle-fingers” while practicing on toprope. When you are hanging from your straight arm, try to wiggle your fingers on your hand. The goal is to release the death grip from your ice tool. The more you clench your hand, the more pumped you’ll be. Try to find the position which holds the tool well, but doesn’t waste energy. Then, try and take this technique to all times when you’re hanging on your ice tools to save some grip strength. 

Technique 5: Straight Legs

Picture 6: Climber with bent Legs
Ideally, when standing, your legs will be straight (again, to rest on the skeleton instead of your muscles, in this case the calves). You can lock them, or have a very slight bend in them. This climber’s legs are a bit too bent for “textbook” form. It will end up putting a bit too much strain on the calves, and will feel insecure in general. The telltale “Elvis foot” or “sewing machine leg” is sometimes related to this, although not all cases are attributable to poor form. Sustained climbing tends to fatigue calf muscles while ice or mixed climbing.
So that gives a good overview of ice climbing techniques. Stay tuned to the blog for more technique tips to take you higher!

Part II: Gear

Look at the difference between these two ropes! 
Where would we be without good ropes in the winter?!

Ice climbing is a perfect storm for poor rope conditions. Water often flows down the ice flow, and down the rope itself. This water freezes, either just on top, or it soaks the rope entirely to the core. Then, the rope gets dragged through snow that sticks like Cheerios to honey, which further compounds the problem. Rinse, repeat.

The picture above shows the difference between a brand new, dry-treated rope and a fatty, fuzzy, ice collecting rope you simply shouldn’t take out climbing in the winter. Notice not only how much ice and snow the purple rope has collected, but also how much wider it is. The rope was so stiff and frozen that I had to break the “ice cable” just to coil it. The green rope remains soft and supple, ready for another climb or three.

Bottom line: use new, fairly thin (under 10mm), dry-treated ropes. If it’s fuzzy, leave it at home unless you want to be belaying or rapping down (!) frozen ice cables.

It’s amazing how much a single picture can say. I’ll use this picture again, this time to talk about my technical systems while ice climbing in the winter.  From gloves to ropes, screws, draws, and where to put your watch, I’ll go over as much as I think is reasonable and productive from this picture.

I will name drop companies in this article, so I hope you’re okay with that. In general, I’m kind of well-versed in which companies offer good ice climbing gear. I’ve used a lot of it, and talked to people who have used even more. I’ll pass on what little I’ve learned, and will acknowledge any gaps in what I know. I’ll admit, though, that I do not know about every gear company’s ins and outs.  I’m not sponsored by any company. (I am totally willing to try any gear out, by the way, so feel free to send me free gear. I promise I’ll use it).

1.      Ice Tools. I like leashless tools. I think, given enough experience and strength, that leashless tools offer a greater range of skills and will leave you less pumped than climbing with leashes. It’s a personal preference, for sure. But for what it’s worth, a lot of climbers are going sans-leashes. I have tried the Black Diamond and Petzl tools. I climb with the Petzl Nomics. I think they climb the best, though they lack the mountain applications that the BD tools have (a spike, a good hammer, smaller grips for shaft climbing in snow). So if you’re thinking about doing that gnar-bar Alaskan or Andean mixed route, well, you shouldn’t belive me, go and try both out and decide for yourself.

2.      Picks. Ice tools come with many pics these days. I use the mixed picks (Petzl Astro) for rock/mixed routes and the ice (Petzl Ice) picks for ice climbing. There actually is a difference in the way they climb. The ice pics enter and exit the ice easier, and the mixed picks grip the rock a bit better. I recommend using ice picks for climbs that are most or all ice.

3.      Mono point crampons. For steep ice routes, and any time I go mixed climbing, I go mono-point. They give me the precision and accuracy I need. They also puncture the ice better, and won’t lever out in rock like twin front-points will. That said, a lot of high-end climbers use dual points. Bottom line: try out both and see what works for you.

4.      Anti-balling plates. For everything but the crag, anti-balling (or “anti-botte”) plates are essential to prevent your crampons from balling up. Snow will collect over time – sometimes very little time – and make a big snowball under your feet. This will make you fall. New, lightweight crampons like the Petzl Darts are excellent (I have a pair), but ball up like crazy. If you’re going anywhere backcountry, bring a pair of ‘pons with anti-ball plates.

