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Note to self: How not to fall off ice climbing

Date: 12th January 2017

The local injury total so far this season is roughly six broken legs/ankles, a serious and unresolved head injury, a couple of lengthy whippers resulting in various other injuries, and a few falls that scared the hell out of people but didn’t do much.  This is higher than normal in my view, and prompted some thought on what I could do better to not fall off ice climbing. I respect the injured as climbers and people, and want to use their experiences to shape my own attitude and results.

Note the ratio: about 2:1 for lead falls on ice that resulted in injury versus non-injury. That ratio alone should tell us all we need to know about falling off on ice climbs. In 35 years of leading ice climbs I haven’t fallen off on lead. I will, but today is a good day to do it right.

The reasons for these accidents are complex and the sample size of accidents and issues that I know of too small to be statistically meaningful, but I’m going to speculate wildly on some of the reasons and solutions. It’ll probably offend some people, but some people deserve offending, including me. I’m writing this in the voice that I talk to myself in while leading, as a reminder to do it right today and because I’m not so hot on listening to less than intense advice.

Rule 1.

Realize that falling off while leading an ice climb will likely result in a minimum of badly broken leg, ankle, head, pelvis neck, back or all of this list, and set your mental dial and approach to the day appropriately. It’s not rock climbing or drytooling or prancing around on easy snow in knickers. In rock or drytooling you push yourself to the edge in relatively controlled environments, and expect to fall off. If you fall off ice climbing you’ve compounded multiple errors and seriously screwed up. No, the ice didn’t “just break,” no, it wasn’t “a freak accident,” you made an error. And tiny errors can lead to very serious outcomes when playing with high stakes. Very rarely I’ll read of someone getting hit in the head with a random piece of ice and falling off, but that’s really, really rare, unicorn rare. If you set your danger meter at, “I fall I get badly damaged, minimum” then you’ll climb like you mean to stay attached. Guy Lacelle didn’t die ice climbing despite soloing thousands of pitches over the years. He stayed attached because he knew the outcome of falling off.

Rule 2.

There is no “easy” ice climbing terrain. If you’re on steep or low-angled ice your fall hazard is close to the same. We all respect steeper terrain, but lower angle ice terrain often lulls us into, the, “It’s not that steep” mentality… But if you fall on lower-angle ice you will slide at ever-increasing speed until you hit something. There are a number of ice climbers I know with fused ankles or worse who fell off on “easy” low angle terrain, or while bouldering only a few feet of the ground. Imagine sledding down a steep hill, then shoving your leg into a vice bolted to the ground near the bottom of the run. That’s what happens when you fall off and slide and your crampons catch. All ice terrain is treated as lethal. You need security even in easy terrain because falling off will result in a bad crash. A slip on an equivalently low-angle rock slab might be easy to catch, or just result in some lost skin. Not on ice. Most of the bad accident this winter were on lower angle terrain, or where the climbing eased up in angle.

Rule 3.

You will fall off sooner later, and to quote Fight Club, “Until you know this you are useless.” You’re always run out above gear while ice climbing. Even with a screw at your waist you will fall surprisingly far before the rope goes tight, certainly far enough to catch a crampon point and spiral fracture your femur, as I saw one day. But you’ll probably live if you have good gear in and live in a rich country with good mountain rescue IF you have enough gear in not to hit the ground too hard at any point during the fall. I have a few friends who went for lengthy rides resulting in terrible injuries, and I place screws in their honor even though I don’t feel like I’m in danger of falling off. The “Mark, Raf, Kevin, etc” screws are for those situations when I get it wrong, as I will sooner or later.

Rule 4.

Get good feet. Most of the falls I’ve seen or had related to me recently involved a foot blowing first, then a weird load on the tool, and then a fall. If your feet aren’t welded then bad things may happen.

Rule 5.

Get good sticks with your tools, and really test them with a sharp shoulder “snap” onto the placement if there’s any doubt at all, even a tiny bit. If your placements can’t handle both feet blowing out, and you don’t trust the placement to this level, then it’s not a placement, it’s a peck. Don’t peck like a chicken, swing like a you mean it until the placement is GOOD. This may mean excavating the surface ice for somewhere between 1 and 20cm, and the resulting ice will obey gravity and fall away below you. Don’t yell “Ice,” that’s like yelling “puck!” at a hockey game, it’s expected. Occasionally on a hooked-out trade route you can climb with just hooking, but the rules still apply: The hook must be totally trustworthy. Be aware that a placement that is good for a direct downward pull may not be good for an outward pull. I’m seeing a lot of intermediate ice climbers choking up continually on their tools; this just means they haven’t gotten their feet high enough initially, and are correcting the error by choking up. Choking up puts more outward force on the pick of your tool. Understand why this is bad, and don’t do it. If you don’t know enough about the sound of the placement, ice and testing a placement then you have zero business leading ice.

