Snow and ice are dynamic environments that make climbing both difficult and exciting. Mountaineers and sport climbers enjoy everything from moderate-angle glacier walks to waterfall climbing’s vertical choreography.
This article discusses ice climbing equipment and basic techniques.
Climbing alpine ice, on the other hand, can entail walking flat-footed with crampons and a single ice axe.
First, let’s look at how climbers use their feet on the ice.
Though it is possible to climb low-angle ice using rough features or by chopping steps with an ice axe, crampons must be used at some point for efficiency and safety.
Alpine climbing necessitates terrain-specific techniques. These techniques are known as French and German techniques, after the countries from which they originated.
French technique: This is the preferred technique for low-angle to moderately steep ice (slopes up to about 40°). It is also known as flat-footing on ice. For traction, all crampon points except the very front are kept in contact with the ice. This is the most efficient method of traversing hard snow or ice. Climbing on lower-angle ice is as simple as pointing your feet uphill and planting them firmly, including your heels. Climbing requires more ankle flexibility as the slope angle increases.
German technique: Because only the front-facing crampon points make contact with the ice, this is more commonly known as front-pointing. It is commonly used on slopes of 45° and higher. The climber turns his back to the slope and kicks his toes in to plant the two or four front points. It is the most direct way to climb a steep slope, but it is also the most taxing on your calf muscles because only the crampon frames support your feet.
Combined technique: Combining the German technique (or toe-in to the slope) with flat-footing is one way to make climbing moderately steep ice more comfortable. This combination technique is referred to as the “3 o’clock position” or “pied troisieme” and is usually less tiring than straight flat-footing. It entails planting one foot’s front points while keeping the other foot splayed out to the side, sole flat against the slope.
Walking on flat or low-angle ice does not always necessitate the use of an ice axe. In fact, practicing your flat-foot technique (with and without crampons) without relying on your ice axe(s) is a good way to learn the “feel” of the ice underfoot.
On steep, technical ice routes, two short tools, one with a hammer and one with an adze, are typically used.
For low-to-moderate-angle ice (up to about 45°) using French technique:
- Cane (piolet canne): When walking on flat to moderately steep terrain, use the cane position. Hold the axe by the head, with the spike (at the shaft’s end) in contact with the ice. This axe technique is used in conjunction with forwarding or duck-walking, as described in the crampon section above.
- Cross-body (piolet ramasse): You must turn your body sideways to the slope and progress diagonally upward as the slope angle increases. The cross-body position is a more secure way to hold your axe in this situation. Grasp it by the head with your downhill hand and drive the spike into the slope. This is especially helpful when sidestepping down a slope.
For steep ice (45° and more) using German technique:
- Low dagger (piolet panne): When you face into the ice or snow and begin to front-point, you will be in this position. Push the pick into the slope at about waist or chest level while holding the axe by the head at the adze. This is best used for short stretches of balance on hard snow or soft ice. With this technique, it’s difficult to get much traction on hard ice.
- High dagger (piolet poignard): This is similar to low dagger, except you’re holding the axe above your head. Your hand is wrapped around the axe’s head, the pick facing down the slope. When the slope becomes too steep for low dagger to be effective, high dagger is used.
- Anchor (piolet ancre): You have even more security in the anchor position. Keep the axe close to the bottom of the shaft. Swing the axe above your head to set the pick into the ice. Now, front-pointing, raise your feet as you raise both hands higher on the axe shaft. One hand will eventually be holding the axe head, similar to the low dagger position. At this point, remove and reposition the axe.
- Traction (piolet traction): This position is used on ice that is very steep to vertical or overhanging. When the ice is extremely steep, two tools are required to maintain balance and contact with the ice as you progress upward. Swing overhead, holding the tool by its shaft near the base, and plant the pick firmly but carefully in the ice. Repeat with the other tool, and then work your way up. Snug wrist loops are essential for maintaining a good grip on the tools when using the traction position. They also allow you to “hang” to rest by bending your knees and straightening your arms.
When positioning your tools, look for depressions in the ice, which are stronger than outward bulges and can withstand fracturing better. Look for holes left by your partner and place your tools in them if you’re following.
A single sure swing, like crampon placement, is far superior to several taps or random chops at the ice. It conserves energy as well as the ice surface.
Ice routes are frequently interspersed with rock. Dry tooling is when you use your ice tools to protect yourself from cracks or other rock features. Place the pick in a crack or the hammerhead in a rock feature, then work your way up with your tools as if they were in ice.
Ice screws must be securely embedded in the ice before being clipped to the rope with a quickdraw, all while standing on front points and hanging from a single ice tool. It’s a difficult process for a novice to master.
You must first remove any rotten, soft ice or snow until you reach good, solid ice. Create a small hole with your pick to begin the screw. It should be inserted at about a 10° angle uphill from the expected pull direction.
For better leverage, while twisting it in, choose a spot on the ice near your waist rather than above your head.
Screws should be spaced about 2 feet apart.
Second screws connected with runners and carabiners should be used to back up shaky screw placements.
Pound-in protection can be useful in situations where screws would crack the ice. Hook-style pitons can be inserted into cracks, between ice features like icicles, or into old tool placement holes. Pound them in with the hammer on your ice tool.
The Abalakov V-thread anchor is named after the Soviet climber who invented it in the 1930s. It is simple in design but extremely strong. It’s ideal for rappels or top-rope setups, assuming the ice is of good quality.
Another rappel anchor made of high-quality ice is the ice bollard (i.e., hard ice with no cracks). It consists of a teardrop-shaped trench in which your climbing rope rests, with an upper lip that prevents the rope from sliding off.
To make an ice bollard, first, shape it with your ax’s pick, then scoop out the trench with your adze.
Make a 6-inch-deep trench in the shape of an inverted teardrop, taking care not to crack the ice.
The width of the bollard should be between 12″ and 18″. Make an undercut at the top to keep the rope from slipping off. Take care not to crack the horn shape you’ve made for the rope to rest on.