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Tweaking the swing

February 22, 2011

I’ve always maintained that it will take most first-time ice climbers about 3 pitches of climbing to get the basic idea of what they are trying to do down pat.  Experience from dozens of beginner ice clinics with the Alpine Club also suggests that for most, it will take them a bit more than that to get a “good” knack for swinging their ice tools properly.  Lots of folks of course pick it up quick, but enthusiasm and strength compensates for a lot early on – after all, “stick the pick in the ice and pull!” will get you up there eventually.  I’d venture it takes most folks a good season or so to really refine their swing to get the most out of their tools…though perhaps not these days with the wealth of excellent gear, books and opportunities to learn from the pros at icefests and such.

Back when I started climbing (really not that long ago), the choices for “good” ice gear were fairly limited and among my (small) circle of partners, folks generally fell into one of three camps – they were either Black Diamond, Grivel, or Charlet-Moser (now Petzl) disciples.  Not surprisingly, different tools from the same company generally swung similarly (not so these days), and each brand had a certain type of feel to the correct swing for that tool that folks got used to and quickly came to prefer.  Not surprisingly, this probably had as much to do with what brand of tool they first used and learned to swing with than it did individual preferences.

For the first dozen or so years of my climbing career, I was exclusively a Black Diamond guy.  I started out with a set of Black Prophets the year after they came out and they suited my style very well.  I’m definitely not a slightly-built sport climber type, and neither were my regular partners.  Climbing seemed as much about sending ice down as it did about getting up the ice that was left.  My lack of finesse was not a function of the tools but how I used them, and the “natural” swing (for lack of a better term) and significant head-weight of BD’s earlier tools suited me well.  Not surprisingly, I stuck with BD for a long time and upgraded with each new generation of tools.  As soon as I could afford them, I got a set of the first-generation cobras and stuck with those, and my same brutish swing, for a number of years.  With the long cold seasons we have here, I was long-convinced that a heavy tool was necessary to punch into the bullet proof ice I climb for much of the season.

In the Ghost, Canadian Rockies, in the dark ages before I opened my mind to leashless climbing with 1st-gen BD Vipers and Bionic crampons. Reid Carter photo.

This trend started to change a bit for me as leashless tools began to catch on, and despite initially being a skeptic, I eventually saw the light (“free your wrists and your mind will follow”, right?) – and eventually, my perception of a tool’s balance and how it should swing changed (but just a little).  I went from throwing a heavy weight with a leash on to swinging more precisely and finding slightly less head weight was better.  Still, I stuck with BD and have owned nearly all of their premier tools over the past few years.  Their last few tools changed a fair bit though, with the tools starting to ship with smaller hammers (which I typically immediately switched out for that standard hammer to get the weight I liked back up top).  With the exception of the first-generation fusions, I was stuck in the past in that regard.

My ideas about this started to change even more when I met James Loveridge – tool tweaker extraordinaire (don’t take that the wrong way James…).  As I was leaping through the grades climbing with James and his friends, I started to get more obsessive about what I liked in an ice tool.  James took this to the extreme, and was busy taking state of the art tools and cutting them apart, inserting offset handles and generally trying to build a better weapon for the cold war.  Thanks to him I got to try all sorts of concepts and new tools, and my ideas about balance and swing shifted a bit more.

James Loveridge using the new BD Cobras and Sabretooths to do what he does best, on another new route in Orient Bay.

When Petzl introduced the Nomic, my ideas about ice tools both coalesced and changed forever, and I felt I’d found perfection.  I spent a season learning how to really use these tools to their potential, and quickly became a convert.  All I longed for was hammer on them for the occasional piton I’d place here and there.

Climbing as much as I do, and on the variety of terrain that I do, I do recognize the odd limitations on these.  They are spectacular on steep ice and mixed, but to me they are not an “all-day” tool on lower-angle or broken alpine terrain (though many would disagree!), and if you have to pound a lot of iron in on your route they aren’t my first choice despite the availability of two different hammer options for them on the second-generation tools.  I’m hoping to scrape some cash together to try a set of these hammers on my first-gen tools (haven’t made the leap to the new ones yet).  Also, potentially annoying to me, is the apparent change Petzl made on their latest picks, increasing the pick angle slightly.  I haven’t tried them yet, but I suspect this will make them less suitable for low-angle terrain (at least for me).  Guess I’ll find out when my new ones come in.

