Ice Screw Review - No 217 - December 2002
Seven ice screws run through the rotationWith a sinking heart, I realized that my friend Bill was about to break the cardinal rule of leading ice. He’d motored through the steep crux of the pillar like a frenzied wind-up toy, opting not to break his rhythm or squander precious energy placing protection. Now, however, mere inches from topping out, his spring had wound down. From my belay on the canyon floor, I cringed helplessly at the telltale signs of impending disaster: His axes glanced heavily off the ice and his crampons kicked ineffectually at the same spot over and over again. Then his knees buckled and he was falling.
With a horrified fascination, I watch as Bill spilled down like the contents of an overturned knife drawer, ice tools whirling, crampons flailing as he accelerated toward me. I did what my belaying instincts commanded: I took off running. My mad dash for self-preservation probably saved both our lives, since the extra slack I sucked through Bill’s last screw midway up the 80-foot pillar was just enough to keep him from decking.
Despite the happy ending, that was no way to protect the ice-climbing quarterback. I still can’t believe that the screw held such a massive fall, or that tethered to so much lethal cutlery, Bill didn’t gut himself. Running it out on vertical ice is a bold gamble, but one that many leaders have opted for over the years because historically, placing protection on steep ice was so time- and labor-intensive that it often increased the likelihood of burning out and/or falling off. In recent years, however, screw technology has improved to the point that protection can now be placed one-handed, in a matter of seconds (not minutes), and removed with equal ease.
However, not all climbers need or can afford such high-tech wizardry. For example, a climber might be persuaded to drop half a grand for an arsenal of top-of-the-line ice pro, but if ledgy, WI 3 routes will be the primary arena, the ice might not be the only thing getting screwed. So which screws deserve a turn on your rack? To compare and evaluate the various designs, we collected the premier screws offered by seven manufacturers and gave them a rigorous shakedown on the frozen waterfalls along the North Shore of Lake Superior, a region in northern Minnesota that sports a six-month ice season and where conditions are notoriously hard and brittle. Here’s what we learned from all our screwing around.
Totally tubular. The earliest forms of ice protection were stake-like ice pitons that tended to fall out once a climber moved past them. Then came rudimentary screws made of coat hanger-like wire that didn’t hold much, but at least stayed put. Seeking the best of both worlds (i.e. something that could actually arrest a fall), the screwmongers finally hit upon the concept of using hollow, threaded tubes. This strong, secure design has become the norm. In fact, on the surface, major differences between the ice screws currently on the market may be hard to discern. For example, chrome-moly steel — an extremely strong alloy used in aircraft construction — is the material favored by most manufacturers. As a result, most screws have a similar profile and diameter (averaging around 17mm). The exceptions are the Cassin Thunderlight screw, which is a composite of metals (steel teeth melded to an aluminum tube), and the Ultimate titanium screw made by Ushba. Both of these screws are significantly lighter than their steel counterparts, but they are also larger in cross section, meaning they displace more ice — a factor that made them harder to place. (Although in very soft ice or neve a larger diameter will provide better holding power.) Another point of uniformity across brands is length: All the manufacturers offer a range of sizes (anywhere from two to five choices) from as short as nine centimeters (Charlet Moser) up to as long as 23 centimeters (Ushba). Because medium length screws are the most popular and versatile, the screws we tested were all in the 16- to 18-centimeter range. Beyond these fundamental similarities, however, we found subtle design differences that directly affected how these screws performed in ice.
Let’s do the twist. The ideal screw should have sharp, penetrating teeth that cut — rather than shatter — the ice, allowing it to be started with a firm stab and only a couple turns of the wrist. Once the threads are engaged, the screw should motor in without a lot of binding and torqueing. To this end, some manufacturers have incorporated tiny knobs or “coffeegrinder” handles to help you drive in the screw. The ergonomics of these speed-drive features can’t be beat for rapid, continuous screw-in. The folding wire handle on the Grivel 360° screw adds yet another dimension of ease by providing additional, significant leverage. Although screws without such gadgetry may seem at a disadvantage in terms of ease of placement, good engineering can more than compensate. For example, Stubai’s Sigma screw has such a glove-friendly hanger and a tube design that generates so little friction in the ice that it actually goes in more easily than some of the speed-drive equipped screws.