5.      Lightweight helmet. The days of the construction helmet are over! Time to get a foamy! Petzl, Black Diamond, Camp, and probably a dozen other companies make great foam helmets. They’re lightweight, they breathe better, have a strong plastic shell on the outside, and, most of all, are comfortable. Yeah, they’re more expensive, but so is ice climbing. Get the good ones, and use them! Also, many foam helmets are designed to take a side impact, which also safer.

6.      Harness. I’m actually not too picky about the harness, as long as it fits with and without several layers, has ice clipper slots, and is comfortable. I like them to have at least 4 gear loops.

7.      Quickdraws. I usually bring a selection of regular quickdraws and extendable (24”) runners. Long ice routes or traditional mixed climbs may require up to 15 quickdraws. I typically, though, use under ten.

8.      Racking gear. I like to put draws on both the front gear loops, leaving the two back gear loops for any rock gear (pins, cams, nuts) and anchor building and misc. materials (lockers, cordelettes, long slings, belay device, knife, v-threader, tat). If I have a lot of rock gear, like when I’m doing trad mixed climbs or when I might be putting in rock gear near the ice, I’ll put the rock gear in the front gear loops and leave draws and anchor stuff in the back. A fifth gear loop helps to keep anchor gear in the back, out of the way. Some people climb with a shoulder sling that has either rock gear or draws. I don’t personally do this, but it’s not a bad idea.

9.      Ice clippers. The only way to efficiently rack ice screws is with ice clippers. (If you have Grivel 360 ice screws, you’ll probably have to figure something else out). I usually have four on my harness, two on the right and two on the left. I can rack as many screws as I need for a lead, or clip my tools to them when I’m not climbing. By the way, a good habit is to clip your tools to your harness as soon as you finish a pitch – I have rappelled down without my tools more than once!

10.  Ice screws. I use only Black Diamond Express screws – the ones with the color-coded spinners. They rack the best, come in easy colors, sink really well into the ice, have two clip-in points, and are the easiest to screw in. In my opinion, they are the best on the market. 

11.  Anchor building materials. I usually bring a double-length (48”) sling or two, a triple-length sling (72”), and a 20-foot cordalette. The double slings allow me to extend a piece of gear, sling an icicle, or do a two-screw ice anchor beautifully. The cordalette is for multi-piece anchors, or anchoring to trees. It also comes in handy if you need to leave some material for a V-thread, rappel anchor, pre-rig a rappel, or in case of self-rescue. The triple sling is basically a lighter version of a cordalette, with far less versatility and wears down faster. But it’s a lot lighter, so it works well.

12.   Puffy jacket. I love my puffy. I bring it on most climbs, if it is at all chilly ouside. There are two ways you can bring it up: in a stuff sack or a backpack. The backpack option is a little faster for getting your jacket in and out, but stuff sack comes with you all the time and clips right to the harness. If I am doing a straightforward ice climb, I’ll usually opt for the stuff sack. If I’m going to do a mixed climb or one that has a lot of chimneys, I’ll bring a backpack. If it’s a longer climb and I have a backpack anyway, I’ll bring the pack, especially if I have some food and water with me anyway.

13.  Half ropes. I usually use half ropes for ice climbing. The two ropes allow for longer rappels than one single rope. They also are lighter and stretch more if you take a fall on them. The #1 rule ice climbing is “don’t fall” but in case you do, you’ll likely appreciate the stretchy rope that puts less impact force on your ice screws (so it will be more likely to hold a fall and not pop out).

14.  Knife. I always bring my little knife with me. If I need to clean up a rappel station or cut a V-thread, the knife will make that possible. Trango and Petzl both make really small knives that clip into a biner easily. Get one!

15.  Emergency gear. Just in case. This category might be bigger or smaller, depending on the climb. I usually bring an extra prussik cord and a Petzl Tibloc. These will help for a pulley or if I need to ascend the rope. I may also bring an emergency blanket, first aid kit, bivi sack, sleeping pad, depending on the length and type of climb. “emergency” might simply mean “bivi gear” that doubles as splint-making material (like sleeping pads, extra cord, or even skis). Cilo Gear backpacks, as well as a few from other companies, have a built-in foam pad as the frame sheet to allow for a bivi pad or splint. Handy stuff!

16.  Tat. If I am planning on rappelling with V-threads or if I am in the alpine, I will bring some kind of “tat,” or spare material like cordalette or half-inch webbing for leaving at rappel stations. You could always use your cordalette or a chunk of your rope (a bummer), but it’s a little cheaper and less emotionally scarring to use an old piece of webbing or cord.

