Climbing is a game of inches. Rock climbers struggle with being too tall or tall small. One’s ape index could mean the difference between a send and a fall. In ice climbing, however, climbers reach is dependant on the length of their tool. Last year, the world ice climbing champion, HeeYongPark, extended his ice tools by adding an extra grip so he could keep up with several of the taller competitors with longer stock tools. A stock tool is an ice axe that has not been tampered with. Other competitors began extending their tools, much like Park, adding several inches to their reach.
The catch is that these extended modified tools, known as “modded” or “mods” are legal to use. The UIAA regulations state that any tool is allowed for use in competition as long as they fit into the UIAA “Box,” which is 50 cm by 30 cm.
Canadian competitors Gord McArthur and Nathan Kutcher, who are heading to the Sochi Olympics to compete in the demonstration sport of ice climbing, have weighed in with their thoughts on the tools.
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Maxing out tool-length is a brilliant move from a competitive stand point – we’re taking advantage of a loophole while still staying within the rules. I think from a style point however, it’s not the best. It’s using technology to overcome our short comings. Ultimately, I don’t see it as a way forward, but rather as a step back. It’s a dead end. Once everyone maxes out their tools the route setters will just put the holds farther apart and the tall climbers will still have a huge advantage over the shorter ones. I think for shorter climbers its totally cool, but taller climbers need to take a step back and think about if they want to win because of their skill and training or because they exploited a loophole in the rules. Perhaps a better approach would be to measure the length of the tools plus the climber’s wing-span and set a limit that every climber would have to hit. This way shorter climbers would use longer tools and taller climbers would use shorter tools. The result would be a more level playing field where the winner would be determined more by their skill rather than their height. To a certain extent mixed climbing is aid climbing with a forearm pump. At the end of the day we depend on out tools to do what would otherwise be impossible. What advantages are we willing to accept and what will we toss aside? Different brands of tools are already different lengths and there is a rather large difference between the longest and shortest tools I have not extended my tools. I’m undecided what road I will take.
It’s an interesting movement, but in reality it’s no different than any other sport that brings progression into trying to win. Take F1, or moto GP, they mod engines, tune things secretly to give them the fastest advantage. This new wave of ice tools is no different. Silly, maybe, over the top, maybe, but when an athlete wants to win, they’ll try anything that’s within the rules. The new mod tools, they all fit into the UIAA Box, but some have just figured out how to utilize every inch of that box. It is an advantage as you can reach higher or span further. Depending how tool is modified, it also allows for matching of hands in a more stable position (if the handle has been the part that’s modded.) People may not like it because some are now at a disadvantage and don’t have the resources to do it, or maybe they think it’s the wrong direction. Either way, it seems going into this year’s comp season, if you don’t have a modded tool, you may in fact be at a disadvantage.
Gripped reached out to the world champion Park who said, “I think they are useful for competition climbing, especially for smaller people, but I do not like using them because they make movement difficult, they are too long. They are not the future, but they are important to the evolution of the tool in competition climbing, it will all lead to a simple tool.”
The ice tool has been evolving since the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786. Eventually the competitive tools climbers use will be regulated, this years modified axes are a step in that direction. The bigger question is how these tools will affect tools climbers use on the mountains and at the crags.