Ice climbing accidents are dangerous and can leave you with serious injuries. Will Gadd, one of the world’s most experienced ice climbers, wrote this list on how to fall after a number of ice climbers were injured a few years ago.
He said, “The reasons for these accidents are complex and the sample size of accidents and issues that I know of too small to be statistically meaningful, but I’m going to speculate wildly on some of the reasons and solutions. It’ll probably offend some people, but some people deserve offending, including me.
“I’m writing this in the voice that I talk to myself in while leading, as a reminder to do it right today and because I’m not so hot on listening to less than intense advice.”
Realize that falling off while leading an ice climb will likely result in a minimum of badly broken leg, ankle, head, pelvis neck, back or all of this list, and set your mental dial and approach to the day appropriately. It’s not rock climbing or drytooling or prancing around on easy snow in knickers. In rock or drytooling you push yourself to the edge in relatively controlled environments, and expect to fall off. If you fall off ice climbing you’ve compounded multiple errors and seriously screwed up. No, the ice didn’t “just break,” no, it wasn’t “a freak accident,” you made an error. And tiny errors can lead to very serious outcomes when playing with high stakes. Very rarely I’ll read of someone getting hit in the head with a random piece of ice and falling off, but that’s really, really rare, unicorn rare. If you set your danger meter at, “I fall I get badly damaged, minimum” then you’ll climb like you mean to stay attached. Guy Lacelle didn’t die ice climbing despite soloing thousands of pitches over the years. He stayed attached because he knew the outcome of falling off.
There is no “easy” ice climbing terrain. 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 a number of ice climbers I know with fused ankles or worse who fell off on “easy” low angle terrain, or while bouldering only a few feet of the ground. Imagine sledding down a steep hill, then shoving your leg into a vice bolted to the ground near the bottom of the run. That’s what happens when you fall off and slide and your crampons catch. All ice terrain is treated as lethal. You need security even in easy terrain because falling off will result in a bad crash. A slip on an equivalently low-angle rock slab might be easy to catch, or just result in some lost skin. Not on ice. Most of the bad accident this winter were on lower angle terrain, or where the climbing eased up in angle.
You will fall off sooner later, and to quote the movie Fight Club, “Until you know this you are useless.” You’re always run out above gear while ice climbing. Even with a screw at your waist you will fall surprisingly far before the rope goes tight, certainly far enough to catch a crampon point and spiral fracture your femur, as I saw one day. But you’ll probably live if you have good gear in and live in a rich country with good mountain rescue IF you have enough gear in not to hit the ground too hard at any point during the fall. I have a few friends who went for lengthy rides resulting in terrible injuries, and I place screws in their honor even though I don’t feel like I’m in danger of falling off. The “Mark, Raf, Kevin, etc” screws are for those situations when I get it wrong, as I will sooner or later.
Get good feet. Most of the falls I’ve seen or had related to me recently involved a foot blowing first, then a weird load on the tool, and then a fall. If your feet aren’t welded then bad things may happen.
Get good sticks with your tools, and really test them with a sharp shoulder “snap” onto the placement if there’s any doubt at all, even a tiny bit. If your placements can’t handle both feet blowing out, and you don’t trust the placement to this level, then it’s not a placement, it’s a peck. 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 1 and 20cm, and the resulting ice will obey gravity and fall away below you. Don’t yell “Ice,” that’s like yelling “puck!” at a hockey game, it’s expected. Occasionally on a hooked-out trade route you can climb with just hooking, but the rules still apply: The hook must be totally trustworthy. Be aware that a placement that is good for a direct downward pull may not be good for an outward pull. I’m seeing a lot of intermediate ice climbers choking up continually on their tools; this just means they haven’t gotten their feet high enough initially, and are correcting the error by choking up. Choking up puts more outward force on the pick of your tool. Understand why this is bad, and don’t do it. If you don’t know enough about the sound of the placement, ice and testing a placement then you have zero business leading ice.