The ideal screw hanger should offer as much clearance as possible in and around ice texture so that the leader doesn’t have to chop a heliport to sink the screw flush to the hanger. The hanger should also adjust to different angles and texture, lying against the ice rather than sticking out into space. Finally, a leader has to be concerned with clean, easy racking: Screws that nestle together like old lovers, don’t tangle with other screws or webbing, and/or use some kind of color-coding for fast and easy identification earned points with us.
Out, out, damn screw! A superior screw is one that takes pity upon me when it’s my turn to remove it. (After all, I’m going to need all my strength to lead the next pitch.) Thankfully, the days of desperately clinging to one axe while excavating a screw that the leader has sunk eye-deep in a tight corner are a dim memory — at least with these screw-in designs. A screw should extract with little friction, no binding, and have a hanger or handle that facilitates rapid rotation. Initially, a screw may need to be cracked loose with a tap from a tool, but an axe should not be required to keep the screw turning. Once the screw is out, the ice core should come out easily — the screw is useless until this plug is cleaned out. With the best screws, a few taps on the head and/or a good puff of air into the sharp end (it’s generally easier to keep ice moving through the screw via the same direction it went in) usually suffice. In this respect, the best-performing screws are those that have been honed internally to remove any rifling in the bore. Some experienced ice climbers coat the insides of their screws with a shot of waterproofing spray (e.g. Tectron) or a petroleum lubricant like WD-40 to grease the skids. These kinds of treatments can keep even the most constipated screws clog-free, but there’s still no substitute for a design that performs well from the get-go.
The Test Results
Black Diamond Turbo Express, $52.50
5.7 ounces for 16-centimeter size
Sizes: 10, 13, 16, 19, 22 centimeters
Summary: The Turbo Express was one of the earliest screws to incorporate a speed-drive gizmo, and it’s still one of the best. The screw grabbed the ice quickly and, thanks to BD’s unique external geometry, spun in and out with minimal friction. The flip-down action of the knob kept the screw from tangling on the rack or fouling with the quickdraw once the leader had moved past, and the color-coded knobs make the different lengths easy to identify. The hanger is the only shortcoming: Although it offers decent clearance, at belays we wished it could accept more than one biner, and BD should consider softening up the hanger’s sharp edges (although this is more of an issue for BD’s Turbo model screw without the speed knob). Overall, the Turbo Express is one of the best-performing screws on the market, and, the price is quite competitive.
Pros: Excellent all-around performance. Clean design: speed-drive knob folds down. Color-coded knobs.
Cons: Hanger only accepts one carabiner.
Overall grade: A
(distributed by Climb Axe) $50
3.8 ounces for 18-centimeter size
Sizes: 12, 18 centimeters
Summary: The only aluminum model (shaft and hanger) in this review, the Thunderlight is aptly named, tipping the scales at less than four ounces for the 18-centimeter length. The stainless steel teeth grafted to the end of the aluminum tube are hard and sharp, but the thick-walled material made it difficult to get this screw started and created a lot more friction in hard ice than slimmer, all-steel designs. The aluminum hanger, although nicely color coded, was also problematic: It offered very little clearance and had only one small carabiner hole, which made cranking on the screw with an ice tool more difficult. The larger bore was also more reluctant to surrender its core.
Pros: Ultra light. Color-coded hangers.
Cons: Hard to start. Lots of friction. No speed-drive system. Poor hanger design.
Overall Grade: C
Charlet Moser Laser
(distributed by Petzl) $40
6 ounces for 18-centimeter size
Sizes: 9, 13, 18 centimeters
Summary: Considering the lack of a mechanical speed-drive system, the Laser is a solid performer. The big teeth chew in quickly for fast, one-handed starting. With the rounded end abutting your palm, the hanger can be used almost like a continuous-motion handle to spin the screw, and the bend in the hanger provides excellent clearance. Friction was low during screwing and removal, the ice core came out upon demand, and another plus — the hanger sports two separate carabiner holes. It all adds up to a solid screw.
