Selecting Equipment for Waterfall Ice and Mixed Climbing
by Kurt Hicks
AAI Instructor and Guide
Getting equipped for waterfall ice climbing, a highly equipment-intensive activity, used to be easy. You just had to buy some screws, technical ice tools, crampons, and wander around the mountains until you found a frozen cascade. Fortunately, recent advances in technology now enable us to climb and protect ice much more efficiently than in years past, but these advances have also made buying ice equipment much more complex. Here we will delve into some considerations for selecting equipment for waterfall ice and mixed climbing.
The base component of an ice climbing rack is the tubular ice screw. Modern screws feature high relief threads that greatly increase the holding power over older, pound-in, and fine-threaded designs. Look for a model that is tapered from the teeth to the hanger since they fracture less than non-tapered models. Models that are fully coated in stainless steel like those by Black Diamond (the BD Express) and Petzl rust much less, giving you piece of mind (even though the typical amount of rust is merely a cosmetic annoyance, not a structural hazard). Hangers that facilitate rapid placement with features like "turbo knobs" or wire handles are worth the extra cost because they are so much faster and easier to place.
Determining how many screws to bring depends on the difficulty of the climbing, how thick the ice is, and the length of the pitches. I typically bring around a dozen, using two or three for each belay. This leaves six to eight screws to protect the upcoming pitch. The newest ice screws are all rated to hold falls (the 10 cm screws used to be rated only as aid climbing protection and not for falls), so you should decide what length of screws to bring based on the thickness of the ice you'll be climbing. A typical rack usually consists of:
- One or two 10 cm screws (aka "stubbies")
- Four 13 cm screws
- Four 16 cm screws
- Two 22 cm screws
Example of a load-limiting sling used to reduce peak force on a screw placed in aerated ice.
Rock Protection for Mixed Climbing
It is often possible to protect ice climbs with supplemental rock protection if you are climbing an ice route directly adjoining rock. In addition to being fast to place, rock gear can inspire confidence when attacking hard sections of ice climbing.
Rock protection is also critical when climbing "mixed" routes, or routes that necessitate both rock and ice climbing in varying amounts. Depending on the ratio of ice to rock on the route, I adjust my rack accordingly. More ice means more screws; more rock means fewer screws and more rock gear.
A typical traditional mixed rack looks something like this:
- Four to ten ice screws
- One set of stoppers
- Two tri-cams (pink and red)
- Three to six pitons from knifeblade to 1/2" angle
- A few cams from 0.5" to 2"
- One to two ice pitons/hooks
The rock type dictates the exact composition of the rack. For limestone routes with lots of parallel cracks, I emphasize cams and pitons over stoppers since stoppers don't tend to place well in that type of crack. For routes on granite, conglomerates, or chossy/broken rock, I reintroduce the stoppers to the mix. Pitons are universally good. Ice pitons don't work well in ice, but are invaluable for driving into dirty cracks and frozen moss.
Traditional mixed climbing on "Mixed Master" (WI5, 5.8) in the Canadian Rockies.
Load Limiters, Slings, and Carabiners
Designed to reduce the peak impact force on a piece of protection, load-limiting slings, such as the Yates Screamer or Petzl Nitro, deserve a place on your rack. These quickdraw-like slings are designed to elongate when a high force is placed on them, thus lengthening the duration of the fall and resulting in less force being transmitted to the piece of protection holding the fall. I always place these on the first piece of protection off the belay and also on dubious pieces thereafter. For the remaining slings, I find that models composed of Spectra/Dyneema work better since they are lighter, more packable, and don't absorb water.
Carabiners are a great place to save weight on your rack. All non-locking carabiners should be wiregate models that are large enough to manipulate with gloves on. These are much lighter and are also much less susceptible to freezing shut and suffering from gate flutter. The Black Diamond Hotwire has long been the standard winter carabiner and composes a great deal of my rack. Locking carabiners (such as the Petzl Attache) should be large enough to use a munter hitch on in case your rope freezes or you drop your belay device.
Because ice protection is generally less bomber than rock protection, falling on ice is is always a bad idea, and anything you can do to reduce impacts on protection is in your best interest. Rope systems can effect those impacts.
Rope systems for ice and mixed climbing have the same variability as protection. The simplest system is a single rope, usually 60 meters long and with a 9 to 10mm diameter. With a single rope, rope management is greatly simplified as it mimics the typical rock climbing setup, but it halves the length of any rappels you have to make. When used properly, double ropes (sometimes called "half ropes") with a diameter of 8.0 to 9.0 mm allow full-length rappels and can decrease the amount of rope drag (because you clip each rope into alternating protection) as well as impact force (because of greater stretch). With twin ropes, another type of rope system, both strands are clipped into each piece of protection together, just as if they were a single rope. Their advantage is that they offer full length rappels and increased redundancy (since there are two ropes in case one is cut over an edge, hit by an errant tool placement or crampon, or chopped by ice or rockfall). It should be noted that twin ropes result in more impact on protection pieces than either of the other two ropes systems. In rock climbing where protection for the most part is very sound, this isn't as much of a concern as in ice climbing where impact force can be a very bad thing. The last option is a single rope combined with a tag line. Generally speaking, the tag line, which is a 7mm nylon cord, serves as a pull cord for your single rope, thus allowing full-length rappels with less weight than a double rope system. No matter what rope system you choose, get dry treated ropes. They last longer (because the sheath is more resistant to wear), and they absorb less water than non-treated ropes.
The author using a single rope with a tag line, leashless tools,
and superlight shell jacket on Gibraltar Wall (WI4), British Columbia.
