There is a high risk of falling when one is ice climbing, so it is very important to prevent this from occurring and we have created the following guide to teach everything that you need to know about ice climbing falls.
So, why do people fall while ice climbing? You are likely to break a bone if you fall on ice while ice climbing. The risk of falling should be avoided at all costs. It’s perfectly fine to fall on ice when climbing on top rope.
On lead rope, ice climbing falls are rarely ‘clean’ falls. The muscles in your legs depend on friction to keep them in place, so when you become unable to hold a position, they all tend to come off at the same time. The rope will catch you when you fall away from the surface you were attached to. This is a ‘clean’ fall. Rarely will all four limbs (both arms and both legs) fall off the ice at the same time in ice climbing, which can lead to disastrous results.
You will learn how to minimize the chances of falling while ice climbing, what to do if you fall, and what to do if you do fall.
Ice Climbing Falls
Here are a few reasons why falling on ice is so dangerous. The philosophy of never falling can seem strange to rock climbers just transitioning to ice climbing. As rock climbers, we push ourselves to the absolute limit of what we are capable of; falls are not only acceptable, they are almost expected. Falling means you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough.
The situation is completely different, however, when it comes to ice climbing. The advice of ice climbers is to aim to go your entire career without falling on ice. There will always be some people who will fall once because of bad luck, but you should do everything you can to lessen the chances of that happening.
World-renowned ice climber Will Gadd says in his article: ‘Ice climbing falls will likely result in a minimum of badly broken leg, ankle, head, pelvis, neck, back, or all of this list.’
Why are these disparities present? When you fall on ice, why is it so dangerous? There are three main reasons for all these hazards:
Lack of ‘Clean Falls’ When Ice Climbing
In the first place, this is because of the ‘clean’ fall mentioned earlier and in climbing, a clean fall is when you come off the wall without injury, are aware of where you are, and are in a good position to be caught.
Those who have ever lead climbed know what this feels like; you pop a bit backwards, keep your legs low, and drop a bit before the rope tightens and you might feel a little uneasy or disconcerted, but most of the time you won’t get hurt.
Falling through ice is rarely a clean experience. You stay atop the wall by the friction between your hands, your shoes, and the wall’s surface. Usually, this friction breaks down suddenly; your feet won’t stay attached to the wall once your hands slip off, because there isn’t enough friction to hold them in place.
Ice climbing, however, does not depend on friction. For stability, you drive metal spikes into the ice with your crampons and ice axes.
When you drive your crampons or axes into the ice, it’s not always easy to pull them out, especially if you lose balance and begin to fall. Broken legs are one of the most common injuries in ice climbing falls because of this very reason. Accidentally falling from ice is caused by a climber too tired or completely over their head. They lose both ice aces, and gravity takes over; the climber pitches backwards and his body begins to descend.
Due to their design and how firmly they had been kicked into the ice, the climber’s feet remain attached to the ice as they fall. As it turns out, the motion of falling could actually drive crampons even deeper into the ice, hindering a clean fall. Despite the crampons coming out at first, there is still a chance they will make contact with ice somewhere in the fall and cause damage, especially on terrain that isn’t vertical.
Various injuries can occur as a result. Climbers who fall backwards while their feet are immobile put an insane amount of pressure on their tibia, fibula, and knees. It can cause broken bones, meniscal tears, or spiral fractures.
Additionally, once the feet pop off, the climber will be in a bad position to recover from the fall, as they will be off balance mid-air, with their head somewhere in line with their feet. Once your belayer catches you, you are more likely to become tangled in the rope or take a hard fall back into the ice.
The reason you don’t release from the ice at the same time is that ice climbing uses spikes instead of friction to hold you in place. Consequently, some parts of your body fall while others stay attached to the wall, causing your limbs to be in some pretty uncomfortable positions.
Degree of Protection
Ice climbing is so dangerous that you should never fall while doing it. Otherwise, there are other factors you need to consider that can make falls even more dangerous.
In the first place, ice protection offers significantly less security than rock climbing protection. If you are sport climbing, you have the luxury of having stainless steel bolts drilled into cliff faces and held in place with special glue and the bolts of this type can last decades at a time and catch hundreds of falls.
For ice climbing, you need to use something called an ice screw. The long, hollow screw is threaded through the ice, then clipped through the rope.
The screws themselves are fairly solid, but they rely a lot on the surrounding ice. It is important to consider the temperature, the formation of the ice, how deep it is, and how much air there is inside. Choosing good placements on ice is a lot more difficult, so you can’t have the blind faith that you do when you sport climb that your protection will always hold.
As you have knives attached to your hands and feet when ice climbing, which is why a lot of people prefer a double-rope system.
