X vs. T: Why the old X technique is inferior

January 31, 2013
Will Gadd

I recently received the following email:

“Dear Will, I read your book, and found it quite inspiring and full of good tips. I just wanted to ask you one question. In your book and videos, you recommend place the ice tools near the same vertical line, one higher than the other, and the moving the feet up. As in: tool, foot, foot. tool, foot, foot. I had a couple of ice climbing lessons, and the instructors always recommend: tool, tool, foot, foot. tool, tool, foot, foot. I just wanted to ask you if know why they say it, and what really is the best why to climb (maybe what you recommend is the best way with the modern tools?) Thanks, and keep inspiring us!”

I replied:
Your instructors are likely teaching the “X” steep ice climbing technique from 20 years ago. I know this technique well; for years I climbed steep  routes with it and wondered why I often felt off-blance and awkward, and climbing them took a long, long time. It was only when Kim Csizmazia and I figured the “T” technique out while training for the X Games (ironic letters there!) that ice climbing suddenly became a lot more secure, fun, and natural feeling, like rock climbing. I’m sympathetic to those stuck in the X style dark ages of ice climbing as I was there too, but it’s 2013, time to update the program and have more fun with a better technique.
Fundamentally the X technique is slower, less secure, more off-balance, etc. If you think about it when you place both tools side by side (tool tool) then naturally you’re in the middle of them when you pull up, or to look at it another way, the tools are off to the sides of your feet…. I’m calling modern technique “T” style for triangles with the tool at the top and the feet out to the side about shoulder width apart. The “X” technique results in a lot of undesirable outcomes, but primarily:
-Tools get stuck a lot. Tools are designed to be ripped out using the cutting surface on top of the pick, not wobbled and beat on with your hand like so many people mistakenly end up doing because they place them side by side. You just can’t take a tool out properly with with the tool at shoulder level. Staggered tools put the handle of the tool to be removed at around waist level. It also requires more strength to hold the lock-off in the X position while wrestling a tool out. It just does not work well.
-Off-balance stance. If you’re in the “middle” of two “holds” then naturally when you take one away you are in the all-too familiar “barn door” feeling that most people think IS ice climbing happens. It’s terrible to watch, and terrible to feel–when you have that tight feeling across your back and into your rear delts you’re in the barn-door, off-balance X position. I can watch the rear deltoid and obliques engage until the opposite foot to the remaining tool blows off when people are in the “barn door” position while ice climbing. And usually those practicing the “X” technique still don’t get their feet level, so the opposite lower foot blows off a lot. I can watch this pattern from a mile away over and over again, it’s again what a lot of aspiring ice climbers think ice climbing should feel like. It shouldn’t! Ice climbing should feel natural, fun, smooth, relaxed, and above all naturally stable and secure. The X position screws all of this up.
-X technique is less secure. Just watch a good climber moving with staggered tools compared to a good climber with “X” technique (what you’re describing). The staggered tool climber will not get stuck tools, will be in a natural good position to make SOLID placements, won’t shatter the ice between his tools, will move around horizontally as well as vertically more effeciently, etc. etc.
-The X technique is  inefficient from a “how much work do I have to do to get up this route?” perspective; the T technique just kicks ass on X. In a 100-foot pitch the average “X” climber will make a first placement roughly every foot. And then another. It’s hard to really stand up properly when you’re trying to wrestle a tool out, so most don’t. So the X climber will make about 200 placements (two per foot). In contrast, someone who has the “T” technique figured out will make a placement about every two feet, or 50 placements in 200 feet. If each placement takes four swings (that’s in decent ice, might require more) that’s 200 swings vs. 800. As anyone who knows ice climbing well can tell you, it’s the swinging that’s the harder work than the actually pulling up….
There are a thousand technique subtleties in climbing well on ice with any technique, and I could list them for hours (and do in my coaching and clinics), but I hope the above makes some sense. The “T” technique just works way, way better. Most good climbers around the world are now running some version of the “T” technique, but there are far fewer good ice climbers in the world than rock climbers. In Canada, Ouray and a few other places some guides and enthusiasts spend 50-100 days a year on ice and have all this figured out, but most people don’t climb that much ice in a career, and if they do don’t focus on how to do it really well.
One final analogy: A snow-plow turn on skis will get you down just about anything and is a good basic place to start with, but man, the hill is a lot more fun with some other turns! The “T” style is the basic skis-parrallell turn, and there are lots of refinements on it.
And here’s a video of why putting your tools close together is not a good idea. The climber’s sticks are not brilliant well before he falls off.
He’s also looking to the side rather than toward the ice (you can tell by the helmet cam’s swings to the side rather than pushes toward the ice), which is a good way to get a facial cut. Lots of other commentary could be made, but it’s a good illustration of why putting your picks close together is a bad idea…
https://vimeo.com/58137144
why no vimeo video here? grrrr

17 Comments. Leave new

Coach,

I only have one question: how does Kim pronounce her name? Seriously. :-)

Kim

Actually I have another question after finishing your book last night that I’ll as separately.

Reply

Thanks for posting this, Will. Do you have any examples of your ‘T’ technique, perhaps a video showing the correct way to do it?

Thanks,
Steve

Reply

Do you have a video example of good technique?

Reply

As I heard Kim herself explain once, if you just replaced the “s” in her name with an “h”, it would be phonetic, “chizmazia”

The triangle technique is bomber, the only way to go!

Reply

Here is a short video showing the “T” technique well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjMVSlQilKk

Great post as always Will.

