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Bulletproof – 20 cold weather ice climbing tips

January 4, 2012

Well, it’s getting to be that time of the season here in TB where we can expect a nasty arctic air mass to come and settle in at some point.  The kind of air mass that makes for two or three straight nasty, bitter weekends of ice climbing and has me second guessing the madness of this pursuit and questioning why the hell I didn’t stay in my nice warm bed cuddled up to my nice warm wife in the morning.  We’ve had a couple of cold mornings already this season that have given us a bit of a reality check, and some discussion during those outings led to this post [thanks also to Wes Bender for adding some info to an earlier draft].

If you climb ice long enough and often enough, it’s inevitable that you will, at some point, be out on a day where the ice is bulletproof, tools bounce off the ice like you’ve hit a rock, and dinner plates are a fact of life.  The sounds in those conditions are unmistakeable, ice fragments sound like broken wine glasses and fine china falling down, and tools and crampons squeak like nails on a chalk board.  Still, there are a few things I’ve learned that make life a lot easier and can at least make a cold day out tolerable.

Brian Bottan enjoying steep ice on a cold day - find the sun, climb the wet, tread lightly.

  1. Sharpen Up! – I see this every season, and I’m still occasionally guilty of it myself, but keep all your pointy bits sharp!  Properly sharpened picks (the profile restored to that of a brand new one, or properly tuned if you know how) make a huge difference in how easily you’ll get a good tool placement in cold ice.  Accept that your picks are replaceable for a reason – they wear out from time to time, and stop trying to save a few bucks by avoiding sharpening them when they need it – strive for that “new pick” feeling.  Don’t forget to work on the top of the pick as it gets shorter to keep the front profile true to stock.  Remember to swap out those T-rated drytooling picks for thinner B-picks if you have them.  If you find your picks “sticky”, tune them to release properly – nothing like cold ice to really get your tool stuck.  Ditto for your crampons – dull points will have you climbing like you’re driving a Flintsone car on the expressway, no matter how good you use your feet. You shouldn’t have to kick more than once or twice to get a secure foot.  Finally, don’t forget your screws.  Nothing will increase your confidence more than starting an ice screw quickly when you need it most, and only razor sharp screws will do in very cold weather.  If you’re lucky enough to find a wet line (see below), any screw can be a nightmare to start in dense ice with a wet surface.  Sharp screws help here, as do the most recent screws from major manufacturers which seem to deal better with this stuff than older versions.
  2. Swing lightly – if your ice technique is lacking (i.e. you’re a lumberjack), it will become even more apparent in cold weather.  Heavy-handed swinging is not only more fatiguing, but will result in more dinner plating; and on more difficult climbs, it may break off features you would prefer remained in place.  Practice climbs at your limit in these conditions while on top rope, and you may be surprised and how much better a lighter touch seems – and how much more efficient it will be in the long run.  The trick is to find the balance between a secure placement and minimal effort and ice displacement.  On difficult ice with fragile features, I often “drill” my tool placements with a few lighter taps, displacing minimal ice but getting a deeper, more secure hole to hook.  If the hooking gives you the willies, a slightly harder tap at the end sets the pick in the ice more securely.
  3. Happy Hooking – take advantage of natural features or, on beat out routes, old pick holes, wherever possible.  No swinging usually means no dinner plates.
  4. Dealing with Dinner Plates – A lighter swing will go a long way to minimizing the number and size of dinner plate chunks of ice you knock loose.  At these temps though, they are a fact of life for even experienced climbers.  Climbs with fresh or undisturbed, smooth ice (in addition to being pumpy or real calf-burners depending on the angle) will be the most challenging in this regard.  When you do knock a plate loose, try to avoid sending it down the climb intact to your belayer (or your face).  Lightly break it into smaller pieces first, working from the top down so as to minimize the chance it goes all at once.  Dodging (or getting hit by) smaller chunks is always preferable.  It doesn’t take a large piece of ice to do serious damage when it hits a person.  Some plates may be best left in place, as long as there is no danger of them coming loose later and hitting someone.  Also, sometimes clearing the surface ice with a large dinner plate can reveal more cooperative ice underneath – I’ve found the ice below often seems to be under less tension and easier to get a good stick into, or the plate may reveal ice features underneath that are more aerated and better accept the displacement of a pick.  A properly worn and adjusted helmet (so that the forehead is protected – not tilted back) helps a ton – use your helmet to deflect ice debris from your face.  A regular partner of mine has a visor on his, usually worn flipped up, for added protection from this hazard.

    Wes with his trusty helmet visor.