Ice axes and crampons are extremely sharp. A single swing can penetrate thick ice layers and they can be used hundreds of times per session. The wrong angle can cause a crampon point or an ice pick to sever through a 9mm rope.
When you fall, you don’t always know where you are. It’s common to lose your spatial awareness and flail your limbs. You can exponentially increase your risk of harming yourself if you take a tumble and damage the rope with one of your tools.
Avoiding Falls While Ice Climbing
After discussing why climbing on ice is not a good idea, we will focus on what you need to do to prevent falling.
Keep an eye on your placements
If you want to avoid taking a fall while ice climbing, make sure your tools are placed well. We have few pointers for you:
- You shouldn’t be afraid to use force. It’s no big deal that you’re a full-grown adult using ice tools made by experts. Drive your tool into the ice by hammering away at it really hard.
- It’s best to test a tool before you rely on it: weight it, or give it a good snap with your shoulder (in the downward direction), to be sure that it won’t cut you.
- Watch your angles: In order to hold you where your weight is going, you must place the tool in a timely manner, not necessarily where your weight is now or was before.
In general, your placements should not be too difficult to hold even if both your feet became unattached.
Don’t Choke Up on Your Tools
As with the above point, choking on your tools can actually cause them to get yanked from the ice.
With axes, downward force is applied to grip and by choking up, you change your weight distribution, causing you to pull more outwards and less downwards, increasing the chance of your placements releasing.
If you want to avoid choking, make sure you’re hanging down on the tools rather than moving your feet. There’s a chance that you didn’t raise your feet high enough and end up feeling choked up.
Your Ice Screws should be at your waist
When we try to be safe, we can actually cause an accident.
Beginners and those without much lead experience will naturally want to place their ice screws as high as possible. As a result, you’ll feel more safe (since you’re temporarily climbing on top rope) and each screw will protect you for a longer time.
Placing your screws too high can actually result in a fall.
If, however, you reach up and try to screw in a piece of protection, you risk compromising this position and causing your ice axes to load strangely. When this is combined with the fact that you only use one ice axe until the wall is fully screwed, you’re more likely to fall.
Instead, strap the ice screws to the circumference of your waist. It is easier to do this way, and you get a more stable position from which to screw. In the case of not being comfortable enough to do this, you may not be ready to lead on ice.
It is best to practice enough before you tie yourself to a lead rope in ice climbing.
Will Gadd recommends that you take 150 laps on top rope before you lead on ice (about 30 days in the mountains). Before he was comfortable enough to lead, one of my friends spent an entire semester working for one of the top guide companies in the world.
There are two reasons why you should take this step. Firstly, be cautious: because of how high the stakes are on ice, you need to be extra sure of your own abilities and mental preparation before you decide it’s time to move on from top roping.
The second reason is the difficulty of ice climbing. It can be particularly difficult for rock climbers to accept the fact that ice climbing is a totally different sport that demands a totally different set of skills. You’ll feel off balance because the movements are different, the techniques are different. There are several things to consider, including conditions, belayer placement, ice quality, and route grades. Many factors are to be taken into consideration, and it can take some time to learn them all.
Are you worried about falling while ice climbing? Become so skilled that you won’t experience it.
Train Your Brain
No amount of skill can compensate for the inability to coach your brain to think clearly under stress. Those who have lead climbed or scrambled are probably aware of how poorly their muscles work once they are stressed. The palms of your hands start sweating, your legs shake, and it becomes impossible to breathe.
A fall can be triggered by thinking about falling if you become scared and forget your technique. Since this is the case, you have to get used to feeling like you are in no-fall territory.
People cope with stress in different ways, so we can’t necessarily recommend one technique for everyone, but we can suggest a few suggestions:
- According to legend, Ethan Pringle used meditation and breathing techniques to overcome his fear of heights and send the world’s hardest boulder problem.
- Practicing lead climbing on rock, especially in run-out areas, can help you get used to the feeling of being high above your last point of protection.
- Getting used to exposure through scrambling is a great way to improve your skills. As with ice climbing, you often find yourself in no-fall zones.
Don’t Push Your Limits
It might seem contradictory to the rock-climbing crowd, but it needs to be said: don’t push your limits when ice climbing.
Naturally, you won’t always feel 100% comfortable in every situation, and eventually, you’ll have to push yourself so that you improve. To accomplish this process, you must go slowly and gradually, with an appropriate margin of safety in everything you do.
It is possible to improve your climbing skills without pushing yourself beyond your limits. It is common to find a climbing route that requires 100% of your effort and give it a go. It’s okay to fall because you know you probably will.
