COVER YOUR REAR!
Written for Boulderdash! Magazine
By: Michael Crowder
Ice climbing has seen a recent boom in participants. It has also seen a dramatic increase in accidents. Many of the newer ice climbers are experienced rock climbers who are using the same rope techniques on ice that they have learned cragging. Ice climbing requires an entirely different set of techniques and always has. Even among experienced ice climbers I see laziness creeping into their rope and protection skills.
Standards keep rising and the increased difficulty level adds to the inherent risk. Just a few years ago ice climbers still followed the rule that the leader must not fall. Now lead falls are becoming almost commonplace. These factors have contributed to a high number of accidents. Bouncing off the ground after ripping all of my protection on a route last year has forced me to review my every move.
Just a few years ago ice climbing was done almost exclusively on double ropes. Now I see most parties using one fat rope. There are several factors that make this a mistake. With the large amount of falling ice and all the sharp equipment the chance of cutting or damaging a rope is high. Two ropes decrease the chance of total rope failure to almost zero. The next important issue is rope stretch. Doubles have a higher elongation factor than a single and will reduce the chances of your protection pulling. You also get the ability to do long rappels and it gives you an extra rope to work a self-rescue.
If you insist on using your fat rope at least read the instructions on your Petzl Gri-Gri. They emphatically state that this device is not for use on dirty, wet, or icy ropes. This is the case with other equipment developed specifically for rock climbing. Read the little tags that come on your gear - knowledge affects safety.
The next great deadly sin I see on a regular basis is the lack of a third tool for leaders and solo climbers. Most of these climbers donít even have a spare pick, although replacing a pick while climbing is almost impossible. Break a pick or drop an axe on the sharp end and it could be your last mistake. Next time you are on a toprope try a vertical section with only one tool. A third tool also gives you the option to use an axe for protection. On many occasions the only protection I could work out was an axe pounded into a crack.
No matter how easy the climb you must have a plan in the event of equipment failure. Over the years I have experienced and heard of several instances of crampon failure. Make sure that your crampons fit your boots correctly. Maintain all of your equipment in good working order. Replace load-bearing screws in your crampons and axes every few years and if you do much mixed climbing replace your picks every year.
Ice protection is not as strong as rock protection and is subject to many more variables. Try not to expose yourself to the possibility of long leader falls. Take the time to place some extra pro on each pitch. If something goes wrong you donít want your last screw to be thirty feet below you. You can also reduce the risk of protection failure by using load-limiting devices. The best on the market are manufactured by Yates. "Screamers" are specially sewn slings that reduce the impact force of a fall on the protection, the rope and the climber. For ice climbing I have replaced almost all of my quick draws with them. Use them on screws, ice hooks, tied sickles, or any marginal pro you may come up with.
Remember that mistakes on ice usually come with serious consequences. Equipment breaks, be prepared. I climbed on a pair of axes for a full season before I knew they had been recalled due to the heads popping off the shafts. Use your head and cover your ass. Donít put yourself knowingly in a dangerous situation without a way out. Accidents affect more than just the injured party. Climb hard, do it on lead, and live to come back another day.
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