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…
why no vimeo video here? grrrr