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Four Tips to Lead Ice With Confidence

Tackle ice leads with ease this winter thanks to this excerpt from "How to Ice Climb!"

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Sean Isaac and Tim Banfield’s latest book “How to Ice Climb!” is chock-full of essential lessons and clever tips to take on ice climbing with confidence this winter. The book is incredibly summative and includes a history of the sport, equipment selection, approach strategies, avalanche safety, movement skills, anchor systems, overhanging ice techniques, training for mixed climbing, and more. Below, please find an excerpt from chapter 6, “Leading Ice.”

Leaving behind the safety net of a toprope and tying into the sharp end of the rope to lead is a big step in an ice climber’s progression. Solid, efficient movement is an ice leader’s first line of defense. Movement skills should be so dialed that the chance of falling off becomes almost zero. So in that case, why bother placing screws? Why not just solo? The answer is because we are human and we make mistakes. Also, gear like crampon bails or ice tool picks can possibly break, and the abundance of overhead hazards means that there is always a chance something out of your control could make you fall.

Leading ice is a serious endeavor and should only be undertaken if a climber has:

  • Ice-movement skills that have been consolidated and refined
  • Taken a course on leading ice
  • Seconded many pitches of ice while removing ice screws
  • Executed a number of mock leads with no issues (physically or mentally)
  • Chosen easy routes with good quality ice well below toprope ability
Samira Samimi leads the last pitch of Urs Hole (WI 3) in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Tim Banfield)

The leader must not fall

There must be absolutely no falling while leading ice. Unlike rock, the ice protection is more spread out, the medium is less predictable, the terrain tends to have more ledges, and an ice climber has too many sharp points attached to themselves (which can catch on the ice or stab body parts). Even on short falls, crampons can snag the ice, causing either broken ankles and legs or being flipped upside down—or both. Plus, a lead fall can endanger the whole climbing team.

The leader must not fall! If hands are cold or a bit pumped, then it is much better to place an ice screw and hang to recover (or retreat) than take a lead fall. (Photo: Tim Banfield)

If you feel your hands becoming too cold or arms too pumped, then place a screw and hang on it. It is far better to rest and recover to re-group than pushing past your safety margin of grip strength and technique. If you find yourself hanging on screws regularly, you are probably trying routes that are too difficult for your ability and fitness. Your leading technique should be practiced and refined to the point that you can always at the very least place an ice screw with energy to spare. If not, then more technique training on toprope or mock leads is required.

The low-angle ice often found on aprons at the bottom or at the top of steeper pitches must be treated with respect. It can be easy to fall into complacency and not move with as much focus as on the steeper sections or place less protection, but do not be lulled into a false sense of security. Gear can break, ice can fall on your head, crampons can skate off cold, hard ice—all of which could result in a fall.

Mock leads

Mock leads are lead simulations while on the security of a toprope. The simplest way to set up a mock lead is to tie into both the actual toprope as well as the bottom of the rope, which will become the mock lead strand for clipping into protection placed while toproping.

(Photo: Tim Banfield)

Upon reaching the top of the mock lead, you can say “take” and lower on toprope. You will have to remove the protection (or at the very least unclip the mock-lead strand from the protection) or the belayer will run out of rope to lower. Another option instead of tying into the bottom of the rope is to bring an extra rope to use as the mock rope.

Placing Ice Screws

When first learning to lead, bring more than enough ice screws to put one in every body length. This will help ease the mental game of leading. As you become more comfortable with leading, stretching out the spacing to a couple of body lengths might seem reasonable. Regardless, place screws!

Racking

Racking strategy is critical for successful ice leading. Ice screws, quickdraws, and anchor gear must be organized and easily

Racking clips are necessary for racking ice screws on the harness. (Photo: Tim Banfield)

accessible. In some situations a shoulder-style gear sling may make sense, but usually all ice gear is racked on the harness’s gear loops. This keeps the weight balanced at the body’s center of gravity and also prevents the gear from annoyingly hanging in front of your body on lower-angled ice.

An ice climbing harness needs to have four gear loops on the waist belt and slots for adding racking clips (aka ice clippers), which are flat plastic, carabiner-like devices for carrying ice screws and ice tools. A harness should be equipped with a minimum of two racking clips (one on each side), but for leading ice it is advisable to have three or four total (two on the dominant side or two on each side). Racking clips should be located at your hip bones—not too far forward (screws jab into your thigh) and not too far back (can’t easily see or reach them). Some climbing manufacturers now make racking clips that can be fitted onto a harness without slots, which allows better placement of the clip. Most racking clips have a flat shelf on top for temporarily setting a screw up and out of the way when a different screw length underneath is needed.

Two racking clips on each side of the harness allow similar length screws to be racked together. (Photo: Tim Banfield)

Screws should be racked with similar lengths together and with the teeth pointing behind. The forward two gear loops on each side of the harness should be reserved for runners (quickdraws and alpine draws), while the back two gear loops are where anchor, belay, and rescue gear is stowed.

Of the back two gear loops, choose the one that is more easily reachable for the gear you will need continuously for each belay (belay device, anchor package, locking carabiner). Put the gear that you do not need at every belay (cordelette, rappel prusik, V-thread hooker, personal tether) on the less reachable back gear loop.

A standard ice rack may look something like this:

  • Four 13 cm screws
  • Eight 16 cm screws
  • Two 19 to 22 cm screws

If the route is thin or it is early season, it would be wise to swap some 16 cm screws for more 13 cm screws and even bring a few 10 cm screws. A longer 21 cm or 22 cm screw should be carried by each climber as personal equipment for making V-threads.

Prepping the Ice

Swing and chip away from your body when prepping the ice surface for a scew so not to accidently stab yourself with the pick. (Photo: Tim Banfield)

The ice must be evaluated and sometimes prepared before placing an ice screw for protection. Ice screws not only need to be placed in dense ice of high quality to be strong, but flat, smooth surfaces also make spinning them in more efficient. Depressions, bumps, and ridges of ice can interfere with the hanger. Before grabbing an ice screw, identify where you want to place it and make sure the area is appropriate—a 20-centimeter (8-inch) diameter circle of planar ice is ideal. Such features often exist naturally, especially on rolling, low-angle ice flows. However, steeper sections of ice might have an irregular surface and need to be prepped. This can be as simple as chipping off small bumps with the pick of your ice tool, or it can require knocking off larger chunks or dinner plates. Regardless of the amount of cleaning needed, be sure to chip and swing away from your body. This is important so you do not accidentally miss and swing the pick into your stomach or leg. Choking up on the upper grip of the ice tool helps control the cleaning action.

After prepping the ice surface for a screw, it is a good idea to plant the tool up and out of the way. Even if prepping is not required, it is still a good idea to move that lower tool out of the way so as not to inadvertently knock it off. It is not unheard of to have the tool too close and be hyper-focused on spinning the screw, then accidentally send the tool flying when your hand smacks it out of the ice.

Before placing an ice screw, move the ice tool up and out of the way. (Photo: Tim Banfield)

To read more about placing screws, ice climbing technique, how to train for ice and mixed climbing, and much more, pick up a copy of “How to Ice Climb!