Ice Breaks: Don’t be in the way of it as it falls!

March 04, 2013
Will Gadd

I’m on a bit of a “negative” blog posting pattern lately, but I keep seeing some rather, ah, well, stupid behaviour out there that I feel the need to comment on because it’s just so totally unnecessary, and I’m running out of Steri Strips in the first aid kit.

One of my main rules for ice climbing is, “If you get hit with falling ice it’s your own damn fault, and you deserve it.” Ice falls; I don’t want to hear a call of “ICE!!!” unless the whole climb is falling down. Yelling “Ice” while ice climbing is like yelling “PUCK!” in a hockey game or something, it’s part of the sport. We should all be approaching ice climbs with the knowledge that falling water ice really really hurts at best; I view falling ice as extra sharp-edged rocks. Nobody would stand under someone climbing a loose choss heap and dropping rocks, but somehow on an ice climb the inexperienced often seem to think it is. Weird, I know, but I see it all the time.

Here’s the list of “don’t do this” stuff:

-Don’t climb below another party on an ice route. You will get hit with falling ice from them, as they WILL drop ice. If that ice hits you it’s your own fault (see the comments below–this is not the first broken arm/face/head I’ve heard of from climbing below another party).

-Keep everyone either well back from the climb if top-roping, or well off to the side. In every clinic I teach someone creeps in toward the climb while I’m coaching someone else, and either gets a little surprise slap from a piece of ice or (usually, my clinic participants get the “Ice falls, don’t be in the way talk first thing) someone else in my clinic gets them to move back out. Lifeguard each other to maintain proper distance from the climb. Ice will fall down, it’s totally expected, so only yell “Ice!” when you knock down a really big piece that has the potential to fly farther out than anyone expected. Continually yelling ice makes it meaningless, and again, falling ice is expected, part of the sport…

-Don’t put your belays in open places where falling ice from the leader will hit you. Remember that ice will bounce farther and farther to the sides as the leader gets higher; from 40M up ice can easily bounce 10M to either side. Ice climbing involves falling ice, and standing under it (especially if tied in place) is a recipe to get smacked. As I recently said in the comments, I can tell how experienced a party is at multi-pitch climbing by where they put their first belay. If it’s in a sheltered cave then I know they have a clue. If it’s a nice sunny alcove directly under the next pitch then I know they are from England, Australia or Colorado… “Ouch Mate, why’d you drop that on me arm!” ‘Cause it’s ice climbing silly Brit… I’m picking on the Brits here because they can take it and I love ‘em, but I see a lot of this in Rjukan, the Weeping Wall and other places that attract large quantities of relatively inexperienced climbers from relatively iceless locations.

-Don’t climb too far apart vertically when simul-seconding or climbing two parallel lines on a wide waterfall or alpine face. Put the belayers to the sides on the first pitch, they second at the same time to a protected belay in the middle of the climb. Leaders head out to the sides, belay out there or in a protected place, repeat. The result is a sort of diamond-shaped track up the route. If one climber gets very far above the other and they are at all close the ice will bounce sideways enough to cause problems…

-Don’t top-rope the first pitch on multi-pitch routes while climbers are still above. Seriously! As unbelievable as this might seem, people do it regularly, and get smoked as  a result. I would have thought this would be obvious, but no, apparently not… There was a recent accident near Canmore involving this scenario.

-Don’t forget to communicate when rappelling multi-pitch routes with people coming up. Hanging out in space on the rap line while pizza-sized dinner plates go flying by just sucks. Talk with the other climbers, make it all work in a friendly way, it can be done safely but takes open coms, a willingness to work together and perhaps a little more time to do it safely.

-Don’t belay at the base of the rout and get all annoyed when the leader drops a foot-ball sized chunk on your shiny, now destroyed helmet… Ice falls, stand out of the way. Anchor yourself way off to the side if the leader is climbing free-hanging pieces of ice. I’m totally amazed no one has been killed in Haffner (there have been some bad accidents there).

-Don’t let a bad situation develop. Often people get so worked up about going climbing that they forget their common sense. You can’t be shy about saying, “Hey, if you start climbing across above me me right now as I belay my leader you’re going to drop ice on me, please don’t do that!” If they keep going then you need to be direct, forceful and clear, they are endangering your safety, and probably just do not understand the danger they are putting you into. Hoping for a good outcome is not enough. A lot of novice ice climbers are simply clueless about the damage ice can do. Also be careful as new climbers enter an area you’re climbing in; assume they are clueless, and often people walking around won’t have their helmets on. They need some minding, a quick, “Hey, she’s knocking a lot of ice off, you might want to wait a minute until she’s done or walk wide around the base ” is a good thing to say.

-Don’t let accidents happen: If someone starts leading up below you then yell down, “Hey, I’m going to be dropping lots of ice, and if it hits you on lead it could break your arm or head, and definitely knock you off. I’d feel bad about that and have to help clean up the mess, you’ll want to wait!” If they keep leading below you then they have been warned, but you’ve got to give solid warning and allow them time to retreat. It’s like pistol duels back in the day, play fair and then let evolution do it’s thing… Hopefully not, but I see too much of this sort of thing to believe climbers will naturally figure it out.

So, in the picture below there are two parties climbing. The top leader has put his belayer exactly in the line of fire. Another party has started up below the top leader’s belayer, and was climbing while the top leader was leading. The really amazing thing is that the top leader has put his belay exactly in the line of fire, AGAIN, and again pummelled his belayer as he led up the last pitch. Plus it was extremely dangerous for the lower climbers, who were still climbing… This route is climbed and guided regularly with reasonable safety; put the belayers in the obvious caves and the safety margin would have been vastly higher. And this photo is from Hydrophobia, a grade 5, where one might expect that the climbers would know a little about multi-pitch ice climbing. Some of them are friends of mine and nobody got too beat up, but they are primarily rock or alpine climbers, and made a few classic mistakes while I had a camera handy, doh! I did see one of them a few days later sporting a nice big facial bruise… I’d say that was lucky. Ice climbing is dangerous enough when you do everything right.

Rant off, ice climbing is a beautiful sport I love, and it seems to be growing in popularity. This  is great, but the knowledge transfer isn’t growing at the same rate. Safe climbs!