Rule 6.

Don’t’ climb, belay or somehow ‘end up” under other climbers. Falling ice is a normal part of ice climbing (see number 5 above), and if it hits you may fall off or get maimed. Do NOT be like the dumb-ass Coloradons who show up in the Rockies every winter or the English in Rjukan. I have seriously heard these idiots complain when they get bombarded with ice from above, “Hey! Stop dropping ice on us!” is short for, “I’m a dumb ass who doesn’t understand ice climbing. If someone starts climbing up under me I explains this very directly—I don’t want to have to rescue them, or deal with blood everywhere. If I’m climbing a distinct line and someone starts wandering laterally over me, or my belay, then I’ll communicate politely and come up with a joint solution. Hoping it’s all going to be OK is not a solution.

Rule 7.

Don’t place screws too high. This puts a direct outward force on the pick, and it will blow. Screws should be placed low in generally, they are easier to start and won’t make you fall off. I’ve come across accident scenes with a half-started screw and one tool left in the ice several times, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened.

Rule 8.

Don’t try to move fast. Several of the recent local accidents involved people climbing “fast.” Slow is smooth, smooth is fast even if it doesn’t look like it. Hopping your feet around like a spastic chicken is not cool, it’s like seeing a new driver hunched over the wheel at ten under in the fast lane. Place your feet. Place your tools. Move fast by moving solidly, with good technique. When I see someone moving without well set feet or tools it scares the shit out of me, mainly because the dumb ass likely doesn’t know how much danger they are in. Someone like Ueli Steck has decades of experience moving well, but you’re not Ueli.. And let’s remember that Ueli has hit the ground really hard a few different times. He’s durable. I’m not.

Rule 9.

Heed the warnings. I was recently guiding with a great guest when my tool came out of a placement relatively early, which surprised me. No big deal, I place my tools solidly, and I led the rest of the short but difficult ice pitch with bomber sticks. I then coached my guest, then went to climb the steep ice and break down the anchor on a secure top rope. I trust this guest, he’s solid on the belay, and I was posing and not burying my picks as the rope was tight on TR. I suddenly fell off. Doh, stop showing off. I threw my tool back in, pulled, and fell off again. WTF! Doesn’t this ice know who I am? Embarrassed, I swung hard and climbed to the top, but I was rattled, it didn’t make sense. That evening I checked my pick, and I had broken the tip of the tool off at a 45-degree angleat some point before the last top rope session. It acted like a ski on the ice instead of grabbing it, but looked totally normal from behind and felt normal while swinging. I didn’t pay attention to an early sign of something being wrong. I could have fallen earlier in the day, and while I had gear in it would have been exciting. Over the years I’ve found that when I think something is wrong it usually is, I just haven’t figured out what yet.

Rule 10.

Don’t be optimistic about your own abilities, the ice quality, the day’s outcome, or much of anything while ice climbing specifically or in the mountains generally. Unfounded optimism is for things like getting a date and a winning lottery ticket. If you want to survive then pessimism and accurate self-assessment are what matter. You’ll know when you’re good enough because you’ve got the background to be good enough. Toprope, climb with mentors, slow it down and get it right or support the bottom line of Stryker (google that name, there are a lot of ice climbers out there who know it).

Rule 11.

Climb down before you fall down. If you’re getting pumped clip a sling into the pommel of your solid ice tool and hang on it (put in a screw or two, or maybe a V-thread will hanging there). Down climb to a rest. If the ice is getting really bad down climb, don’t push up expecting things will get better. Climbing pumped on ice is a bad idea, you need more control than that. The reward must balance the risk, and if you’re already pumped you won’t be able to hang on if your feet blow. There is pride in managing a situation well, regret in falling off.

Rule 12.

Fear is a sign that you’re in over your competence level.  “Fun” is a sign that you’re solid, locked in, and likely competent in that environment. If you’re not having fun and enjoying the experience then you’re probably, like sex, doing it wrong.