Don’t’ climb, belay or somehow ‘end up” under other climbers. Falling ice is a normal part of ice climbing (see number 5 above), and if it hits you may fall off or get maimed. Do NOT be like the dumb-ass Coloradons who show up in the Rockies every winter or the English in Rjukan. I have seriously heard these idiots complain when they get bombarded with ice from above, “Hey! Stop dropping ice on us!” is short for, “I’m a dumb ass who doesn’t understand ice climbing. If someone starts climbing up under me I explains this very directly—I don’t want to have to rescue them, or deal with blood everywhere. If I’m climbing a distinct line and someone starts wandering laterally over me, or my belay, then I’ll communicate politely and come up with a joint solution. Hoping it’s all going to be OK is not a solution.
Don’t place screws too high. This puts a direct outward force on the pick, and it will blow. Screws should be placed low in generally, they are easier to start and won’t make you fall off. I’ve come across accident scenes with a half-started screw and one tool left in the ice several times, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened.
Don’t try to move fast. Several of the recent local accidents involved people climbing “fast.” Slow is smooth, smooth is fast even if it doesn’t look like it. Hopping your feet around like a spastic chicken is not cool, it’s like seeing a new driver hunched over the wheel at ten under in the fast lane. Place your feet. Place your tools. Move fast by moving solidly, with good technique. When I see someone moving without well set feet or tools it scares the shit out of me, mainly because the dumb ass likely doesn’t know how much danger they are in.
Heed the warnings. I was recently guiding with a great guest when my tool came out of a placement relatively early, which surprised me. No big deal, I place my tools solidly, and I led the rest of the short but difficult ice pitch with bomber sticks. I then coached my guest, then went to climb the steep ice and break down the anchor on a secure top rope. I trust this guest, he’s solid on the belay, and I was posing and not burying my picks as the rope was tight on TR. I suddenly fell off. Doh, stop showing off. I threw my tool back in, pulled, and fell off again. WTF! Doesn’t this ice know who I am? Embarrassed, I swung hard and climbed to the top, but I was rattled, it didn’t make sense. That evening I checked my pick, and I had broken the tip of the tool off at a 45-degree angle at some point before the last top rope session. It acted like a ski on the ice instead of grabbing it, but looked totally normal from behind and felt normal while swinging. I didn’t pay attention to an early sign of something being wrong. I could have fallen earlier in the day, and while I had gear in it would have been exciting. Over the years I’ve found that when I think something is wrong it usually is, I just haven’t figured out what yet.
Don’t be optimistic about your own abilities, the ice quality, the day’s outcome, or much of anything while ice climbing specifically or in the mountains generally. Unfounded optimism is for things like getting a date and a winning lottery ticket. If you want to survive then pessimism and accurate self-assessment are what matter. You’ll know when you’re good enough because you’ve got the background to be good enough. Toprope, climb with mentors, slow it down and get it right or support the bottom line of Stryker (google that name, there are a lot of ice climbers out there who know it).
Climb down before you fall down. If you’re getting pumped clip a sling into the pommel of your solid ice tool and hang on it (put in a screw or two, or maybe a V-thread will hanging there). Down climb to a rest. If the ice is getting really bad down climb, don’t push up expecting things will get better. Climbing pumped on ice is a bad idea, you need more control than that. The reward must balance the risk, and if you’re already pumped you won’t be able to hang on if your feet blow. There is pride in managing a situation well, regret in falling off.
Fear is a sign that you’re in over your competence level. “Fun” is a sign that you’re solid, locked in, and likely competent in that environment. If you’re not having fun and enjoying the experience then you’re probably, like sex, doing it wrong.
If it all goes bad have coms, a plan, and enough gear to survive. I have two friends alive because of their inReach communicators. If you climb outside of cell service and don’t have real coms then you’re an idiot. Buy less lattes for a couple of months and get an inReach.
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Two photos taken hours apart and within 100M of each other. Ice from @austin_siadak on a non-traditional line on the classic Louise Falls, Rock from @tedhesser on the epically classic Dew Line. We bailed off Louise minutes after this photo was taken, it was just way way way too warm to be reasonable. This is an all-star crew, a big thanks to @tedhesser and @travelalberta for bringing us all together. Yesterday we tried to climb The Sorcerer, but running water and ice melting off the rock had us running away from the base. It is insanely warm here in the Rockies right now. It’s a tad too early to be spring, and a lot too early for the end of ice clinbing season. But it sure was sweet to grab warm stone! Thanks to @rockymtngringo for the catch when I pitched off while posing down.