Ice climbing is has always been a popular way for Canadian climbers to get their fix of outdoor climbing in the winter months. Over the past decade, mixed climbing has grown into a sport all its own. But whether you’re mixed or waterfall climbing, good technique and planning will lead to a higher chance of success and more fun. Here are few tips that will help keep you climbing stronger, safer and warmer this winter.
Tools: Keep your Leashes
With so many options out there it is tempting to think you should take out a small mortgage to purchase new tools. Since ice climbing’s earliest alpine beginnings, ice climbers have used leashes. The recent trend is to go leashless, but this should be done only after gaining experience. Too many climbers take unnecessary falls while ice climbing because they go leashless too soon. If you are climbing at your limit or conditions are not in your favour because of hard ice or bad weather, use leashes. If you are mixed climbing or cragging and falls will be on bolts, experiment with leashless climbing. Don’t get caught up in the hype and go permanently leashless until you’re certain you’re ready.
Crampons should always have anti-ballers, also commonly known by their French name, anti-bottes: pieces of plastic that fit into the sole of the crampon to prevent snowballs forming underfoot. When the snow is sticky and balls up and eventually the boot and crampon becomes heavy and this can be dangerous. When the packed snowball is big enough, it prevents crampons from biting and you slip. This often happens when un-roping at the top of climbs, the last place you want to slip. So, anti-ball up.
With so many crampons on the market, it is important to get the crampon meant for the kind of climbing you’re planning to do. Lightweight crampons work well hiking on glaciers but not on steep ice, heavy duty waterfall crampons are stable and durable for endless steep thick waterfall pitches but if you’re only planning on mixed climbing get some fruit boots with bolt-on crampons.
Then there’s the option of single or double front points. With experience, it is easy enough to climb with one point, but if you’re starting out, the learning curve seems less steep if you have two points for balance and stability. The more metal you have in the ice, the less you have to work. For mixed climbing, however, stick with one front point.
The most common ice climbing boot is leather, which is also a good choice for mixed climbing. If you are a beginner, double plastic boots are an excellent way to save your calf muscles and focus on technique because of their extra support. As well, double plastics are the best boots for keeping the toes warm.
Avoid the Screaming Barfies
Glove choice is the most important here. Bring an extra pair of gloves, if not two, including a down pair. The worst part of ice climbing, according to some, is the screaming barfies. This incredible pain occurs when hands held above the shoulders for an extended period of time while resting on a giant ice cube are lowered and fill with warm blood, resulting in unstoppable pain that lasts for up to five minutes and makes you feel like vomiting. It often happens to the second climber. To minimize the barfies, warm up by bouldering on the ice. But ultimately it comes to the gloves. Wear warm gloves that wont stay wet that give you optimal range of motion.
Learn the V-Thread
Sometimes ice routes don’t have trees or bolted anchors. Learn to use the V-thread. This simple system allows the climber to use two 22cm screws to bore intersecting holes that meet and create a V. Once the V is complete, a piece of cord or webbing can be threaded to make an anchor. Practice this technique on the ground. One day it might save your cold butt.
Belay away from any ice fall but in a good enough position to catch the leader safely. Scope the line up the waterfall. Sometimes the wettest ice offers poor pro can be poor and the ice to soft for good sticks. If the ice is low-angled, focus on getting flat foot placements to reduce leg pump, keep knees bent and bodyweight forward. On steep ice, keep the arms straight, picks staggered and feet at an even level. Step as high as you can to get the most out of each swing. When swinging, aim for small divots in the ice, don’t aim for the bulges because they will shatter. If you are climbing brittle ice where it will take extra swings, make them count and get good purchase with each tool. You don’t have to bury the tools, but be sure they’re bomber.
When placing screws, get into a good position with even feet and straight arms and put the screw in at waist-height. Get comfortable shaking out pumps (slapping your hand on your leg often helps).
When topping out or climbing over bulges, don’t hit the lip or it might dinner plate into razor-sharp ice frisbees. Swing far above the bulge, get the feet high, aim for depressions in the ice to get good sticks, then mantel over.
Brandon Pullan is an aspiring ACMG guide based in Canmore.