The solution there was a second set of tools to cover off this aspect of my climbing, and I went with a pair of the new Cobras (BTW, they also climb steep terrain very well, I just like the Nomic a tad better there – on steep ground I just prefer an offset handle).  Still, old habits die hard and I immediately switched out the micro-hammers for the old full-sized ones…and then proceeded to have a few mini-epics on “easy” routes when I found I was not dialled into swinging them at all anymore (okay, maybe it was just because I suck but my ego likes to blame the gear, so we’ll go with that).  For the past 3 or 4 seasons, I’ve climbed on nothing but Nomics, and they are a different beast.  This despite the new Cobras being comparable in swing to the earlier BD designs, at least when they’re equipped with the big hammers.  On crap ice, where I need to swing multiple times, I actually find them fatiguing to swing quickly to clear a placement, and with that weight in the head, I all-too-easily slip back to my old style of “lumberjack” climbing, over-driving and attacking my belayer with falling ice.

The 2nd gen BD Cobra, shown with micro-hammer and with the standard hammer option above. Utilizing the tool with the micro hammer lightens the weight overall and also places the majority of the mass at the end of the tool forward of the head, making for what I've come to appreciate as a better and more efficient swing. An even better example of this is the Petzl Nomic with the pick weights on, very efficient design IMHO.

Still, stubbornness persisted and it wasn’t until I started paying attention to my close friend and climbing partner Wes Bender’s opinion on tools.  He is a rare guy around here – loves climbing on a pair of Simond Naja Cups, and I’ve climbed with him enough to know that he’s the local ice master, which I think is saying something.  He definitely prefers a very light tool with a neutral balance (very little head weight).

Wes Bender cruising a proud line on Reflection Wall, Orient Bay, with his beloved Simonds.

This week I switched out those big heavy hammers and put the micro-hammers back in (BD is shipping them that way for a reason, idiot).  And wow – love these things and find them super well-balanced and easy to swing, and very easy for me to switch between them and the Nomics.  Sure, they pound iron better with the big hammers but I was surprised at just how well the little hammers worked as long as I paid attention to my aim.  So now I’m psyched, I have two pairs of tools which for me cover all the bases on two-tool, technical terrain and I can use both well, and they both suit my preferred style of swing.

It’s funny how I’ve often thought that folks have agonized WAY too much about some aspects of ice tool design, and I was often a skeptic reading some of the posts on the EXCELLENT Cold Thistle blog.  I mean really…the latest offerings from the major manufacturers are pretty damn good, right?  But between this experience, rereading some of those posts, and Wes’ most recent adventures in building tools from scratch out of completely new materials (see below), I’ve come to realize that pursuing tweaks and small changes to your favourite tools can be very worthwhile.

Wes’ first and second-generation “Denim 311” tools. Yup, you read that right, they’re made out of DENIM, like your Levi's. They have some flex (especially when my 225 lb. self starts yarding on them!), but that was much improved on the second generation and they climb really nice. Wes set out to create his optimal ice tool, and he wanted to use a completely original material. I’d say he definitely succeeded. These aren’t the first excellent home-built rigs I’ve seen over the years, but they’re among the best for sure and I’d venture they compete with many of the high-end tools available today. Wes certainly seems to be able to put them to good use! Wes Bender photo.

Moral of the story here is, don’t be afraid to tinker with your gear to get what you want.  Closing my mind to certain aspects of tool design and swing style was limiting me.  Open your mind to change and you might be surprised.  Duh.  Next thing you know I’ll start to re-evaluate my other sacred cow – crampons!  I suppose that’s half the reason to be an ice climber – to provide another avenue for exercising the gear fetish.  Modern tools have LOTS of options for tweaking balance and weight distribution (Petzl definitely have a slight edge here) in addition to offering different pick options.  If you’re still not happy, don’t be afraid to start doing mods (and voiding warranties…and assuming your own risks, etc.).

Wes putting his denim ice tools to good use in Orient Bay last weekend.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 14:50

    Master? Well I wouldn’t use that term, more like second rate hack, but thanks for the props all the same. HA!

  2. Tristan permalink
    July 18, 2013 14:29

    Wes,
    (I’m just now realizing that this post is a couple years old, so I suspect I might not get a reply – I google searched home made ice tools, haha)… I’ve been exploring ways to make my own tools for a while now. Do you have detailed instructions, or a method you used to make the above pictured tools?? My problem is hand space. I’ve climbed with both Nomics and BD Fusions (New), and even on the biggest setting, with gloves on, it’s a tight squeeze – tight enough to be uncomfortable in the cold. I love the designs, just need to figure out how to manufacture my own with my hand size in mind! Also, I have some cool design ideas I’d like to tinker with… Any direction would be greatly appreciated!
    Cheers,
    Tristan

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