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Ice Climbing for Beginners: Don’t Ever Fall

And some tips from top climber Will Gadd: "There is pride in managing a situation well, regret in falling off"

The golden rule in ice climbing is don’t fall, but over the past decade, more and more ice climbers have been falling. The reasons range from inexperience to conditions, but new ice climbers need to have the mindset that you should never fall off an ice climbing.

Why? Unlike rock climbing, you have metal points strapped to your feet, in your hands and on your harness, and while the combition of potential injuries are vast, they’re all pretty ugly and painful.

Ice Climber Falls

“I should not be doing that,” said the climber in the below video right after a failed ice solo. Tristan O’Donoghue filmed the clip and submitted the clip as a Weekend Whipper. He said that the climber fell roughly 20 feet and wasn’t injured. O’Donoghue said his friend was humbled and embarrassed.

This climber got very lucky. Despite having leashes from his harness to his ice tools, which are known as umbilicals, the climber had both ice tools out of the ice right before his fall. It goes without saying, but always have three points of contact in the ice: two crampons and one ice tool, or two ice tools and one crampon.

Sink Your Picks: Sink the picks of your ice tools to ensure they won’t pop out unexpectedly. “Get good sticks with your tools,” said top Canadian ice climber Will Gadd. “Don’t peck like a chicken, swing like a you mean it until the placement is good. This may mean excavating the surface ice for somewhere between one and 20 centimetres”

Know that a pick placement that is good for a direct downward pull may not be good for an outward pull. Never put an outward pull on your tools, this could pull them out. Some more experienced ice climbers can get away with getting a minimal amount of pick in the ice, but if you’re new than be sure to sink you picks, test them and move upward.

Ice Screws: Before placing an ice screw, find a comfortable stance with your feet in a wide and stable position so you can get enough balance to power-in a piece of protection. Over the past few years, a number of half-sunk ice screws have been left above a fallen climber. Be sure the screws your’re using are sharp and the caps are off before starting up the climb.

To help keep your picks sunk and safe, place ice screws low and next to your waist. Reaching too high can put and outward pull on your tools. If your tool-hand is getting tired or pumped, take a break from placing the ice screw to swap your hands to shake the pump. Placing ice screws on lead shouldn’t be taken lightly, so practice on toprope first.

Low Angle Ice: “There’s no ‘easy’ ice climbing terrain,” said Gadd. “If you’re on steep or low-angled ice your fall hazard is close to the same. We all respect steeper terrain, but lower angle ice terrain often lulls us into, the, ‘It’s not that steep’ mentality, but if you fall on lower-angle ice you will slide at ever-increasing speed until you hit something.”

There are more than a few ice climbers out there with fused ankles because of post-low-angle-ice-climb falls. Even if you’re comfortable on low angle terrain, sink a few ice screws to be sure that if you do fall off, that you won’t go too far.

Downclimb Before a Fall: Just like in rock climbing, downclimb before you fall. If you’re getting pumped, climb down to a rest or the base. Climbing while pumped is a bad idea and will push your to make bad decisions.

“The reward must balance the risk, and if you’re already pumped you won’t be able to hang on if your feet blow,” said Gadd. “There is pride in managing a situation well, regret in falling off.”

Climb Slow and Controlled: Remember that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Place both of your feet and place both of your tools. Hopping around can result in a fall. The top climbers started by moving slow and over years of climbing learned how to move quickly. You’re not a top climber, so climb slow.

“When I see someone moving without well set feet or tools it scares the crap out of me,” said Gadd. “Mainly because the dumbass likely doesn’t know how much danger they are in.” Be safe this ice climbing season, make smart decisions and see why you should carry an avalanche beacon on some big ice climbs here.