Date: 31st December 2016
Good technique on ice is like good technique in any sport, it just makes things more fun and opens up more options. I see more good technique in ice climbing than I ever have before, mostly from guides and mutants in Canada and Ouray who climb at least 50 to 100 days a season. In addition to my own days climbing ice I also guide, teach, and coach ice climbing a lot every winter, and have for more than 20 years. For me the joy is in learning where someone is in their ice climbing career, and then helping him or her improve. That can mean climbing a short section of steeper ice with joy instead of fear, or leading a grade 6 pillar for the first time with every move on full lock down. It’s all about understanding how ice climbing movement works, and trying to help the person I’m working with do it better. Most of the people I work with are not high end climbers, but people who just want to be safer and have more fun. I really love my job, and I’m always looking for more effective ways to teach. For years I’ve been teaching the idea of “Hang by a straight arm, bring your feet up and level, stand up while ripping the lower tool out, repeat to the top.” But about 99 percent of the people I initially work with can’t really grasp this idea for somewhere between an hour and a day, and even then often keep their hips and trunk stiff and tensioned up… For the past few seasons I’ve been working with a revision to what I used to teach (well, a lot of revisions), and I thought I’d share some rough notes for the re-write of my ice climbing book. Here goes, I hope they help and welcome your feedback to make this and the book better! Plus I always learn when I share ideas…
I used to call the basic steep ice climbing movement pattern, “Squat, stand, swing,” as in the video above. There are a thousand refinements to this pattern, but it’s effective and works well for most people. For the last few months I’ve been working with teaching more of a “Spring, Rest, Sag” system, which seems easier for people to understand when teaching it. The “Spring” portion is standing up out of the squat, or using the available energy in your compressed legs and arms to stand up and get the next tool placement. “Springing” is energy intensive, from standing to swinging, and you don’t have all that much time in the “spring” part of the cycle before you’re going to get tired and pumped. So minimize that. Note that it’s a “spring,” not a “Pull!” as the arms in ice climbing mostly just direct the energy coming out of the legs.
The “Rest” portion of the cycle is everything that happens from when you get a good high tool stuck in until you start to “Sag” and work toward standing up to get the next tool in.
You’re in the “rest” position when one tool is stuck in at full arm extension, the other solid and in the “lock off” position with your hand relatively closer to your ribs, legs straight, hips close to the ice, feet solid, relaxed and poised to start moving again. You’ve got great holds in both hands, two giant foot holds, (which is what two ice tools and two good crampons should feel like, really!) and you’re so absolutely solid that it would take a fucking earthquake to knock you off the climb. That’s what ice climbing should feel like, but doesn’t for most people… Here’s how to get to a solid “rest” position, moving through the spring and sag portions.
-In the rest position first stop moving. Look up. Where are you going for the next three or four moves? The rest of the pitch? The next move? Screw placements? What would happen if you fell? It’s a lot easier to figure this out in the “rest” position and to set up appropriately. Relax your hands. If you watch video of me climbing my thumbs are often so relaxed they are behind my ice tools. Shake out. Put out any helmet fires. Place a screw. Sing. Life should be good here. Adjust your feet slightly if life is not good (see below…).
Your body is a suspension system, and to move properly it needs to sag a bit, relax, not just be all straight and stiff.
-From the “rest position” start to sag downward a little. Relax your shoulders. This will lower your rib cage a little. Relax your hips a little. Let your knees bend slightly. This will put your legs in a slight bend, with your knees close to the ice but your hips just slightly out. You’re now “sagged,” like a mountain bike suspension. You’ve got a little room to start moving things. Even your hands are relaxed and relatively open. Your legs are still taking the weight, but not firing like springs. Look down for holds. Most ice climbers don’t. Watch the helmet of a good ice climber and it will look up, down, up, down, over and over… A novice will always look up and seldom down, but the feet are everything.
-Let’s say your right tool is high and left low. Generally it’s easier to unweight your left foot first by pushing slightly on your left tool (just like opposition in rock climbing), but not always. What is always critical is to unweight the foot you’re going to move. Totally unweight it by transitioning all your weight onto the foot that’s going to stay in the ice. Do this by moving your hips sideway over the foot you’re not going to move. If your trunk is properly relaxed in the “sag” position then you will have a relaxed trunk and can actually move. If you’re tense through your trunk and have already started pulling up on your upper tool and bending your upper arm as around 90 percent of ice climbers do then you are screwed already. Your trunk is tense, your hand is clenched as is your bicep and lat, and you simply will not be able to move effectively. Stop. Sag back down. Ooooohm… Sag… Better?
-Now, staying loose and sagged, unweight one foot by moving your hips sideways, not up yet, over the supporting foot. Bend the knee and hip equally on the kicking foot. Don’t stick your butt way out with a relatively straight leg, BEND and move both the knee and hip. This only works if you are sagged and relatively loose. Note that you’ve started pulling on your high tool already, mentally yell at yourself, sag again…
-Visually pick a little bit of a foothold on the ice about six inches/12cm higher than your feet were, and kick with your boot and crampon 90 degrees to the ice. Look at your foot as you do this, through the whole kicking part of the movement. Most climbers don’t, and don’t get good feet as a result. If your boot is in relation to the ice while kicking the crampon will bounce. This may mean turning your heal sideways a little or a lot, but if the kick isn’t straight on your foot will bounce.
-Kick with your toes held up or your boot will hit the ice first, not your crampon, and make a “thwack” noise. No bueno. You should hear the sound of steel on ice.
-Kick with your feet roughly at shoulder width. Wider than this makes it very hard to weight transfer back and forth for the next move. If the foot you’re kicking with isn’t totally unweighted then you’ll be stabbing it at the ice with your feet on it, and it will hit the ice and skate downwards, which will mess you up. Your foot has to be totally unweighted in order to kick well, and if they are too far apart to start with it’s impossible to kick well. (this also applies to stemming up grooves, but that’s another topic, same principles apply, call me and I’ll teach them ).
-Kick until your secondary points are also engaged. Build a small pocket that is goddamn solid. Move your hips laterally over your new construction. Unweight the lower foot. Bring it up about 12 inches, or until your femurs are at roughly 90 degrees. If you’re sagged off the upper tool then your upper foot will be about 6 inches horizontally off a plumb line from your upper tool, let’s say to the right, not much more, sometimes closer. Kick with your toes high, move your weight over the new foot placement. If it does not feel good then stop and make it good. Don’t try to move “past” a bad foot, it will only screw you later. Make each foot SOLID. Move your hips laterally over it, STAY SAGGED! Place the other foot with your femur at 90, hips folded so you’re not pushing your weight out from the wall but sagging nicely downward. Don’t put your femurs past 90, it screws up the next move.
-If you pull in on your upper arm and don’t sag properly while moving your feet it’s nearly impossible to kick well. To check this out, stand really close to a wall and try to bend your feet and kick. Doesn’t work. Your butt has to be out and hips bent to kick well.
-If you’ve done all of this well you took a between two and five small steps to get your feet up. Giant steps mess you up as much as having your feet really far apart.
-If your feet aren’t at an equal level then when you stand up the lower one will come out, or you won’t end up being able to get into balance… When I see a climber with one foot high and one foot low about to stand up I know he or she does not yet understand basic ice movement (there are times to break this rule of course, all rules should be broken regularly, but not unknowingly).
-If you don’t “Sag” then it’s impossible to move with a relaxed motion, and you won’t naturally and smoothly “pendulum” under your upper tool. You’ll end up with your feet and body off to the side of it and messy…
The finish of the “Sag” portion of the cycle is when you have one tool in high, the other at a natural lock off position with your bent elbow tucked into your ribs, and both knees AND HIPS bent at 90 degrees. If you’re sitting on the toilet reading this you’re likely in the sag position already: Femurs horizontal, lower leg vertical, slight lean forward. If you’re in a chair you’re also likely sagging, but in a bad with your pelvis forward etc. Now you’re ready to “spring,” which has to be done well to get to the “Rest,” which sets the “Sag” components up. All of the components work together, and if there is an uncorrected error in one portion of the cycle it builds into the next, and the climbing goes from feeling smooth and enjoyable to off-balance and shitty.
-Look where you’re going to place your next tool. Yes, before standing up. Very very few people do this. A nice well-supported little corner of ice, a divot, anything concave and not convex, at roughly full arm extension when you stand up. Have a plan before you stand, standing locked off and pecking around is really strenuous and to be avoided.
