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Tips For Safer and Warmer Ice Climbing This Winter

Whether you are mixed or waterfall climbing, good technique and planning will lead to a higher chance of success and more fun

Photo by: Tim Banfield

Ice climbing has always been a popular way for Canadian climbers to get their fix of outdoor climbing in the winter. 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.

Ice Tool Placements: Modern ice tools are designed to reduce the amount of force required to get a good placement. Therefore, it’s best to focus on technique more than power. The best ice climbers have perfected the balance between the swing and wrist flick (think throwing darts instead of a ball). In thin ice, swinging too hard can smash the area you’re hoping to hook and leave you with nothing. Be sure not to overgrip when you’re swinging.

Always know where you want the axe to go by scoping for a spot (avoid placing tools too close in a horizontal plane). With experience, you’ll learn what a good placement sounds and looks like. If you’re confident, then test the placement by pulling down, slowly adding more weight. Don’t trust it until you’re confident in it. Then make your next move. In a fat ice climb, your goal is for 100 per cent bomber placements. There are many ice tools on the market designed specifically for ice, mixed or both. Be sure you have the proper pick in the tool, B-rated tools are for basic mountaineering and T-rated are for technical ice/mixed. More about pick ratings here.

Footwork: Footwork is as important as ice tool placement for ice climbing. Depending on the climb, there are different ways to use your crampons. On some routes, you can kick the front point in and on other routes you can place them on an edge. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart and always look where you are placing your feet. Keep your pelvis in close to the ice to keep your body weight over your feet, which relieves stress on your arms. Practice on top rope to learn the best technique for you. If the ice is low-angled, focus on getting flat foot placements to reduce leg pump, keep your 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. 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.

Use Umbilical Leashes: Umbilical leashes are used to prevent you from dropping an ice tool. They attach from your tool to your belay loop. They are an old idea that pre-date wrist leashes, but fell out of style. Most modern bent tools have removed a wrist leash option, but added a place to clip umbilical leashes at the base of the handle. While they take some time to learn how to use, they are a better option than carrying a third tool up longer ice routes. You can easily drop a tool or knock it off the ice.

Do not use the umbilical as a point to rest your body weight on. Instead, place a screw and rest on the rope. Even if you have an umbilical rated to take your weight, single ice tool placements are often insecure anchor points. Don’t think of them as a point of protection, as more than once climbers have been injured as a result. In the below footage, the lead climber’s umbilical leash breaks and he falls.

Avoid the Screaming Barfies: Glove choice is important and be sure to bring an extra pair, if not two, including a down pair. The worst part of ice climbing, according to some, is the screaming barfies. They occur when your hands are held above the shoulders for an extended period of time against the ice and when lowered fill with warm blood. The result is an unstoppable pain that lasts for up to five minutes and makes you feel ill. It often happens to the second climber. To minimize the barfies, warm up by bouldering on the ice or flapping your arms like a chicken. But ultimately it comes to the gloves. Wear warm gloves that wont stay wet that give you optimal range of motion.

Use Anti-Ballers: 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 from forming under your foot. When the snow is sticky and balls up on steep slopes, the boot and crampon become heavy and can be dangerous. If the packed snowball is big enough, it prevents your 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.

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. A No-thread is where the climber passes the rope through the hole and leaves to trace (be sure the rope can pull before rappelling). Practice this technique on the ground.

Climb Smart: 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 ice screw placements and is too soft for good sticks. 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). If you’re leading, learn to rest after placing a screw, as leashless modern tools allow you to shake out the pump. Don’t become a climber who can only place a screw with one hand, practice with both. When topping out or climbing over bulges, don’t hit the lip or it might dinner plate into razor-sharp ice discs. Swing far above the bulge, get the feet high, aim for depressions in the ice to get good sticks, then mantel over. And always remember a thermos of hot drink, like tea or coffee!

The Polar Vortex: Every winter for the past few years, a Polar Vortex has settled onto much of Canada. The minus 40 degree Celsius weather is cold enough to force even the most burliest of cold-weather aficionados to hunker down indoors. However, just because the anti-freeze in your truck freezes, doesn’t mean you can’t go ice climbing. Just make sure you double up the base and insulating layer and bring a series of down coats to wear while belaying or doing laps. An ice climb with a big approach will help to warm the core, and select a climb or crag that will be sheltered from the wind but exposed to the sun. Don’t let a Polar Vortex keep you from swinging the tools. A bonus to the cold weather is that you’ll likely be the only ones at the climb.

Lead photo: Tim Banfield