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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ice tool umbilicals

The Joke Slinger, on the BD Spinner leash, Jan. 2010, the Cascades.

With the invention and popularity of leashless climbing, a once condemmed and decades old climbing tool has come back. While they are not mandatory, they are in vogue. It has been over 35 years since I saw the first pair of umbilicals in use.

Author's umbilicals of 9/16" webbing being used on a quick ascent of Polar Circus in the winter of 1979.

Gregg Cronn photo

Back in the late '70s and into the early '80s umbilicals were looked upon as a weak man's crutch. Mostly thought of as something the Canadians used (but never really did much) to aid sections of rotten, cold and really steep ice. We can blame all that on Bugs McKeith inventing the idea of ice aid while putting up some of today's modern classics, like Nemisis and Polar Circus. Just two among his many, many difficult ice climbs. Most visiting American climbers thought they were way ahead of the game by not using umbilicals while running up the first "free" ascents of the Canadian test pieces. Few outside Canada really made the "first free" ascents many claimed. Canadians had already been there on most of them and didn't fight back the cat calls.

No Internet back in the day so info was often sketchy and incomplete or just a fubar rumor. It was hard to keep track. Of course not every one used umbilicals even back then. But a few did. 1st and 2nd ascents of Slipstream did.

Jim Elzinga photo of John Lauchlan on the 1st ascent of Slipstream

They were not used for aid or for hanging to place screws. Although when required you could do either. The real use was to save your ass if you happen to fall. Hopefully an umbilical would keep you on the ice. BITD leads were long and run out. Ice screws could be hard, difficult or just plain impossible to get in, depending on the ice and out side temps. Weighting your umbilicals is a way to save the 2nd's strength while pulling screws if you can deal with that idea ethically today.No one sane thought the idea of falling with tools and crampons OK. Falling on the old gear generally required a hospital stay or worse.

Once I switched from Chouinard curved tools to a set of Terrodactyls for technical ice I seldom climbed without at least one umbilical attached to my harness or swami. As the tools changed the old umbilicals generally went straight on the new tools. Big jumps from Terros, Clog, Chacal, Pulsar.Pretty simple change as mine were just a set of tied 9/16" nylon tube webbing.

The first manufactured umbilicals I saw..years later ('05) ... where done up by Grivel. The "Grivel, Double Sping Leash" with a mini wire gate "biner" specifically designed for the task. While leashless tools really hadn't caught up with the possibilities yet, Grivel umbilicals were seen on some pretty amazing climbs often used by climbers sponsored by competing tool companies. The umbilical had finally "arrived". But no one outside a tiny circle of hardcore alpine climbers really knew it yet. A quick Goggle Images search will get you photos of Steve House, Marko Prezelj, Raphael Slawinski and a host of others using both the Grivel and BD umbilicals on hard alpine climbs all through the new millenium.

I worry more about dropping a leashless tool, than I do falling off. But when you can protect yourself from both mistakes it makes sense to ante up and use that protection. More than one really good climber has poked fun at me because of my support of umbilicals. More climbs and climbers I admire used umbilicals and have been suggesting you do as well.

Ueli Steck, Grand Jorasses, record speed solo, Jan '09. Jon Griffin photos

Easiest way to get yourself a pair of umbilicals is by reading Dave's web site and making your own. Good stuff!!
Alpine Dave photo

The second way is buy a pair of the commercially made ones.

Grivel offers several versions and Black Diamond offers their "Spinner" unit.
For what it costs to make a "good" pair of umbilicals both Black Diamond and Grivel offer real value imo.

Here is some detail on what I use and my observations.

Grivel was my first commercial set. I was lucky enough to get the original Grivel 3KN mini biner version with a girth hitch atatchment. Not a big fan of the mini locking version out now. Or a biner attachment to the harness. Good elastic and webbing that attaches to the harness by a girth hitch (small loop is passed through harness belay loop and tails are feed back through and out the small loop cinching tight on the belay loop) Very simple. Length is shorter than some seem to like but if I sit down on the leashes (6'1 and normal ape index) at full extention for both tools the Grivel leash will allow my tools to be out of reach. Just barely so, but still out of reach. It is durable.

Black Diamond had dozens of Spinner Leash prototypes out the last couple of years for real world testing and feedback. Again I was lucky enough to get a pair of those and used them a lot. Better yet for good feedback, I let all my partners use them.

Only thing I can see that has changed in the Spinner leash is the over all length has been shortened on the current version. I've seen current reviews commenting that the BD Spinner leash set up is now too short. Trust me? The Spinner IS NOT too short for anyone under 6'8" and a huge ape index that I know! The "too short" comment doesn't make sense unless the reviewer is mistakenly writing about a short early prototype? Mine on full extention are a full 2 feet past what I can reach.
If you happen to fall on the Spinner you'll have some work cut out for you getting back to your tools. The Grivel set up is managable but only just. The Spinner will make you work for a living it you weight it unprepared. But if you are using the most modern ice climbing techniques you should be stacking your tools on top of each other which should help. You'll need the extra reach to accomplish that and still have only a short fall for your Spinner to catch. It is a tough balancing act to get the right umbilical length and still get it to do everything required of it.
If you need to weight your tools intentionally, you had better stack them or you'll not be able to reach a tool using either brand name.While I like simple and wasn't impressed with the swivel of the Spinner originally, everyone else that used mine was. I bought and had a chance to use a pair of the Blue Ice Boa leashes while I was here in Chamonix.   Liked them enough I have set my old Grivel's aside and am using the Boa now full time.
I like they pull test @ 550 daN or 1236 lbf.  No one else committing to over 800 lbs.   BD says 800# but the UIAA test is 450#  which is what the BD and Grivel is rated at,  so why bother?  Because in climbing gear, more weight, "more better" (strength wise) generally.

More info here:
Now available in NA here:

I try to climb smart and if a technical ice tool goes in my pack so does a umbilical system. See ya out there!

Steve House on the top of the Italian Route, Taulliraju (5830m), first free ascent, three-day roundtrip, with Marko Prezel 2005 (Prezel photo)

1 comment:

Dane said...

For more umbilical info look here: