A few years ago, John Freeman was soloing a steep pillar of ice on the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta. Transitioning from the pillar to the safer ice above, the pillar fractured and Freeman fell a long way. Luckily, he managed to escape with only a few scrapes and bruises.

Top climber Will Gadd said after: “Remember that free-hanging ice almost always breaks right at the top, just where it connects to the rock. That’s where it’s under the greatest strain from the hanging load, where the interior/exterior temperature differentials are also the greatest. If you can’t lead a piece of free-hanging or free standing ice without putting screws into it then you shouldn’t be on it. The one exception might be something like the Fang–if it breaks you’re probably going to die anyway, although amazingly people seem to have survived the experience, as John did.

“I used to climb a lot of really skinny pillars, but eventually realized it was just gambling, and not a step “forward” for the sport or me. It’s more like skating on progressively thinner ice–there is only one eventual outcome. Fun game, but the stakes are high, and I’ve seen enough things break that I didn’t think would break, and enough stay vertical that I thought would break that I don’t trust my own judgement on the really thin stuff. Or, I trust my judgement enough to stay off it, and think the rewards are too small to be worth the risk.”

Ice Pillar

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