17.  V-Threader tool. There are a variety of V-threaders out there. Any one will do (including a piece of coat hanger wire). Grivel has the best, though – one that has a V-thread hook, knife, and built-in carabiner. It’s also the most expensive. On this one, though. there’s no need to go big and spendy. I’ll post a blog article soon about how to make your own V-threader tool.

18.  Bullet Pack. Sometimes, on longer routes, I’ll bring a small pack. Sometimes called “Bullet Packs,” these are made by many companies. A 20-L size is usually good. Just something to hold some food and water, possibly another layer or some tat. If possible, I have the second carry it so that the leader can have less weight on while on the sharp end.

Part III: Clothing

Everyone has their own clothing systems. It seems like a lot of climbers these days have the same idea
when it comes to dressing for the coldest sport in the lower 48. Note that NONE of the gear is cotton.
It’s all synthetic, which insulates when wet, dries easier and smells worse, too.


1.      Base layer. A t-shirt will do. It is more comfortable than the R1 on your skin, and if nothing else, this layer keeps the R1 from smelling too bad.

2.      R1 Hoody. This is a dream piece. It is comfortable, warm, and has a built-in hood/balaclava for your head and neck. It’s awesome.

3.      Softshell or hardshell jacket. Depending on the location, weather, and how wet I think the snow and ice will be, I’ll decide between soft- and hard shells. A softshell is more breathable, but gets wetter and lets more wind through. Hard shells are water- and wind-proof, but are not as comfortable, and stretch less.

4.      Expedition down parka or DAS parka. Again, depending on weather. If it is really cold out, the down parka is the warmer option, though it, like all other down, cannot insulate or dry out when wet. The DAS in synthetic, so will keep you warm when wet and can dry out with body heat if it does get wet. It’s not quite as compressible or warm as the other. Either way, I always bring a puffy with me.

5.      Softshell or hardshell pants. Just like the jacket, I’ll base the decision on the anticipated conditions. Softshell pants are a lot nicer to move in, because they stretch so much, compared with hardshells. I like the Mixmaster pants because they have built-in R1 insulation and are suspenders, which is more comfortable than regular pants. It is nice if your pants can fit over ski boots and climbing boots, to allow more versatility. Most pants do this well.

6.      R1 long underwear. I really like these. They’re warm and stretchy. I rarely go ice climbing in just pants with no insulation underneath. If it gets too hot and I have them on, I can usually regulate my temperature easily with upper layers easily enough.


7.      Chilly-Grips. Find these at your gas station or Home Depot. They’re a synthetically-insulated glove with a rubber palm. They are cheap ($12) and climb really well. I use these only when it’s warm out. They’re great for mixed climbing.

8.      Black Diamond Punishers. There are others out there that work well, but I have found these to be excellent. They’re totally waterproof, have good dexterity and grip, and are warm enough for most ice climbing.

9.      Mitts or warm gloves. I love my hands, and want to keep them warm at belays. I can usually belay in big gloves and then switch to Punishers for climbing. I often carry the gloves I’m not wearing inside my jacket to keep them warm and dry.


10.  Buff. I love my buff! It is great in the sun, the wind, over my face, or as a headband for extra style points. It’s a versatile neck gaiter that is stretchy, too. Available in lots of styles, so choose carefully which Buff will represent your personality the best. Mountain flair and function.

11.  Socks. Medium weight, usually. Make sure they fit with your boots and are not going to cut off circulation to your toes from being too tight.

12.  Hat. Get one that fits your head well and won’t ride into your eyes under your helmet.

13.  Goggles. I often pack ski goggles with me if I’m going into the mountains, in case the wind is bad. They don’t weigh much, and often make windy weather tolerable.

14.  Sun glasses. Ice and snow reflect a lot of light. It’s great to have something that will shield your eyes from UV radiation and falling ice. A one-two punch!

15.   Watch. Altitude watches are nice, but usually not necessary for ice climbing.

And most important, have fun!

--Mike Pond, Instructor and Guide


Unknown said...

Awesome post. Very thorough and informative. Will definately use the "swing like you screw and kick like you poo" when instructing..

Trekwear Outdoor Clothing said...

Thank you so much for writing this post. Your pointers can be greatly useful for those who are planning to do some ice climbing. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

This post is really outstanding!
Thanks a ton Mike and well done! I'd love to get on some ice again soon. My first and last time was at the end of my AMTL 2 course (glacier ice at Mt Baker), which was super fun!