If it all goes bad have coms, a plan, and enough gear to survive. I have two friends alive because of their inReach communicators. If you climb outside of cell service and don’t have real coms then you’re an idiot. Buy less lattes for a couple of months and get an inReach.

Posted in: Blog


  1. Doug Schmidt   January 12, 2017 9:20 pm

    Wow. That’s awesome Will. I try to adhere to everything you have said in this article. I have backed off of routes many times due to not “feeling it” and I know that’s ok. Every year I slowly ramp up to the ambitions I have set to accomplish and sometimes I get there, sometimes I don’t. I would rather walk away than not at all. Love your take on all of this.

  2. Kurt Morrison   January 12, 2017 9:29 pm

    Thanks for this, Will. Good reminders.

  3. Will   January 12, 2017 9:50 pm

    Thanks for this. I’m a newbie, scared but interested, and I think some of your tips can be used to improve my chances of safely having fun.

  4. Will Gadd   January 12, 2017 9:52 pm

    Go climb lots and have fun–that should also be a tip… I’ll add it.

  5. Beverly   January 12, 2017 10:34 pm

    Nice read, amigo! It’s nice to see great stuff like this not in a book or a mag. There’s “ice climbing 101,” and then there’s this. Cheers !

  6. Jeff LaMuth   January 12, 2017 10:38 pm

    Ice leads are serious, even if it’s a short relatively easy climb, the rules from Will’s book have served me well: Don’t fall, place often, and don’t fall!

    Breaking the tip of a tool scares the hell out of me, I’ve had it happen once on top rope thankfully, the tool becomes virtually useless, so when in doubt get new ones!

  7. Thomas Becker   January 13, 2017 5:33 am

    Awesome read thanks Will. I work construction for a living and always told myself if I take a whipper I’ll most likely be outta work for six months. Good motivator to always climb within my ability/motive killer when it comes to pushing myself.

  8. John Arsenault   January 13, 2017 7:06 am

    Hey Will,
    Just finished your 12 step plan, or as I call it, “Words to LIVE by” literally. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  9. Jason wheeler   January 13, 2017 9:56 am

    Great list. As an ex Ice climber (before a fall that broke my leg :-) ) it all rings very true and can be applied to a bunch or other things in life.

  10. Serge   January 13, 2017 12:12 pm

    Hi Will! What’s the Stryker bottom line!? Didn’t find it…

  11. Dave Bethell   January 13, 2017 12:27 pm

    Great advice Will ! Stay stuck to the ice and maintain good basic skills no matter how much we’ve climbed and watch out for complacency cause it will bite ya!!!
    Especially with the poor quality ice alot of us were climbing on to start this season due to the flash freeze we had. I have always been a great advocate of, sometimes it’s just better to call it a day and go home which makes it even more sweet when you do send the route! Prime example; Mr Barry Blanchard and the route Infinite patience on Mt Robson!
    Another good thing to remember is to get good training from a qualified ACMG guide/instructor as I have heard of a few people learning from there friends and to me this is just a good way to learn bad habirs that can bite us with horrible results!!! Thereis also a very good article on my timeline on FB called Ice climbing anchor strength analysis and its by George McEwen of the Glenmore Lodge

  12. How not to fall off ice climbing, from Climbing Guide Will Gadd  | Dispatch Radio   January 13, 2017 3:13 pm

    […] Source: Note to self: How not to fall off ice climbing – Will Gadd – Athlete, Speaker, Guide […]

  13. Leigh-Anne Webster   January 13, 2017 3:16 pm

    This article is all about common sense, Rule #2 especially. Thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge and experience -this is the best free advice I’ve come across to date. I’m sure this will save at least a few people out there from serious trouble.

  14. Dale Remsberg   January 13, 2017 5:57 pm

    Nice post Will! I should have read this last winter when I took my first leader fall in 26 years and collapsed my lung etc…. LOL! I knew all the rules but shit happened! I did have a screw close but still got badly banged up by hitting walls in a chimney. Anyway climbers- Ready this shit and take it to heart as its all true…

  15. Milan   January 13, 2017 8:18 pm

    Stryker – makers of orthopedic equipment ;-)

  16. Jean Peloquin   January 13, 2017 11:06 pm

    Will; where did you get the quote unquote line: it wasn’t a “freak accident”? We’re you referring to to a recent event?

