Snow and ice are changing environments that make climbing challenging and exciting. Mountaineers and sport climbers enjoy everything from moderate-angle walks up glaciers to the vertical choreography of waterfall climbing — from volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest to spectacular frozen waterfalls in the Rockies or the Northeast. Colorado, New Hampshire and Banff, Canada see ice climbing activity in the winter months when features such as Bridalveil Falls, Frankenstein Cliffs or Weeping Wall freeze up. The North Cascades of Washington are often used as a training ground for climbing in the Andes or Himalayas because of the variety of alpine snow and ice they offer.
This clinic focuses specifically on the techniques used on ice.
Ice climbing typically brings to mind frozen waterfalls — a climber working his way up vertical ice with 2 axes, crampons toe-in to the ice. Climbing alpine ice, though, can be anything from walking flat-footed with crampons and a single ice axe to the twin-tool, front-pointing scenario described above. A perennial glacier is a larger and more variable beast than most winter waterfalls, so you need to use different techniques for changing ice conditions and slope angles. First, we'll look at how you use your feet on the ice.
Although it is possible to climb low-angle ice by using rough features or by chopping steps with your ice axe, at a certain point crampons need to be used for efficiency, if not safety. Alpine climbing involves techniques adapted to different terrain. These styles are known as French and German technique, for the areas in which they originated. Modern alpine climbing uses both of these styles.
Eventually, it becomes necessary to sidestep up the slope. To do this, plant your uphill foot solidly, then cross your lower foot over it and plant solidly. This cross-over, upward progression requires care, as it is easy to catch your crampon points on the opposite boot, gaiter or crampon straps. It is important in the French technique to plant all points except the front two. It is tempting to try to "edge" into a slope, placing only the inner row of points and leaving the outer points in the air. This is easier on your ankles, but your crampons can skate over the ice, allowing you to skate down the slope. The French technique works on slopes up to about 40°. Beyond this, it's harder on the ankles, and more advanced positions are required.
Walking on level or low-angle ice does not necessarily require the use of an ice axe. In fact, it's a good idea to practice your flat-foot technique (with and without crampons) without relying on your ice axe(s) so you learn the "feel" of the ice underfoot. Of course, you carry and eventually use ice axes or tools on any ice climb. Longer mountaineering axes are often paired with shorter ice tools on alpine routes which involve both snow and ice travel. On steep, technical ice routes, 2 short tools are typically used, one with a hammer and one with an adze. The adze is used for clearing the ice before placing ice screws or for chopping steps or belay ledges. A hammer is used for pounding in ice pitons.
This section covers basics of using axes or ice tools on ice.
For steep ice (45° and higher) using German technique:
Frequently ice routes are mixed with rock. Dry tooling is using your ice tools as protection in cracks or other features on the rock. You can place the pick in a crack or torque the hammer head into a rock feature and then work your way up with your tools as you would if they were in ice. Some hammer-heads are even designed with different angles on each side to fit into various-size cracks like a cam or chock.
Just as with rock climbing, you need to place protection as you go to protect yourself in case of a slip. Anchors allow you to belay your climbing partner and to rappel back down from a climb. This section covers some of the tools and methods that ice climbers use for protection.
Natural anchors can be used on an ice climb if you can find them. On waterfall ice, it is common to find sturdy ice columns around which you can put a runner. On mixed climbs you may find natural rock features such as horns to tie a runner around. Some ice climbers make use of cracks between ice and rock by tying off an ice screw with webbing, placing it in the crack and turning it 90° to create a chockstone.
Ice screws must be placed in the ice securely, then clipped with a quickdraw to the rope, all while you are standing on front points and hanging from 1 ice tool. It's a tricky process for a beginner to master.
Pound-in protection is useful in certain situations where screws would fracture the ice. Hook-style pitons can be placed in cracks, between ice features such as icicles or into old tool placement holes. Use the hammer on your ice tool to pound them in.
Named after the Soviet climber who first devised it in the 1930s, the Abalakov V-thread anchor is simple in design, yet very strong. It's well suited to rappels or top-rope setups, assuming that the ice in which it is made is of good quality.
The ice bollard is another rappel anchor that is cut out of good-quality ice (that is, hard ice with no cracks). It consists of a downward-pointing, teardrop-shaped trench in which your climbing rope rests, with an upper lip that prevents the rope from sliding off.
These techniques of ice climbing are just the basics. For more in-depth information and to gain competence, read available books or take a course from a reputable guide or club in your area.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: Wed Aug 15 17:58:16 PDT 2012
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