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Date: 25th March 2012

Survival Strategies for High-Risk Environments, Spring, Ice Climbing Tips

First, the “Grand Delusion” piece I wrote for Explore magazine last year about my friend Stewart’s flying accident prompted a huge volume of email and responses on the web;  I feel very honored to have received many people’s deepest thoughts on their own  mortality and risk management. Many of your letters, essays and  direct conversations informed my own understanding of risk and life in a difficult time for me. Thank you. Even now I have a hard time admitting this publicly, but I was honestly shattered mentally by Stewart’s accident, and had to dig much deeper than I had in the past to answer the questions of why I do these sports, and what an acceptable level of risk is for me as a human and parent. In the last six months I’ve spent a lot of long plane rides writing and thinking about risk in sports, life and everything we do as humans. At times I felt like my life and mind were balanced precariously on a unicycle I didn’t know how to ride… All of this had to go somewhere, so I started working on a new article and presentation to clarify my own thinking. The result was a new presentation titled, “Survival Strategies for high-risk environments.” It started off as an attempt to answer the basic question of, “Why am I still standing?” but ended up going much deeper. I’ll be writing more on this subject in the future, but I just started presenting the show and it seems to resonate with both outdoor sports people and the wider world. I think I’ll be doing a lot more thinking and work on risk assessment and assumption (not management, that’s a poor choice of words to me), it’s personally and professional fascinating to me.

Second, I’m going to update this blog at least every Monday from here on out, and feed more randomness into it the rest of the time. I have dozens, no, hundreds, of bits and pieces running around my brain that I think others would find interesting, annoying or at least amusing. If I don’t get this randomness out somehow then it grows in mass and volume until the inside of my head looks like an episode of that “hoarders” TV show (which is what was on one night at 4 a.m. in a hotel room somewhere, jetlag often opens up new cultural windows for me in hotel TV land).

Third, the last four months have been busy in the best possible way. I’ve been to Europe a few times, taught a dozen or more clinics, done a similar number of shows, climbed a ton, skied more than usual, done two major shoots and a bunch of smaller ones, doubled for Jason Bourne and some other crazy TV work, and chased a one and four-year year old around a whole lot when the above wasn’t going on. This level of frenetic activity has been stellar and I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but yesterday I found 20 minutes to sit in the sun and just chill out. It struck me that sitting in the sun was one vastly under-rated activity.  I like “doing” things, but not doing things is equally valuable, maybe more so in the long-run. So here’s to Spring, and I hope everyone finds 20 minutes to welcome the return of the sun. I’m going bouldering today with any luck, bouldering! Fantastic. I can’t wait to sand my tips down to blood  on warm stone.

Ice Climbing (and life) Notes:

I spent a lot of time this winter teaching and coaching climbing, which I love. I saw a few things repeated over and over again that I made notes on. Here, in no particular order, are some of the notes in point form. I’ll be putting up a bunch of these over the next few weeks, I have a huge file of ‘em!

Practice Downclimbing. Samurais only went forward, but ice climbers have to retreat regularly. Climbing down ice  is more difficult than climbing up it, but a little practice makes it pretty simple even on very steep terrain.

Pull your toes up to kick. Engage that little muscle on the front of your shinbone and consciously keep it engaged. If you don’t your boot will hit the ice in general, and not your frontpoints. It only took 15 years for me to figure out how to teach this idea, but it seems to make a huge difference to people.

If you’re pumped ice climbing you’re already in trouble, and need to reset. Many of us are rock climbers, and climbing pumped silly is normal. In fact, I love sport climbing when I’m pumped silly and just hanging on, few activities are more fun. But in ice climbing, especially leashless ice climbing, a “pump” is a sign that you’re already on the edge of control. Clip into one of your tools, downclimb, stop and just match and rest until you de-pump, but get rid of the pump. The “not pump” state is your safety margin; get pumped and you’ve lost your safety margin. Note that “putting in a screw” doesn’t make the list of solutions; if you’re pumped then putting in a screw is not going to improve the situation any. Better to slam in a tool, take a sling and clip it into the pommel, hang, then place a screw. Depump, then place gear. In rock climbing I’ve slapped a nut in and then fallen, OK, but I’ve seen a screw half-way into the ice along with an ice tool but no climber in sight a half-dozen times now…

When swinging think about throwing the tool up over the top of the swing rather than moving your wrist toward the ice. It’s like you’re trying to hook a prize just out of each; this gets the head of the tool moving really fast at the right angle so it doesn’t bounce and penetrates well. If your arm is fully extended when you swing (on steep ice) then the swing will almost always work well… Don’t swing with your elbow anywhere below your ear. It’s actually really hard to get your elbow up to your ear, but have that as a goal, grin…

Dual point crampons are vastly superior to mono points for 90 percent of ice climbing. I can tell from about 200 yards away if anyone (with very rare exceptions like Raph and a few others) is wearing monos or dual frontpoints. The mono-wanna-be-master’s feet will be blowing a lot more. I wear monos for some mixed climbing, but if I could only have one pair of crampons it would be dual cyborgs.

Clear the ice for screws. Dig. I almost never place a screw on the surface layer of the ice; dig. Dig some more. It’s critical for good screw strength.

Swing your tools like a damn man, woman or neanderthal, but for God’s sake swing ‘em! A lot of climbers are learning to ice climb on pecked out ice where a set of steak knives and a knitting motion would get a climber up the ice; fresh, new ice requires meaningful and aggressive swinging. As Jeff Lowe said, “Every placement is a belay.” Yes.


More to come!



Posted in: Blog


  1. Per   March 27, 2012 3:45 am

    Great post! Can’t wait to try the toe-kick-trick. Only nine months to go!


  2. Demian Schane   March 27, 2012 11:23 am

    “Swing your tools like a damn man, woman or neanderthal, but for God’s sake swing ‘em!” What if swinging ‘em that hard results in getting them seriously stuck 4 out of 5 swings? Is that a technique problem? Sure, I’d rather have them stuck than come out on me, but I frequently spend far too much time/energy trying to dislodge the tool from the ice. Thanks.

  3. Will Gadd   March 27, 2012 1:06 pm

    Hi Demian, if you’re getting your tools stuck at all regularly then you’re most likely placing them at the same horizontal level… If you properly stagger your tools about 16 inches vertically then the lower one WILL come out easily when the handle of your tool is at waist level–just rip up aggressively. The top edge of the pick is designed to break ice, that’s why it’s shaped like an ax. A good solid placement doesn’t have to be buried to the head either; it’s solid when it’s well stuck in… I have to wrestle with a stuck tool a few times in a season at best, and normally it happens when the head has buried itself in some icicles on the way in and then settled into a sneaky position. Happens, but a stuck tool should be a rarity.

    Hope that helps, swing ‘em!

  4. Nuno   March 27, 2012 1:11 pm

    Hi. Are there any special tricks for downclimbing? In vertical ice it seems rather awkward as there’s less ‘room’ to swing axes down. I´ve experimented trying to downclimb in small steps but is not so easy and in a stressful situation I think it would be less tiring just going up then trying to go down. And if I try to extend more, doing bigger downsteps, then removing the top tool becomes an issue.

    And good to know we will be getting more blog updates. :) Cheers.

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