  17. Will Gadd   January 13, 2017 11:59 pm

    @jean no particular, but all of them lately are potentially related. We are human, we make mistakes. @dale yes!!

  18. Paul Hennelly   January 14, 2017 1:43 am

    I did not understand: “I’m seeing a lot of intermediate ice climbers choking up continually on their tools; this just means they haven’t gotten their feet high enough initially, and are correcting the error by choking up. Choking up puts more outward force on the pick of your tool. ”
    Please would you explain what “choking up” means.

  19. Guy   January 14, 2017 5:31 am

    Thanks so much for this post Will, very helpful for those of us growing in the sport.

  20. Will Gadd   January 14, 2017 8:38 am

    “Choking up” means moving onto the upper grip with your hand, or even higher than the upper grip on the shaft of the tool. Safe climbs!

  21. Jim Knoke   January 14, 2017 12:56 pm

    Great write, Will! Let’s see more safety “intenseness” in the future.

  22. Bob   January 16, 2017 4:41 pm

    Jean Peloquin, is there a reason that fall (I’m sure we all know the one you’re referring to) would actually be considered a freak accident?

  23. Inga Strümke   January 20, 2017 6:44 am

    This is great. Thanks!

  24. Fartknocker   January 23, 2017 7:34 pm

    So only the English and ‘Coloradons’ are dumbasses? Lol

  25. Brett Gilmour   January 23, 2017 10:02 pm

    Will, thanks for this post. I’m just getting back to ice climbing after nearly a decade hiatus. Your site has been a wealth of information and reminders.

  26. claire dionne   January 28, 2017 11:15 am

    Awesome post. Excellent review of risks. Making it real! Love your comment on people standing below you…
    Thanks for laying it so clearly!!

  27. Shawn   February 2, 2017 12:29 pm

    Stryker is also the manufacture of a lot of ambulance stretchers and equipment – it got a good giggle out of me.

    I just had a toe bail literally explode into pieces this past weekend. Fortunately I know I have no business on lead yet. I will add one-foot climbing to the list of skills I need before I try.

  28. Andrew McLean   February 2, 2017 6:13 pm

    As a Colorado native. I can assure you that lots of Coloradan’s are complete dumbasses. Great article.

  29. Justin   February 6, 2017 10:53 pm

    As a novice who is learning to lead, I appreciate this greatly. Important to keep the ego, skill and optimism in check at all times. Thank you for the reminder Will.

  30. Luther McLain   February 7, 2017 9:15 pm

    Hey Will, I’ve read a few of your articles over the years, and this was one of the better ones in my opinion. I mean all of them were pretty good, but this one is particularly so. One of my cardinal rules is not to lead anything that I know I can’t down climb.

    Even though I’ve taken a little hiatus from it this season until now, it’s something I love doing enough that I don’t ever want it taken away from me. I’ve seen a few examples of that loss in my twenty years running around here. Great article, and thanks for putting it out there!

  31. Debra Beattie   February 15, 2017 11:21 pm

    Great tips, thanks so much. When I lead on Nomics I will occasionally “choke up” post planting the ax in order to take less swings while moving my feet up. My goal is to move more efficiently up the ice. I have never felt that choking up causes me to pull out instead of down on the ax due to the angle of the shaft but I am very mindful of that possibility. I actually thought the Nomics were designed to be used that way but after reading here and other forums, it seems to be some consensus that this is a risky technique.

  32. Will Gadd   February 17, 2017 12:34 pm

    If you’re on the upper grip then in any position but full hang/sag you’re pulling out more on the pick of the tool. A lot of the time the ice placement is good enough that this works out just fine, but you don’t really want to be pulling out more on the pick, and if you’re always bumping to the upper grip then your feet were in the wrong place when you were swinging the tool. I see this a lot with ice climbers who are advanced enough to understand the idea of decent tool distance, but not experienced enough to really understand the physics of tool placement, or getting their legs organized to drive the movement properly. Often what i see is someone place a tool with their feet uneven, bring one foot up to get in balance, then grab the upper grip. The upper grip in this scenario is where the lower grip should have been placed to start with. Now the climber is pulling out more on the pick, has swung from an inefficient position, and is overall less efficient and less secure. If you’re in doubt on the angle of pull experiment with it–place a tool repeatedly stand up on the upper grip vs. the lower, gradually moving your feet higher each time you stand up (on top rope). The tool will blow while you’re on the upper grip at some point, the angle of pull is just more out. It’s all fun to figure out with real evidence and personal testing rather than, “I think…” Thanks for the comment, this is an interesting subject, and there are times when it does make sense to move off the upper grip for sure. Just, all other things being equal, be aware you’re likely to be pulling out on it more.

