For a generation of North American climbers, Yvon Chouinard’s 1978 book Climbing Ice was a primary source for ice climbing history and instruction. (The other key book was Jeff Lowe’s The Ice Experience, which came out a year later.) Twenty-four pages of Chouinard’s book are devoted to the “French method,” a series of extremely useful techniques that are often neglected by today’s ice climbers. At its core, French technique means keeping your crampons flat on the snow or ice, engaging all of the bottom points, versus kicking straight into the ice with your front points. The technique works best on hard snow or soft ice at angles up to about 55 degrees, where flat-footing with one or both feet can be much quicker and far less tiring than front-pointing.
1. Duck Foot (pied en canard)
When you can no longer walk straight up a steepening slope, the next step often is the duck walk: both feet pointed outward, splayed at about a 90-degree angle. In soft snow, kicking steps at this angle is more restful than kicking straight-in steps. On firm snow or névé (melted and refrozen snow), roll your ankles outward to keep both rows of bottom crampon points embedded in the snow. Stand straight up (don’t lean in), and hold your ice axe on one side for balance.
When duck-footing is no longer comfortable, it’s time to diagonal up the slope; your route will be longer, but the overall effort is much lower. Start in a position of balance: ice axe in the uphill hand, with the spike firmly planted, uphill boot inside and forward, and downhill boot outside and behind. Step the downhill foot forward, then the uphill foot, and then replant the axe.
(A) As the terrain steepens, you will be moving the downhill foot above and in front of the inside foot, so you’re sidestepping up the hill. Only move the axe when you’re in the balance position, with the outside boot down and behind the inside boot. (B) The harder the snow or ice, the more you’ll have to plant the crampon points; you may also need to roll your ankles outward to engage all the points—on the steepest slopes, your toes may be pointing slightly downhill. Concentrate on standing straight up and not leaning into the ice.
To change directions, start in the balance position, with downhill boot and ice axe planted. Turn the upper foot in the opposite direction, and plant it firmly; you’ll be facing uphill with toes splayed apart. Now bring the other foot up and around to point in the new direction. Once in balance again on your lower foot, move the axe up.
Masters of flat-foot technique can climb very steep slopes (up to 70 degrees on névé) by holding the axe close to the body and jabbing the spike into the snow, with the shaft perpendicular to the slope, a position the French call piolet ramasse. You can also flat-foot steep terrain by planting the pick and holding onto the head and shaft of the axe as you move up your feet (piolet ancre), as shown here. Most climbers, especially those using shorter modern tools, will find front-pointing or a hybrid technique to be much more secure.
When a slope steepens above 40 to 45 degrees on hard ice, or 50 to 55 degrees on snow or névé, front-pointing will feel more secure than French technique. But continuous front-pointing on low-angle ice is a huge strain on the calves and feet. It’s often far better to front-point with one crampon and flat-foot with the other. Either alternate the flat foot with every step or switch sides after 10 or 20 steps to give each leg a rest. Placing one crampon flat-footed on a small ledge or ramp is also a great way to rest on near-vertical ice.
Move up your ice tools only when your weight is firmly planted on the lower foot. On steep ice, you’ll need to plant the picks of one or both tools for security. But on snow or lower-angle ice, it’s often much quicker to choke up on the tools: Either hold the upper shaft and push the picks straight into the snow like daggers, or hold the head of each axe above the shaft and just rest the picks on the ice, relying on your balance. Using such technique, you can move up steep slopes very quickly.
Practice, practice, practice
Practice French technique with a toprope or at a spot where a fall would be inconsequential (e.g., the side of a wind-packed drift or a short ice bulge above snow). Climb back and forth, and up and down, switching methods based on the angle of the slope. Practice the moves with no ice tools, using your hand against the ice for balance if needed.
Part of the fun of alpine climbing is quickly and confidently adapting to the terrain and conditions. As Chouinard wrote in Climbing Ice, “Most people can learn to do piolet ramasse or front-pointing techniques, but that in itself is nothing… The smooth linking of all these techniques is the art of climbing ice.”