There are a number of boots that work well for ice climbing. The key characteristic of a good ice climbing boot is fit. Find a model that minimizes or eliminates heel lift when standing on your toes and that is comfortable to wear all day while walking and climbing. Other important features are:
- A 3/4 or full length shank - This stiffens the boot sole to provide a solid platform while climbing.
- Insulation - to keep your toes warm
- Flexibility - for ankle mobility and walking comfort
- Welts - think of these as "benches" for your crampons to sit on.
Some great ice climbing boot models:
- Kayland: M11+, Apex XT
- Sportiva: Nepal Evo GTX, Trango Ice Evo, Batura
- Scarpa: Freney XT GTX and Summit GTX
For more information on choosing boots, check out this article: Footwear for Mountaineering and Climbing by AAI program coordinator and Denali guide Coley Gentzel.
The most important feature of crampons for ice climbing is their ability to fit onto your boots securely. Choosing between horizontal or vertical frontpoints can be challenging. For pure ice climbs, horizontal frontpoints offer more surface area and stability, especially in porous or aerated ice. Vertical frontpoints offer greater precision for technical ice and really shine on difficult, mixed climbs. An added bonus of vertical frontpoints is that replacement frontpoints are available, meaning that after a sharpening them over and over, you only have to replace the frontpoint and not the entire crampon.
These are the models that we have concluded are the best:
- Petzl: Dart, Dartwin, and M10
- Black Diamond: Cyborg
- Grivel: G14 and G12
Scarpa Freney XT boots, Lowa Civetta boots (with Intuition Denali liner) with Grivel G12 crampons, Koflach
Degree boots with Black Diamond Cyborg Crampons, and Raichle 90 Degree boots with Petzl Dart crampons
All modern ice tools climb well. The debate rages on about leashed versus leashless ice climbing and each has its merits. Each type of tool has different characteristics (swing, weight, balance, etc), so climb on lots of models and select the one that fits your swing style best.
I prefer to climb with a hammer on one tool and an adze on the other. Adzes are indispensable for clearing away large amounts of poor ice, chopping bivy ledges, or camming into cracks. Hammers are crucial for placing and removing pitons. The consequences of your tool popping out and the adze smashing into your face is more severe than a hammer, so beginners may find that using two hammers may be safer (i.e. you'll get a bruise instead of stitches).
The top leashed models are:
- Black Diamond: Viper and Cobra
- Petzl: Quark and Aztar
- Grivel: Matrix and Quantum
The top leashless models:
- Petzl: Nomic
- Black Diamond: Reactor
Always wear a helmet when climbing ice. Period. I've seen too many people who would have gotten seriously hurt or killed if they hadn't been wearing one. Be sure your warm hat or balaclava fits underneath it.
You have to get your gear to the route somehow. For ice "cragging" days, I choose something in the 35 to 40 liter size. A small "summit" style back like the Black Diamond Bullet or Magnum, Cilogear 30L, or Grivel Air Tech 28 are excellent for longer routes where carrying a parka, food, and water are critical for success. Find a model that doesn't affect your swing and that has a streamlined profile.
A full arsenal for a day of ice or mixed climbing. Top Row: Petzl Elios Helmet, Water bottle parka,
Petzl Tikka XP headlamp, first aid kit, Buff, Patagonia Grade VI jacket, Montbell Flatiron Parka
Middle Row: Black Diamond Express screws
Bottom Row: Black Diamond Cobra Ice tools, pitons, ice pitons, load limiter, sling, cordelette, nut
tool, stoppers, tricams, Black Diamond C3 cams, CCH alien cams, Black Diamond Camalots
Not shown: thermos/Jetboil, rope system, pack, boots, crampons
In addition to everything mentioned above, I always have these other items squirreled away in my pack for every foray out on the ice.
- Harness By using a model with adjustable leg loops, you can put it on after your crampons. Mine always has my trusty ATC Guide belay device attached with its dedicated locking carabiner.
- Abalakov Tool Otherwise known as a v-thread tool, these are indispensable for building rappel anchors in ice. A pocketknife for cutting cord is nice to have also. Check out the Petzl Multihook.
- Headlamp The days are short during the winter, so don't forget your headlamp! I prefer a high output LED model like the Petzl Tikka XP or Black Diamond Spot.
- Belay jacket Either down or synthetic is fine. This jacket goes on over all my layers upon reaching the belay and comes off just before I start climbing. Be sure that the hood fits over your helmet. Check out the Patagonia DAS Parka.
- Superlight rain shell I only put mine on when I'm starting up pitches that are dripping wet.
- Buff or balaclava. In addition to your 'beanie' hat, a thin insulating layer for your head is often the ticket for staying warm at belays and while climbing.
- Small file Keeping your tools and crampons sharp greatly increases their effectiveness and ease of placement.
- Spare gloves In addition to my climbing gloves, I always throw a spare pair in the bottom of the pack for when my main pair gets soaked. (For more information on glove systems, check out this article: Glove Systems for Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing).
- Nourishment Foods high in fat content help keep you warm. Combine these with lots of water in a thermos (or bring a Jetboil to heat up water at belays) to help keep yourself toasty throughout the day. Think of it as gas for the tank.
- First Aid Kit Bring enough supplies to bandage small lacerations (ice is sharp!), a splint, and some heat packs (to ward off frostbite on extremely cold days).
Enough talk about ice climbing. It's time pack up, head out, and get on some ice!
- Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher by Kathy Cosley and Mark Houston (Mountaineers Books, 2004). Kathy and Mark were guides at American Alpine Institute for many years.
- Mixed & Ice Climbing: Modern Technique by Will Gadd (Mountaineers Books, 2003)
Click the link to see American Alpine Institute's ice climbing courses.