  33. Accident Report: Deja Vu On Carlsberg - The Alpine Start   February 26, 2017 7:45 pm

    […] And if you haven’t read it yet, check out Will’s post on “How Not To Fall Off Ice Climbing” […]

  34. Bernard   March 7, 2017 1:55 pm

    Thanks for this post WIll. I’ve read it several times on separate occasions before climbing a new route as a reminder of how to stay safe.

    How long should it take a climber who masters the proper technique to lead a 30m ice pitch that is within his level of comfort in typical conditions? I know this will vary due to weather, fitness level, ice quality and many other variables.

  35. Will Gadd   March 7, 2017 2:02 pm

    It should take as long as it takes for the leader to do a secure, solid job of the pitch. Putting an “average” on it misses the point really… How long should making love take? Misses the point also :). It’s about the experience, not the timing. That said, if pitches are taking longer than about 45 minutes to lead then the leader is either on something too hard for him or her, or that’s just how long leading that kind of ice is going to take to lead for him or her…

  36. Shane Kenyon   March 31, 2017 6:42 pm

    Thanks for this. I had a great TR season overall. But I ran into a similar issue with my picks insofar as I was not attentive to the teeth, even though I was keeping the points good. I kept having them pull when then never did before, culminating with smashing my face with the hammer while I was, guess what, trying to hand match while choked up. This series of frustrating and inexplicable (at the time) failures destroyed my confidence. Thankfully I figured out my equipment problem and haven’t taken a fall since. But equally thankfully, I listened to my gut and didn’t lead much this season. Probably shouldn’t have led anything till I sorted the tools in retrospect.

  37. Mikhail   June 14, 2017 1:50 pm

    Dear Will,

    A quick question regarding your Rule 11 :

    When writing “Climb down before you fall down” and “Down climb to a rest”,
    do you actually mean “down-climb” or, rather, “descend by whatever means
    you deem most safe” (such as down-climb *or* rappel) ?

    Thanks, Mikhail

  38. Will Gadd   June 15, 2017 10:17 am

    Hi Mikhail, either down climbing or “descend by whatever means you deem most safe” works for me. The big idea is to stop going up when things aren’t going well.

  39. Rourke   October 17, 2017 9:23 am

    Many of the English, particularly the rich ones who go off on expensive trips, are indeed dumbasses, who think that the world owes them.

  40. Vincent   January 8, 2018 7:59 am

    Thanks, Will. I was looking for a clear essay on risk management in ice climbing, only found it here.

  41. Todd   February 19, 2018 9:54 am

    Suddenly, I’m not so sure about my upcoming ice climb. I’ll just be top roping with a very experienced guide so I should be fine. Spiral femur fracture could really ruin a summer…

  42. Will Gadd   February 21, 2018 1:11 am

    You’ll be good!

  43. Freya   February 26, 2018 11:11 pm

    Hi Will, I love your writing and your humour, great article! I was looking for reassurance about my husband’s imminent excursion to lead a multipitch in the peaks (with a random second off UKC… ), you’ve reassured me he does know what he’s doing!! Can’t stop him doing what he loves, so I’ll just send him this link to remind him, it’s alll stuff he’s told me before (back before we had a million kids and I actually climbed).

  44. Kevin   January 4, 2019 7:37 am

    Thanks for writing this with points stated bluntly (no pun intended). It seems like the Adirondacks has seen an increase in ice climbing activity and, as such, new leaders–this is a perfect article. Each time I hear about a leader fall, I’m reminded that we’re climbing with a collection of knives on our waist, feet, and in our hands. A couple of the falls during the last year have involved impalements of one sort or another. Each incident and the rules you mention give me pause to reflect and ask myself a few hard questions especially since most of my climbing is in the backcountry. Again, I appreciate the post.

  45. Don   January 4, 2019 5:20 pm

    Thanks, Will. This makes incredible sense to me having just fallen off a climb in the Adirondaks just a week ago. I was lucky to come home with only a couple broken bones. I will definitely commit this advice to memory for when I can get out again.

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