Ice climbing, on the other hand, requires you to reframe this approach. You should only attempt routes that are between 50-70% of your max ability if you want to avoid falling. As you improve, your threshold rises and you are able to take on more challenging routes; this is how you become better. Maintaining a safe threshold as well as room for error is essential, however.
Forget About ‘Easy Ice’
There is no such thing as easy ice. There is no such thing as it.
There is no guarantee that a route is easy just because it is low-angled and has good protection. When you fall on low-angle slab, you may suffer worse consequences due to how many times your crampons will catch in the ice.
Furthermore, having this kind of mentality can be detrimental to climbing. Taking the easy route can induce false confidence and cause judgment lapses. The simplest of kicks, swings, or missed seconds of concentration can cause the tool to pop, causing a loss of balance and inability to walk.
You should never think of a route as ‘easy’. There are no safe ice routes, and they all demand a high degree of respect (and fear) so that you focus on not falling.
Don’t Lead It if You Wouldn’t Solo It
The key difference between ice climbing and rock climbing (and almost all other sports, for that matter) is that you would not lead something you wouldn’t solo. You should not do any routes if you do not believe that you can execute them perfectly.
This is probably the most important point we can make, because it absolutely must be your mindset when you start leading on ice. The rope and screws you bring are only a last resort, and their presence should not give you the impression that you have any room to fall. In the first place, don’t attempt to climb the route without protection unless you are comfortable without it.
What Happens When You Fall?
It is human nature to make mistakes (and to have bad days). It’s not enough to avoid falling at all costs; you need to also acknowledge that you might fall someday, and make sure that you’re properly prepared for that possibility.
Ice climbing falls are so serious that you need to take all measures you can to minimize the harm that will be done in the event of a fall. You will find further information below regarding what you should do if you are to take a fall.
Downclimb or Clip In
First (and perhaps also on the list above, but oh well) is to recognize when you’re heading towards failure and to withdraw. Get your belayer to take in the slack at a rest spot, an easier position, or a point where he can take the slack. Take a step back and try again; if you’re not able to, drop down by rappelling (hint: this option is generally going to be better).
You can still avoid falling if you do not feel comfortable downclimbing, or if you are too tired. Grab a solid stick with one of your axes and clip yourself to it with a PAS; once you’ve done that, secure your position with a v-thread or ice screw. It will give you a chance to rest, breathe, and reassess the situation.
Place Enough Protection
Sometimes adding an extra ice screw is all that separates a bad fall from a really bad fall. When you feel fully in control, even if you’re on easy terrain and you don’t think there’s a chance of falling, wearing the appropriate protection can prevent further injuries.
This does not mean that you think you’re going to fall; it’s just an acknowledgment that everyone makes mistakes eventually. Sometimes, you’ll misjudge the thickness of a sheet of ice, or your crampons will blow in a less-than-ideal position, or your instincts will fail you, and you’ll tumble off the ice. Ice climbers will at least once experience this (and you’ll be grateful that you placed your protection).
It doesn’t mean you’re hoping you’ll fall; it just acknowledges the statistical possibility that you will fall. This seems contradictory (know you can climb the route without falling, but place your protection as though you might fall), but it’s a philosophy you must have if you want to stay safe.
Have an Escape Plan
There is no way that you can survive without modern technology, and you are an idiot if you aren’t making use of it.
People can literally lose their lives due to aversion to technology and there is nothing romantic or adventurous about dangling from a multi-pitch ice climb with a broken ankle, stranded with no plan of escape because you didn’t bring along the right tools to help you out .
Nowadays, there’s no excuse for not having a way to communicate with the outside world when you head out into the wilderness with InReaches, SPOTs, and satellite phones. Knowing how you’re going to escape in the worst-case scenario is the key to creating an escape plan. Having a way of getting in touch with search and rescue teams is important for finding you as quickly as possible.
It’s worse to be out of your league and have no way of calling for assistance than to already be out of your league. Make sure you have a plan to save your own ass in case something goes wrong, and don’t let romanticism or adventure get in the way.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):
What is the most dangerous form of climbing?
Free soloing is the most hazardous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloing involves climbing above safe heights, which makes the chances of an accident very high.
How common are climbing deaths?
The climbing deaths occurs in a rate of 2.5 accidents per 1000 mountaineers per year or 5.6 injuries per 10,000 hours of mountaineering
What are the 3 disciplines of climbing?
The three disciplines of climbing are speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing.
What stops rock climbers from falling?
In the event of a fall, pull down the brake-side cable firmly. It doesn’t matter which device is used, gripping the rope at the brake side adds friction to the device, allowing the fall to be stopped. DO NOT GRAB THE CLIMBERSIDE ROPE! Hold on to the brake-side rope at all times.
How do rock climbers not fall?
To know hoe rock climbers should not fall check out this article.