Reply

Hey Will good article I do find it funny how climbers take things so literly.Agree 100% about the x and t thing.
I always found that even in the old days first days of season one was doing the X thing but as season and fittness went on one literly starts doing what I call the ICE WALK or what you refere to t stance.As always bud good advice for the new ICE KNIGHTS.Climb on brother-ken

Reply

Steve,

This is a great video from Peak Mountain Guides showing the T-/A-position technique.

Reply

As a member of a local ACC section I often take beginners out for their first experience climbing ice.

It’s always interesting to me to see that almost without exception beginners want to use the X stance. Before I get them on the ice I demonstrate T stance and explain why it makes sense to use it. Everyone gets it……until they get on the ice.

I’m curious about why that is. So far the only thing I can think of is that these beginners are not in balance over their feet (or don’t trust their feet) and gravitate towards the X stance because it makes them feel more secure. Until they have to move, that is.

I’m wondering if some drills on easier ice, but only using one tool, would speed up the learning process?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on all of this stuff. I always point people to this blog site as a useful learning resource.

Ken

Reply

Hi Ken.

2 things. I am not a novice climber, rock or ice, but don’t have much time to get out in the short ice season, so find myself indeed not trusting, and not finding solid feet. That is when I resort to putting tools side by side – taking care of not placing them on the same chunk – and muscling my way up, committing all the sins Will described. So truly the lack of mileage is key because I slowly improve with more trips out.

But, this is #2, in the video above it is not steep ice by any means. On WI3-low 4 it is a no-brainer to do what the guide shows. When they say steep, it has to be steep, min 5 and above because that’s when I want to use my both arms to get over empty spaces, while if it were rock I would back-step and lock off. Much scarier on ice because it is not styrofoam…

If one wants to show the technique, show it in a fluid motion on steep stuff, then explain during the editing session.

Reply

Good stuff as always Will. Just one clarification I think might be due.. Your countrymen, John Lauchlan and crew at Yamnuska Mtn school were teaching the “A” technique back in the fall/winter of 1980 when I showed up there. “A” likely a better description than a “T” for body postion. John’s term BTW not mine and how he taught it indoors on a chalk board and outdoors on the ice. My take at the time was John and Dwayne adopted the same technique early and just furthered the idea in their season in the alps. Albi, Dwayne, James, Gregg all at least tried to climb withtat technique a majority of the time. Much easier to do now, as you know, using leashless tools.

“In the summer of 1980, with Dwayne Congdon, he represented Canada at the Rassemblement International, a bi-annual event held in Chamonix, France, that attracts two of the best climbers from each country. John and Dwayne succeeded in making the third ascent of the MacIntyre/Coulton Route on the Grande Jorasses, a route that had defeated many of Europe’s top alpinists. John went on to climb the North Face of Les Droites and to solo the Gabbaroux Couloir on Mt Blanc. (among others)

In Canada, ice climbing was one of John’s main interests, and he led the movement towards new routes and bolder styles. His list of first ascents includes Takakkaw Falls, Pilsner Pillar, Slipsteam and Nemesis (the first free ascent).”

Weeping Pillar and Nemesis were done prior to ’80 and done free so I suspect they didn’t adopt much. But the “A” on perfect alpine Neve makes the technique a lot easier to adopt and then transfer that skill to steep water ice.

Reply

Thanks for the post Will. Its always great. I had a question though, recently I took an ice climbing class and the instructor taught the A or T or what he called the Y position. He said that you take that position until you get to a bulge, that a bulge is when you put your axes next to each other, hike your hands up to get over the bulge. Thoughts? Thanks again!

Reply
Ice climbing technique
February 4, 2013 5:59 am

[...] you know the basics but want to improve your technique, it is mandatory to check Will’s Gadd article about T technique versus old X technique. Below is Will Gadd climbing with perfect [...]

Reply

related to Will’s explanation I found this interesting artcile on UK climbing. It explains very detailed the steps how to and how not to climb steep ice.
Thx for the post Will

http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=4316

Reply

I disagree with the difference between t and x position. I think that one most learn the x position and after practice the t position. One reason is that you rely on one ice tool at a time. The higher one. A beginer don’t have the knowledge to evaluate iif is higher tool are good. The second is that when the higher tool are not good, you most be able to save your life on the second one. At that moment, you are in a very unbalanced situation…without training. I suspect that the death of a climber in la pomme d’or last year was due to T technique, without enought knowledge.

As you climbed, you learn to place your ice tool ashight as you can to save a swing. If you have a distance of a foot and a half between you two placement and three foot, yo do 2 time more movement. consequence is that you are more tired and less concentrated. Before using the T technique you should be able to climb a grade four with the head of the ice pick at shoulder level of body X posittion.

never forget that the guy climb 20 years with body x position before. doing T position. He asked you to have his knowledge with zero year of training?????

Reply

Going to have to disagree. If a beginner is unable to assess a placement, then placing two tools of questionable quality will not save them. Top rope climbing should used to get beginners to understand quality placements not the X-position.

Reply

Thanks Foster, helped a lot.

I’m out in Rjukan at the mo and I’ll have to say that the ‘T’ technique is much more efficient than the ‘X’ technique. I tried the ‘X’ technique and I ended up getting tools stuck and I got pumped more.

So my tips for this season’s Rjukan fat ice is long mono points, ‘thumbs up’, herls low and ‘T’. Worked a treat!

Reply

I agree, anyone starting out on ice should get plenty of top rope practice. Everyone here in Rjukan is saying exactly that, too. Learn good technique, then lead.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>