02 maart 2012

The Apprentice... aka ice skills again

This text was originally posted on Cold Thistle. As I'm in the stage of learning how to ice-climb, this was very usefull to me, so I thought I'd pass on the information on my own blog. Thanks, Dane.

Ice climbing is a subtle sport.  At first glance it would seem to be all strength and bravado.
It isn't.

When learning, you can use some help. Here our guide Werner is setting up a top-rope for us to practice on. Gausthausfall, Leusens, Austria

Knowing the difference between a high volume flow and a low volume flow can not only save your life it might well tell you where the best line on the falls will be or tell you when to climb or not in a snow storm or bright sun light instead.

Having an "eye" to know where the quality of the ice changes and will most effect screw and tool placement is not something you can learn in a day's outing.  It is just a start.  Most will need seasons, or moving to Canmore to accumulate that education.

Pulling plastic has about as much to do with ice climbing as playing basket ball.  Both will get you in shape if done at a high enough level.  Neither skill will mean squat when you clip on a pair of crampons.

Ice climbing is also extremely gear DEPENDANT.  I have said many times any old club will do in place of a decent ice tool if your skills will.  That is true.  But miss match boots and crampons and having the ability to do a gazillion pull ups won't help you for long.

I know for a fact having good rock climbing and rope skills will make you a better ice climber.  For no other reason than it will allow you to manage the rope systems easier and quicker.  Basic rock climbing skills on how a rope runs or should run are required on ice just as they are on rock.

But being able to lead 5.12 trad  (and few really do) isn't going to help you much on ice if you have never placed a screw.   It is simple right up until the point it isn't.  Why anyone would ever put in a bad screw is beyond me.  Finding poorly placed screws while following simply dumbfounds me.   Either the leader is WAY in over his head or they are an idiot.    Take the time to learn how to put in perfect screws while on the GROUND.  Then never, ever put in a bad one.  Learn what it takes to accomplish that.  It aint rocket science but then it isn't all that easy either with out some practice.  You first grade 4 pillar is NOT the place to be learning how to place screws.

Just as your first 5.10 hand crack isn't the place to learn how to place your first cam.  Hello!

I learned to climb ice with a couple of friends who had also....never climbed water fall ice.  The sport was new then.  The original screws and ice pitons seldom worked.    We learned together as the ice climbing standards became more difficult and the gear better.  We paid our own dues.  Luckily none were costly.  But they easily could have been.  I can still honestly stay I have not taken a lead fall on ice.  But only through the grace of God.

The skilled ice climbers I am lucky enough to climb with can all generally claim the same.  Only "modern mixed" has changed that.  Even then a smart man/woman will go to great extremes not to fall with a pair of crampons on.  You down climb.  You hang on the rope, your umbilicals or a screw.  You DO NOT fall off.  

Remember, "it is a all fun and games until someone loses and eye."  Fall off and it just may be your eye!

These days "ice climbers" seem to be born in a gym.  Falling is a way of life.

Don't get me wrong...nothing wrong with falling.  I am done my own share learning to lead well enough to put up trad .11s and 12s.  And there were a lot of falls involved both on a top rope and on lead.

You must learn how to down climb.

Climbing up something you can't easily down climb is tantamount to swimming off shore and well out of sight of land.  Better to have a safety net.   A big one if you can't down climb easily and quickly what ever you climb up.   Sure you'll do leads that you can't easily reverse.  But they should be damn few and far between.  If you can lead grade 4 ice in comfort, you should be able to easily and quickly down climb grade 3 ice.  Grade 5 ice on lead then Grade 4 ice should be an easy down climb.

Picked out climbs make you lazy.  Make an effort to get on ice climbs that aren't just "sport ice" that are totally picked out with foot steps and pick hooks up big sections of the climb. I like that kind of fun climbing myself, "hook and book".  But it is TERRIBLE for the techniques required to climb virgin ice.
Get on new ice when you can.  You might find Grade 3 ice is hard enough again to get your attention and still be really fun.

Following?  If you can't follow any ice pitch faster than your leader can run it out......you REALLY NEED TO STOP AND ASSESS you own skill level.   Reality needs to meet ability.    Because one of two things is happening here.  You are either attempting to climb way out of your skill level or the leader has skills you are a long ways from attaining yet.  Nothing wrong with either......it just makes a hard day (and possibly dangerous day) in the mountains for leader and follower if that difference isn't recognised and understood.   Just be honest with yourself and your partners.  Always push yourself on a top rope or as a 2nd to go faster and climb better.   You can bet that is how the other guy got that much better.

Danger?  Yes, ice climbing will get you killed if you aren't careful.  It aint the gym or the local cragging area.  Things go to shit quickly on ice and snow.   Lots of pointy things to poke holes in your own personal meat bag that can cause problems.  Lots of things falling down for one reason or the other.  Climbers at drastically differing skill levels put the responsibility (and the majority of the safety issues) on the more experience and generally faster climber. 

Leading?   Leading isn't a big deal.  Falling off and getting injured is.  Who do you think will have to haul your sorry ass off the mountain if you take a winger?  Better hope your partner is up to the task. 

No one has the "right" to lead. You earn that right through experience, patience and skill.  You may know how to clip on a pair of crampons.  But do you know how to actually fit them?  You can buy all the cool gear, read of the books or pump your instructors for info but if you don't know how it works and most importantly UNDERSTAND the gear/info what good is it when the shit starts to fail?

And all of it will eventually fail, including your partner...

You better have a good plan.


If you want to climb in the alpine faster and climb more difficult water ice learn how to be confident soloing in your comfort level of technical skill.  In the right conditions WI3 should be casual.  The same bullet proof ice in the alpine might well take a belay, the rope and protection.  Know the difference. Learn how to simul climb and more importantly...when you should and should not simul climb.

You don't yet know what you don't know.   Again, nothing wrong with that.  But time to open your eyes if you fall into that category and start paying more attention.  We all "fall" into that category in case you are still wondering.  Including me.    Work harder at going faster, being more aware of your own and your partner's skils and safety.  And learn how to down climb among other things.  Up your rock climbing skills and over all climbing SPEED in the summer.   Better and faster belays, not just your pure climbing speed.    It will help your ice climbing and alpine climbing next winter.

Back to the Apprenticeship?

It is a system of  training the practitioner in a structured competency based set of skills.

To get good and stay safe ice climbing (or alpine climbing) you need to serve a Apprenticeship. 

Either get some good professional instruction or find a friend (or a long list of friends) who has/have the ability to pass those skills on to you. 

I am still asking questions and learning every trip to the ice.  Are you?

Days are long past that I would suggest a few buddies teach themselves how to climb ice....if you want to stay safe while learning our craft.

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