Though beautiful and inviting, pillars are also intimidating. Their verticality leads to strenuous climbing, and the skinniest pillars are prone to collapse if conditions aren’t just right. We asked three expert ice climbers for their advice on pillar climbing: Roger Strong, a prolific first ascensionist and gear rep from Seattle, Washington; Dawn Glanc, a climbing guide from Ouray, Colorado; and Raphael Slawinski from Calgary, one of Canada’s foremost ice climbers. Above all, they agreed, super-skinny pillars must be approached very cautiously.
Safety and Stability
Before you attempt an ice pillar, you need to judge whether it’s solid enough to bear your weight and repeated strikes from your tools and crampons. Two seasons ago, the 120-foot Fang pillar in Vail, Colorado, collapsed in early season when it wasn’t formed sufficiently—the climber on board barely survived the crash. (See page 19 for another climber’s collapse story.) The pillar’s size and attachment, the condition of the ice, and the temperature before and during a climb all affect stability.
“Something I read a long time ago has stayed with me: Never climb a feature you’re afraid to stand under,” says Raphael Slawinski. “It seems like this would be clear, but we don’t always follow this obvious bit of advice.”
Assuming a pillar passes the stand-under-it test, consider recent weather and ice conditions. Bitter cold can make ice brittle and more likely to break— especially if there was a sharp drop in temperature in the day or two before your attempt. Although there are many variables, the ideal temperature range for well-frozen but non-brittle ice is around 25 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, look out for horizontal fractures splitting the pillar—these often form just below the point where a free-standing pillar attaches to the wall above, as the pillar shifts and settles (A). Try to assess whether such a break passes completely through the ice, making the pillar unstable, or has partly filled in and refrozen, restoring the pillar’s strength.
“If I’m inspired to hop on a really thin pillar, I try to research the significant weather patterns leading up to it, such as how many melt/freeze cycles it has gone through,” says Roger Strong. More melting and refreezing generally makes a pillar stronger. “I also look at what’s above it, and the consequences below if it rips while I’m on it. I push and lightly tap all around the base to get a feel for the integrity. Then I’ll spend time doing just a few moves to get a feel for if it should be climbed or not, going one or two moves higher each time and then downclimbing. If all the senses are giving me the green light, I’ll commit to the radness. If not, I bail.”
When in doubt, toprope. Whether the climber is leading or toproping, the belayer should be positioned to one side or well sheltered from falling ice.
If a pillar is as wide as a car and mostly attached to the rock behind it, you can protect it with ice screws just as you would any other climb. But when a pillar spans the mouth of a cave from top to bottom like a snake’s fang, you'll need extra precaution, especially when the spindle narrows to body width.
“My guideline for actually placing a screw in a pillar is it has to be around six to eight feet in diameter at the base,” Strong says (B). “This typically means this climb has taken a while to form and has survived a few melt/freeze cycles, contracted and expanded, and had the chance to settle.”
Sometimes you may be able to place bomber protection in the rock behind or beside a thin pillar. But if that’s not an option, the safest way to climb skinnier pillars may be to run it out. Place a solid screw or two below the foot of the pillar (often there’s a pedestal of solid ice below the spindle itself), and then don’t place another screw until you’re above the attachment point to the wall behind. This obviously requires careful judgment of the risk of a long fall versus the risk of pulling down the pillar, but since placing pro is strenuous on steep ice, you will be conserving strength as you conserve the integrity of the pillar.
Whether you run it out or place screws for protection, the old saying “the leader must not fall” is never more appropriate than on a skinny pillar. Climb slowly and well within your limits.
A skinny pillar narrows your options for tool and foot placements, and likely will force you out of the stable triangle position typically used on broad ice flows. You may find yourself pigeon-toed on a skinny pillar, and you’ll draw on rock climbing techniques to stay in balance.
“The main thing is good footwork— maintaining a balanced position,” says Dawn Glanc. “You may be doing that by standing on one foot and flagging the other foot to one side for balance (C). When you get ready to swing, suck your hips into the ice, with a nice arched back, to keep your weight over your feet.” On very narrow pillars, you may be able to wrap one leg around and behind the ice and squeeze it for better balance and purchase.
On brittle or fragile ice, especially at the foot of a skinny pillar, move very gently: Think tapping, pecking, and then hooking with your tools rather than swinging. Use those same divots for your crampon points (monopoint crampons help here). Step up as if you were moving up a face climb on rock, letting your body weight drive the crampon points into the ice. Make sure your picks and crampon points are razor sharp.
Never place your tools side by side horizontally on a thin or fragile pillar, or you risk creating a fracture. Instead, reach high to place the next tool at least six to eight inches above the other (D).
With leashless tools, you can bump your hands up to the higher grips on the shaft for longer reaches. If you have one arm with more lock-off strength, like your right arm, you may choose to make more long reaches with that arm, Strong says. Get a high placement with your left tool, then match hands on the shaft of this higher tool. Now remove the lower tool with your left hand, lock off with the right again, and place high with the left.
Keep an eye out for knobs, holes, or ridges of ice where you can flat-foot a crampon or back-step for a more restful stance. If you find a stem rest, milk it.
You’ll likely be pumped at the top of a pillar and tempted to punch it to the belay. But the abrupt transition to lowerangled ice may be the crux of a steep pitch. Even if you’re pumped, stop and place a good screw before topping out.
Keeping it Together
Pillars are pumpy, and climbing leashless tends to make them even pumpier. To keep his forearms fresh, Strong says, “I like to move slowly and take the mental attitude that it’s like a 5.10 jug haul at the gym. After every three to four steep tool placements, I stop and relax into the curve of the pommel (the big grip at the base of the shaft) as if I’m resting on a jug.”
Fear contributes to the pumpiness of pillars. Your heart rate goes up, and you begin to clutch the tools with a death grip. As on a hard rock climb, remind yourself to breathe steadily. “You have to accept that you’re putting it out there and may not get gear for a while,” Glanc says. “Focus on the process and technique, and you’ll soon be up the pitch.”