  5. Obey the Basic Rules – If we’ve been spoiled with a long spell of soft ice and warm temps, we often get used to bending the “rules” of tool placements – getting sticks in fragile features or on top of bulges.  Look for the holes, gaps and depressions, you’ll displace less ice that way.  Avoid the crests of bulges and cauliflowers, and the outsides of narrow columns.
  6. Seek out the Water – 16 years of ice climbing, and I’m still amazed that I can find flowing or seeping water at -30C. Following that wet line can make a cold climb much easier, and mean the difference between struggling like you’re chopping a cord of wood and cruising up some plastic.  Be careful about swinging too hard again though, and pay attention to icing on gloves and tool handles if you’re going leashless.
  7. Climb the “Crap” – I’ve often managed to make quick work of an imposing route in colder weather by climbing the rougher-looking ice that I’d avoid in warmer conditions.  Snowy patches on the ice can sometimes make for an easier stick (I suspect the aerated surface ice-snow interface helps here) – watch for onion skins and other surprises though.  Similarly, sun-rotted ice, especially if it’s just the inch or two on the surface (yielding good ice and protection below) will often be more aerated and less prone to fracturing – it’s a fine line though between total crap and easier overall climbing.  I also use this to advantage topping out on vertical routes – sometimes the sunny side of a bulge offers an easier time during the trickiest part of a climb.  Be especially wary though of very cold ice that has only recently had the sun on it, there can be a lot of tension there and consequent surprises when you try to get a stick.
  8. Dagger Intentions – Now is NOT the time to be getting on those free-hanging daggers or free-standing columns.  They will be under a LOT of tension and sometimes a sneeze will be all it takes to snap them.  Save those for warmer spells (they’re hard enough as it is!).  As Wes notes, it’s a good idea to pay attention to temps in the days leading up to an ascent of a free-stander, sometimes if it’s a tad cool, but with consistent temperatures, it might be okay.  Me, I’m a chicken and if it’s cold I stay off them unless they’re super fat.
  9. Beware Big Swings – even if the daytime high is forecast to be tolerable, or you’ve found that sunny climb out of the wind, pay attention to changing temperatures.  These put the ice under a lot of tension, particularly if temps are dropping or rising quickly (most climbers have heard climbs cracking during a sudden drop in temperature), and your tools can seemingly explode from the ice.
  10. Free Your Wrists – And your circulation will follow.  Using leashes can be of benefit in colder weather (particularly when using thicker gloves) and provide an additional margin of security, but they prevent natural circulation to your hands and make it easier to get in over your head (by being able to do more with semi-frozen hands).  Climbing unleashed will keep you moving your hands about more, make it easier to drop them to restore circulation, and also keep you more realistic about just how cold you’re hands are getting, making you more likely to turn around while you still can.  Be proactive and shake blood into your hands frequently while climbing to avoid the barfies.
  11. Protect the Belayer – if you can set up the belay in a cave or anywhere out of ice fall range, do so.  Icefall is even less avoidable now than when it’s warm.  On single pitch routes, avoid ground anchors unless absolutely necessary and choose climbs where the belayer has ample room to dodge icefall.
  12. Dress Appropriately – Goes without saying, but come prepared.  Consider a change of socks after longer approaches, and a spare undershirt.  In addition to your big puffy jacket, a nice set of puffy pants can make all the difference at a long belay.  My friend once produced a sleeping bag you could walk in, leaving me comfortable belaying in -36C weather while he drilled and cleaned a new sport mixed pitch for 3 hours.  Thankfully our heated batteries still died prematurely and ended that sufferfest.  Ditto for your hands – a good pair of expedition mitts for the belay session can stave off the inevitable barfies.  All this can add up to more “stuff”, but sharing one set between partners can keep the packs smaller and lighter. And now is the time for those super-warm double boots that you only wear once or twice a season.  Keep them laced looser to permit adequate circulation to your feet, and lace them tighter when needed while standing in them (always a good idea, regardless of temp – the shape of your foot changes when weighted vs. not).
  13. Eat and Drink – It took me years to understand just how important this was in cold weather.  I tend not to eat much at all most days out climbing, and in cold weather I drink even less.  Having hot drinks available, and plenty of them, makes this more appealing, as does some fatty foods.  Drinking adequately during the day will help with recovery later as well.

    Bryce Brown fueling up with a light snack on a road trip. Remember to stoke the furnace!

  14. Focus on staying warm – Everything just takes a bit longer and bit more effort on colder days.  Accept this, and think about keeping warm.  Proactively warming cold toes and hands makes you more useful as a belayer and safer while climbing – do your best to avoid the barfies.  Shine those lips up with good balm, and cover your nose and ears if it’s windy.  Keep an eye on your partner for signs of frost nip or worse.
  15. Climb the Classics – Getting on a popular route often means the route will be hacked out, and this can be a plus in cold weather since you’re hooking more and swinging less, and expending less effort.  If the route is busy, be first (though see next tip).  Climbing under another team on vertical routes with no steps is a bad idea on any day, it’s even worse in colder weather when even more ice will be raining down the route.  If you get scooped, go elsewhere, or head to the coffee shop and talk about how rad you would have been if you had been first.
  16. Sleep In – Getting a later start is often a good idea.  Pick a lower-commitment objective and, if there’s any chance of things warming a bit, give the day time to do so.  It’s amazing how even a few degrees can make a big difference in your mood on a given day.
  17. Consequence – Remember, cold weather always makes any accident or injury, however minor, a lot more serious.  Any situation resulting in immobility carries with it a serious risk of hypothermia or other cold injury, and administering first aid or coordinating even a simple self-rescue quickly becomes more challenging – plan accordingly.  Now is a good time for lower-commitment objectives.
  18. Be Ready to Bail – That’s why you’ll-be-backin-offs (aka Abalakovs, aka v-threads) were invented.  As with any ice climbing, if it ain’t happening, accept it and get out of there.  No shame in turning around, I do often (then again, I do get shamed for it…).
  19. Think of Your Pet – Unless you’ve got a Yukon sled dog as your companion (and one that’s habituated to the cold, not a couch dog), leave your canine buddy at home.  Common sense prevails here!
  20. Stay Home – This is always an option, after all, ice climbing is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?  I know a lot of folks that just stay home on the colder days, which makes good sense to me.  There’s always that -15 rule – if it’s colder than that, technical climbing gets a lot more challenging and down right sucks in most cases.  Of course, we still sometimes go (hence this post), but the folks that do it often are also the same guys that believe slamming your fingers in a car door is a good way to train for ice climbing.  And fight that ever present “this is my day off and I’m doing it no matter what” syndrome that gets us all into trouble on occasion.

Even with all of this, climbing when the temps are in the negative double digits is most often Type II fun, sort of like WI6 on an ideal day.  Perhaps it’s more like repeatedly banging your head against a brick wall – it feels good when you stop.

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