Ice Climbing is NOT rock climbing.

March 22, 2011
Will Gadd

Will Gadd note after the below was posted: Please keep the comments somewhat civil and constructive. There is a lot of good information (harness, gi gi) getting added, let’s focus–as most people are–on what can be done differently rather than attacking either the climbers or the video effort. Just for reference, I’ve personally made a lot of the errors in the video, we all have, the idea is to learn and do better, thanks.

And the two screen capture pictures are of the BD Bod harness that’s not doubled back (you can tell because you can see the two silver pieces, shouldn’t be able to see ‘em both!) and the Kong Gi Gi, which is getting used totally inappropriately. That the harness and the belay both held is pretty amazing to me, I would not have put money on either system holding even a short fall. Thanks to the comments section for noticing both, I didn’t until it was pointed out, which kinda scares me…

Fall. from Jeffrey Butler on Vimeo.

One of the biggest problems I see in ice climbing starts with people approaching ice climbing like they do rock climbing. That mindset is totally inappropriate, and leads to really avoidable accidents. A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a video shot Dracula, a one-pitch classic WI 4+ in New Hampshire. The leader gets pumped, struggles to get a screw in, and falls. Skip to 3: 28 to see it go bad, but the whole thing starts to go bad way before that point. I’m going to pick a few key points out of this video that are really serious errors. These errors are unfortunately very common, and they shouldn’t be.
Fortunately this video is on Vimeo, where you can load the whole video up then click and hold on the timeline bar below the video to move around the video easily. This video is not, as the narrator suggests, a film about “change.” I see and hear very little about “change” in the film, what I see are common errors leading to a completely avoidable accident, and not much mental switch among the climbers in the follow-up footage.
The first and biggest error in the thinking of the climbers is expressed at the end of the film when the belayer says at 14:20, “Falling is very common, it should be expected.” No, it isn’t. In 30 years of ice climbing I’ve caught exactly one lead fall (Guy Lacelle of all people), and never fallen on lead. Most of the people I climb with are the same; a few fell off once or maybe twice early in their careers before figuring out it was a really bad idea… Very occasionally things just go bad, but I can count those type of accidents on one hand. I know three people with fused ankles or worse from taking very short falls on ice. Falling is not common and should not be “expected.” A major mental reset is called for.
2:00 Apparently the belay is a in place subject to falling ice. The belayer decides the solution to this problem is to have enough slack in the system to move to avoid the falling ice because, “If I get knocked out by a piece of ice what good am I as a belayer?” I’m not making that quote up. A better solution would be to have the belayer not in the line of fire at all. Full stop. I can only remember two belays ever (ironically, one with Mark Twight) where I could not protect the belayer from falling ice, and in retrospect I put the belay in a shit place both times (sorry Mr. Dornian). Do shorter pitches, whatever it takes, but having your belayer in any position where he could be hit by falling ice is flat-out stupid or ignorant. Even the video guy is standing under falling ice at 3:20; Dracula is a one-pitch route for god’s sake, move out of the way! If the first rule of ice climbing is don’t fall off then surely the second is, “Don’t stand where you can get hit with falling ice.” This is rock-climbing thinking, where it’s abnormal to have falling ice. It is a given that a lot of ice will or can be falling down an ice climb, plan for it.
Lots of shots of the climber swinging tools, etc. This is going to sound harsh, but there needs to be some reality interjected into this film: The climber had absolutely no business being on lead on ice. His sticks were shit (3:17 is a good example of a lousy stick, you can see his tool wobble as he pulls up), his footwork is terrible, and I’m amazed he didn’t fall off earlier. I don’t say that to be insulting, but because I suspect less-direct commentary would be ineffective given the rest of what is said and done in the film.
Quote, “Yeah, I have great faith in the equipment now, and it gives me even more reason to put pro in.” This is just wrong on so many levels, but first of all it misses the entire point that ice climbing isn’t about the pro, it’s about first not falling off. Have enough pro so when something really surprising happens you don’t die (and he did have enough pro in for that), but thinking that, “Hey, the pro works, great, I can fall off more now!” is just wrong. The thinking should be, “Damn, I fell off, and only through incredible luck did I not completely fuck myself up for the rest of my life, I need to re-think my approach to ice climbing.”
I want to know what the climbers around 8:50 to 9:20 or so are saying under the voice-over. From my read of it they are saying, “Dude, get better fucking sticks into the ice, like this. And here’s how to clip into the pommel or lower hole on your tool to so you don’t fall off and nearly die again.” These are basic skills the climber should have known, and obviously didn’t.
The climber should have stopped way, way before he fell. In rock climbing it’s often OK to climb deep into a pump, even to the point of falling. In fact, that’s often the point in rock climbing. It is NOT ok to climb super-pumped on ice, the consequences of a fall are simply too high. This guy could have been paralyzed for life, broken both ankles, or died. If you’re getting super pumped on ice do what the other climbers suggest at 9:00: CLIP INTO YOUR TOOL and put a screw in. Train doing this on a TR so you’re comfortable with it. I have seen a half-dozen screws over the years placed a little into the ice, and then a tool beside the screw, but no climber… Falling off while placing a screw is a common way to fall, but totally needless. So, stop before you get super pumped, put in a good screw, reset, maybe back off if you can’t climb the pitch without getting super pumped. Or, climb it in five-foot sections putting in a screw and hanging; I have FAR more respect for someone who doe that than gets pumped and falls off. If you’re super pumped stop, reset. No “free” pitch is worth getting injured for.
So what should we do to avoid this accident?
-Climb on toprope more. Many, many laps. Practice putting in screws, climbing with and without crampons, hooking, making placements, etc. I’d bet this climber had done less than 30 pitches total of ice in his life. At least 150 30M laps is the bare minimum to have any sort of understanding of ice.
-Practice clipping into a tool and putting screws in. This normally takes two quickdraws on the harness, or a sling to the belay loop. Lots of ways to do it, practice.
The big problems I see in ice climbing are seldom to do with fitness. Almost always they start with the climber’s approach to the sport.
And finally, and this is an intense situation so it’s small criticism but something to think about, if I fall off like that please don’t lower me head-first back toward the ground. The climber’s legs kip over his head at about 9:50. Again, it’s an intense situation, but I’d suspect a possible spinal injury with that much force and speed… But a small criticism in the whole picture, and the climber is very lucky to have an ER doc on hand–if the situation were worse that could have made the difference between living and dying.
OK, that about sums it up, lots of other issues, but those are the main ones to me. I’d be happy to offer a free day of instruction with these climbers and their video guy to improve their technique and approach to ice climbing; I don’t mean this to be harsh to the individual climbers at all, with any luck I will have caused some thinking among a much wider readership as these errors are way too common, these guys just made a video…