Date: 14th January 2015
I’ve been guiding and teaching a fair number of clinics this winter, and as always I’m learning a lot from the people I get out with. Most of what I know about ice and mixed climbing comes from teaching; if you have to teach people then you have to truly understand something, not just do it well personally. I’ve been teaching climbing for 30 years and many other sports for decades, but I always, always learn something new every time I teach a subject. The latest thing I’ve learned is so simple that I’m amazed I didn’t notice it years earlier! It’s this: About half the people I teach have their front points too short for technical ice climbing.
Your feet have to be super solid when ice climbing or nothing works well. If your feet are well-planted and solid then you will be relaxed, confident and feel good. As soon as one foot is “loose” or at all unstable then everything else collapses. It’s that simple. Most failures I see in ice climbing are due to bad feet.
If you’re hearing a dull “whack” when you kick then you’re hearing the front of your boot hit the ice. Last week I had a guest who was afraid to kick the ice hard because the previous year he had lost his toenails after the guide repeatedly told him to “KICK HARDER!” No matter how hard he kicked he wasn’t going to get the leather toe of his boot into the ice, and that’s what he was trying to do because his his crampons were set up so the front and secondary points were just too shot.
For technical ice climbing the front points and the secondary points (the first forward-slanting points on the sides or side rails of the crampons) must both contact the ice when placed with the foot level. If the toe bail is too far forward, and at least 50 percent of the people I see out climbing have the bail too far forward, then only the front points will hit the ice. Without solid secondary points in the ice the foot placement will be really weak and unstable, no matter how hard the climber kicks. The secondary points should protrude just slightly past the front of the boot if the bail is adjusted properly, and fully engage the ice when solidly placed with the sole of the boot level. Some people think this “forward” placement will lead to calf fatigue, but it’s not how long the points are but how solidly the secondary points get into the ice that controls calf load. If you’re just standing on sketchy front points then you can’t “relax” at all onto your forefoot where the secondary points take the load… It’s not about just the front points, half the stability comes from the secondary points!
The other cause for the “whack” noise comes from kicking the ice like we kick a soccer (or football in Europe) ball. We all have the “kick the ball with the toes low” movement pattern programmed into our heads, but at the moment your points hit the ice the foot should be very close to level. It’s pretty much impossible to kick the ice with your foot level unless your knee is bent (as it should be in modern technique–also note my feet are level or 90 degrees measured against the ice and at the same horizontal level, with the secondary points well engaged). It’s also impossible to kick effectively without engaging the muscle on front of your shin (the Tibialis Anterior). When I teach clinics or coach people I start by showing them how to kick properly and engage the Tibialis, then yell “Tibialis” if (and pretty much everyone does kick toes low at first) I hear the sound of their toes whacking the ice. Once their feet are in the ice then things like “Heels low” make sense, but I’ve never seen that expression help anyone with placing their feet low. Kick “toes high!”
For glacier walking you want short front points; long front points are super awkward and annoying when trying to roll your foot through its natural pattern on a hard surface like glacial ice. But for tech ice you want a fair amount of front point, enough that the secondary points will make a solid platform with the front points.
So there are two things I’ve learned in recent years that help people get solid feet when climbing ice. Adjust the bails back to get more front and secondary point action, and engage the Tibialis Anterior.
Edit–a corollary to all this is that the crampons must be tight on your feet. This is more obvious and most people get it more or less right, but loose crampons just don’t work well. In a sense you’re “hammering” your crampon points into the ice, and if the connection between your boots and crampons is loose you can’t hammer well. Plus loose crampons will come off, an experience that ranges from exciting to lethal. Make sure that the rear posts are solidly locked onto either side of your heel, in addition to the crampon being fully tensioned by the heel lever so it has that “locked on” feeling.
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Nice post, well explained.
I know it may take some time but how about a few side pics with the most common ice boots and crampons these days shown adjusted properly? Also off subject but how about a few pics of properly sharpened tools ?
Yes, this is all too true.
I’ve just had to return a new pair of Scarpa Rebel Pros to the shop because, even on maximum protrusion front bail setting with my Petzl Darts, the front points are still far too short and the secondary points do not protrude beyond the toe.
Potential buyers/users of this combination beware!
Perfect! Do you have pics on it?
Wow… just discovered I was in the 50% club. After years of ice climbing and new crampons, your post helped me discover my secondary points were not making contact. I moved my toe bail back one notch and it all makes sense. My calves and big toes have bothered me lately on steep multi- pitches… lesson learned! Thanks Will!
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I have Petzl Dartwin crampons and the Scarpa Rebel Pro GTX (size 42) boots and also noticed that with that combo the boot toes hang over the front of the crampon about 3/4″ such that the secondary points are less likely to engage. I swapped out the Petzl front toe bail for the Black Diamond small toe bail (the version that comes stock with the BD Stinger) and voila a perfect fit.
See picture in this link. The front boot has the small BD front bail and the back boot has the original Petzl front bail that comes standard with the Dartwin.
Here’s a link to the Black Diamond small toe bail:
I took ice climbing lessons recently and was having a hard time with my feet, exactly because I was kicking toes down. Once my instructor told me to think about kicking up slightly, it definitely became easier. Thanks for the reinforcement.
I got a Scarpa Phantom Tech and a BD Stinger Crampon and Set up the Bail in the First hole from the Frontpoints, do you think it will climb better with the longer Frontpoint? I didnt feel any toe bashing but some unstable Moments.
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Will, once again you have sorted out an issue for me. I’m embarrassed to say how long I have been ice climbing with ill fitted crampons…
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