Why (and How) You Should Learn to Mixed Climb

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Because the more you can climb, the more you can climb

Maybe you boulder until gazing skyward gets you on a rope. You sport climb until untouched walls demand gear. You plug cams and stoppers until the treeline gives way to snow and ice. And then you look at partially formed lines or high alpine peaks and place pick to rock. This is mixed climbing, a culmination of several other disciplines, and perhaps the last tool in your toolbox.

“You have to put together every single thing you know about rock climbing in terms of movement, footwork, body tension. When you’re on ice, you’re an ice climber, rhythmic and robotic, but as soon as you hit rock, you have to switch and become dynamic and powerful like a sport climber,” said Dawn Glanc, a Ouray-based professional climber and alpine guide with Chicks Climbing and Skiing.

“You start putting together all these skills, and all of the sudden, the sky’s the limit,” said Andres Marin. Like Glanc, he’s a climbing guide in the San Juans as well as a mountaineer and past winner of the Mugs Stump Award.

Chance Traub makes the first ascent of The Rancor, Lee Vining Canyon, California | Photo: Luke Lydiard

“There’s nothing wrong with calling yourself a sport climber or a trad climber or a boulderer,” Marin said. “But people who sample a little bit of everything tend to have a wider range of options.”

And in the high alpine, sometimes mixed climbing is your only option. Alpinist Kitty Calhoun, also with Chicks Climbing and Skiing, has been known to say that mixed climbing’s existed as long as ice climbers have been having route-finding trouble (which is to say, always). Your pillar trickles into a smear, you hook a rock, and you’re mixed climbing, easy as that.

“Don’t overthink it,” Glanc said. “It’s just rock climbing. Except with tools and crampons.”

Mixed Messages: The Nuances of Transitioning from Rock to Rock and Ice

You have a baseline understanding of rock climbing. Here are mental and technical tweaks to consider as you go mixed.

Live on the edge. In rock shoes, you’re placing your feet sideways and standing on the inside of your big toe or your outside edge to squeeze the most rubber onto the contact surface. Crampons work a little differently. For one, smearing is not a thing. They will, however, let you stand on a fingernail-sized edge if you’re conscious of your placement. Look for very specific scoops and edges, and once you’re on them, keep a "quiet foot" to keep from skating off.

Chance Traub wedges his pick into a thin crack to create a bomber hold on Lando Calrissian WI3 M3, Lee Vining Canyon, California. | Photo: Luke Lydiard

Think small. As a rock climber, you’re probably used to looking for hand jams and jugs whenever possible. An ice tool operates on a smaller order of magnitude. Look for tiny incut edges, seams you can cam a pick into, and sharp underclings you can torque an upside down tool into. This is called a "stein pull" for obvious reasons.

Switch tools. “The number one problem people have is committing to only one tool,” Glanc said of beginners. Traversing to one side or the other? Instead of matching on the same feature, get a single bomber placement with one tool and hook the other over your shoulder (or put it in your mouth). Match, then switch hands on the in-use handle and take up your shouldered tool with your newly free hand to continue traversing.

Take advantage of the good sticks. A bomber tool placement is as good as two or three jugs. If you’ve got a big reach ahead of you, walk your hands as high up the tool as you can (without losing downward pressure) before going for the next placement.

Say no to the funky chicken. Keep those elbows down. Chicken wing it and you’ll get super pumped, look like a doof, and run a good chance of popping a tool all at the same time. Pull down, not out, and maintain constant pressure to keep the tool where it needs to be.

Avert your eyes. If you ever played a high school sport that involved running, you probably had a coach say, “Look down and that’s where you’ll end up.” Staring at your tools as you pull them for another swing is a good way to take one to your face.

Go slowly. Scratching your way to the top isn’t success. Mixed climbing is slow and controlled by nature, and it takes some practice to figure out what your tools will grab onto and what they won’t. You’ll be shocked, disappointed, and pleasantly surprised by what you find. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, so start on bolted routes if you can find them before moving on to traditional climbs. Keep an open mind, and don’t rush it.

The author attentively belays on a warm day in Ouray. | Photo: Luke Lydiard

Be heads up. Universal belay standard applies now more than ever. In rock climbing, a second-bolt whipper will get you a faceful of backside. On mixed routes, you get a faceful of sharp spikes. Plus, the sharp end (pun intended) usually doesn’t have time to yell “FALLING” before a tool blows—it happens instantly, often unexpectedly. Stand out of the line of fire (of falling climbers, thrown tools, and ubiquitous choss), and for the love of intact grey matter, wear a helmet.

Chance Traub follows the path of least resistance on The Rancor, Lee Vining Canyon, California | Photo: Luke Lydiard

Ice is nice. Look for frozen runnels and fat columns, especially on alpine lines. “That’s what we chase as much as we can,” said Marin. “The more ice you find, the faster you can move.”

Be avalanche aware. It’s easy to forget that backcountry ice climbs and mixed climbs often lay nestled in the biggest, steepest, most loaded terrain out there. Check the avalanche forecast before you go out, and keep your approach away from the path of 30 to 45-degree slopes whenever possible.

Gather gear.  Most of the time, garden variety ice tools will work just fine, especially on routes that are vertical or less. Move to overhanging terrain, and you’ll have better success with an aggressively curved tool like the Petzl Nomic or Black Diamond Fuel. For better purchase, try filing off the second tooth back from the head, carving your tool tip into a hooked moon shape. Monopoint crampons are the go-to for mixed climbers and can be great for most ice. If you want an all-around crampon that can tackle steep ice, snow climbs, and drytooling, try one with interchangeable points like the Petzl Lynx or Cassin Blade Runner.

A Note on Ethics

Maybe you’ve always dreamed of drytooling the Naked Edge. Even with this amount of photoshop, it’s not a good idea. Cat scratching the living daylights out of a local rock crag is a good way to make enemies. Fortunately, mixed climbs form most often on porous, fractured rock that seeps water and bonds quickly to ice, and there’s a name for that variety of rock. It’s called choss. Because of that, the best mixed lines usually don’t see much competition from local rock climbers anyway. But be aware of local ethic no matter your endeavor.

 

 

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