Pros: Starts quickly. Hanger is glove friendly and has good clearance.
Cons: No speed-drive system.
Overall Grade: B
Grivel 360° $58.50
6.6 ounces for 17-centimeter size
Sizes: 12, 17, 22 centimeters
Summary: Grivel has come up with a unique screw design, replacing the traditional lever-style hanger with a close-in hanger sporting a folding wire handle. The handle pivots outward for easy, continuous cranking irrespective of pesky ice texture. For this reason, the 360° is the only screw in this review that could be placed in corners or pockets. Relocating the clip-in point closer to the screw’s main axis also prevents the hanger from levering against the tube. The screw started easily and cranked almost effortlessly, due in large part to the leverage of the handle, and — to a lesser extent — Grivel’s inverted thread design (the threads flange outward instead of inward). Ice cores popped out with blowgun ease. The downside is that this screw is heavy, expensive, and bulky. It’s harder to rack and the handle often ended up poking out from the ice like a four-inch hook. Still, with the most innovative and easy-to-place design we tested, the 360° was a review favorite.
Pros: Innovative speed-drive handle. Unique hanger design allows placement in tight quarters. Excellent all-around performance. Color-coded knobs.
Cons: Heavy. Expensive. Bulky handle can snag on rope or gear.
Overall Grade: A
Omega Pacific Ice Screw $34
5 ounces for 17-centimeter size
Sizes: 11, 17, 22 centimeters
Summary: This screw from Omega Pacific is the answer to the question, “Can’t somebody offer a decent ice screw for less than $35?!” Despite the bargain price, there’s no skimping in materials or design: OP’s bomber construction and hanger design are on par with the best of the bunch. The speed-drive knob worked great, although it didn’t fold down and took up space inside the hanger eye (you can still squeeze two ’biners inside). As a result, the knob was a potential snag point, rendering this screw a tad more difficult to rack and handle. However, it can be removed or even retrofitted to other screws. In hard, brittle ice, we had small difficulties in starting, screwing, and removal. Despite the speed knob, we sometimes had to coax the screw along with a tool to overcome the friction. Considering the quality and the price, however, budget-minded climbers won’t be disappointed.
Pros: Well made. Lowest-priced screw in the review.
Cons: Speed-drive knob doesn’t retract. Moderate friction.
Overall Grade: B
(distributed by Liberty Mountain/ABC) $61
4.8 ounces for 17-centimeter size
Sizes: 12, 17, 22 centimeters
Summary: The Sigma Ice Screw was the lightest and cleanest of the no-frills designs we used. The hanger edges are nicely rounded and smoothed, something we appreciated when spinning the screw in or out against a gloved palm. The lack of a speed-drive knob is surprising, especially considering the price. Despite this, the Sigma performed very well, starting easily, turning in and out with very little friction, and spitting out its ice core with minimal persuasion. Another bonus is the brightly colored size-coded hangers, which make identification on the rack fast and foolproof. Overall, we found the Sigma screw to be very well made and an excellent performer, but also very pricey.
Pros: Clean design. Starts well. Low friction. Color-coded hangers.
Cons: Very expensive. No speed-drive system.
Overall Grade: B+
Ushba Ultimate with crank
(distributed by Liberty Mountain/ABC) $49
4.1 ounces for 17-centimeter size
Sizes: 17, 23 centimeters
Summary: Ushba is a company whose bread and butter is making lightweight titanium equipment. The titanium material is indeed strong and very light, but like the aluminum Cassin screw, the Ultimate’s large cross section displaces more ice, which contributes to the screw’s friction. The swiveling speed knob really doesn’t help — we found that we needed to lever off the hanger itself or use a tool to generate enough torque to turn the screw in or out. We liked the hanger’s design, which had better clearance and required less chopping than other models, and featured dual clip-in points.
Pros: Lightweight. Hanger has good clearance.
Cons: Expensive. Lots of friction.
Overall Grade: C.
Black Diamond: 801-278-5533,
Charlet Moser/Petzl: 801-327-3805,
Omega Pacific: 800-360-3990,
Stubai/Advanced Base Camp: 801-954-0741,
Ushba/Advanced Base Bamp: 801-954-0741,