-Stand up driving the movement with your legs, but also pulling down on the upper and lower tools, eventually starting to push down on the lower tool as your hips near the ice and legs and hips straighten out.
-If your feet are solid and placed in a rough equal triangle below your upper tool (one foot to each side when viewed from the back) then when you start to reach full standing position you will feel comfortably in balance and solid as you near standing. This “standing” position should fee like you’ve got two huge holds to your feet and a jug in your hand. Because you do.
-But if your shoulder blades feel tight and awkward or the movement doesn’t feel super solid then almost always one or both of your feet are out of position (too far to one side or the other of your upper tool), and you’re out of balance as a result. If you feel this way SAG back down onto the upper tool and fix your feet until they are solid and at the same level. If your feet are not super solid and at the same rough level then nothing works well for the entire next cycle of movement. Do not quickly place the other tool at full extension and level with the other one also to “fix” your out of balance feeling; this is what about 90 percent of ice climbers do, and unfortunately it results in the same problem again because you pull up between your ice tools, which makes it hard to get one or the other tool out, and you’re are out of balance because both feet are between your tools and not in a proper triangle under one… Solve the problem early by sagging back down when you are out of balance and fixing it.
-Rip your lower tool out as your hips approach the ice. Don’t take it out before your stand–having the lower tool in the ice as you stand helps with balance and makes it easier. By ripping it out I mean rip it out by pulling up sharply on the handle like you were pulling a nail out of a piece of wood with a hammer ,which is pretty much exactly what you are doing. The top of your pick is sharp to break the ice, let it do the job it was designed to do. Wiggling it side to side is slow, and when you are in a lock off position that sucks and takes too much strength.
-If you started the movement from the “sag” with your femurs at 90 degrees to the ice, hips bent at roughly 90, and feet well placed then just naturally when you stand you are going to wind up locked off solidly with your elbow into your ribs, hips close to the ice (most climbers don’t finish with their hips close to the ice, which makes it hard to properly stand over their feet, and puts more outward force on the upper tool, which is more strenuous, which means they get pumped, which means bad foot placements… etc.). Finish the movement. It’s nearly identical to a squat in the gym, from the starting position with a slight over-emphasis on getting the hips forward at the top for a very mild spine hyperextension.
-Swing and plant the upper tool in the place you were aiming for. This may take one swing or ten, but it needs to be damn solid. Falling off on lead ice climbing is always a bad idea. Each placement must be truck, and capable of holding your weight if your feet blow. That’s the standard of every single placement unless the ice is too thin, then you’re playing a different game…
-If your hips are close to the ice as you swing from the “top” or “stand” position then your shoulders will naturally move away from the ice a little as you swing and your spine makes a gentle “C” shape, or mild backbend (I have taught this to 80 year old men, you can do it). This allows room in your shoulders for easy swinging. If your hips are far from the ice in the locked off position then your butt is out away from the ice, and your spine is pointing toward the ice. It’s impossible to swing well from the shoulder if your spine is pointing from your butt toward the ice… To illustrate this, just bend over a little and try to reach over your head. Our shoulders don’t bend that way unless you’re a yoga freak. To swing well your hips have to be close the ice, and your shoulders slightly open or away from the ice.
-Boom, now you’ve got a solid tool with your upper arm mostly straight, your lower arm nicely locked into your rib cage, both feet super solid with secondary points engaged and not just one wobbly front point, and it would take a fucking earthquake to get you off the climb. If your feet aren’t in the right place, your upper tool isn’t good, your rhomboids/shoulders are clenched or you feel scared then you’re doing the movement wrong… Figure out what’s wrong and fix it.
REST. You’ve earned it. Get ready to sag and spring again.
Repeat to the top. There are a thousand small errors, corrections and different ways to look at the above, but I hope these notes help.
Posted in: Blog
Great article and really nice to see the videos.
If I can make a comment, it would be on the value of *not* reaching far when planting the upper tool. With the upper tool at a reasonable distance, you can lean your upper body farther back off the ice and you get a better look at your foot placements. You can see this at the 40-second mark of your second video. You almost go for a very high placement, but then opt to hook lower down. The relaxed axe positions help you get great feet moves. Then at the 1-minute mark, you place the upper axe super high… your upper body can’t lean back… and your foot placements are different as you move them up. It’s not better or worse… just interesting to note.
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