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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Black Diamond Express Ice Screws?

Jeff Shapiro climbing hard, fully kitted in BD with a rack of Express screws

I have a couple of drafts started in the blog about eating my words on gear.  Hadn't finished any of them of course because it is really hard for me to convince ME, I am ever wrong :)  Weak, I know, but here is the first.

Few that don't know me can understand the time I have spent at my desk or at the work bench in the shop measuring, sharpening or just examining ice screws.  A couple of my climbing partners have seen me wind in dual screws at placements on climbs and wondered just how  much of a knuckle head I was going to be that day.  And if I could just get on with it!    If I am placing dual screws it is generally because I am scared but I can go with the gear testing story when pushed.

But, with all the playing around I at least *think* I know something about ice screws.

When you understand what makes the teeth bite and how much each screw weights and why there isn't much else to understand.   Simple pieces of gear really...well pretty simple anyway.

So you have to understand that I know Black Diamond has a better set of teeth than most anyone making screws.  And no question the Black Diamond Express screws will take a "set" faster than anything else I use. By taking a "set", what I mean by that is the screw will generally catch the threads with a a single full turn at the wrist and stick in the ice so you can now employ the hanger's crank knob.

True, the Black Diamond screw is faster than the Grivel Helix on the "set".

But in a perfect world you have several steps to placing an ice screw, the "set", the wind and finally the clip.

If we have a "set", then the wind and finally the clip to each screw placement then each step is equally important to me.  On difficult climbing how long it takes me to fully place a screw defines how many screws I will place.   I can decide to place screws in several ways.  The first is by the difficulty of the climbing.   I place screws often because I am likely to fall off at any given moment.   That is not how I like to climb on ice.  Umbilicals are my first line of defense so my preferred way is to place fewer screws.  It is an old habit I have from the days when screws were extremely hard to place.  None of the screws available now have that unenviable reputation. So the screws I do place better be bomber and take as little time as possible to get in.   Time is a factor because if the climbing is difficult and steep, endurance and strength is always in question.   I want to end the pitch strong enough to finish with a reserve.  I don't want to ever fall on ice.

So from my own observations I think that the BD Express is the first screw to "set".    If it only ended there the conversation would be over.  Next up is the wind.  So your screw is set and there is little fear of it launching into space unattended.  You can now grab your winding knob and sink the screw to the hilt.  Done.    Almost finished here...snap a QD or sling biner on.  Then grab your rope to make the final clip.  And now you are off again climbing or just as likely, relieved, taking a mental break and shaking your arms with no risk of catching big air.

Whaaaoooo!   Not quite that fast.  There are a couple of steps we missed here.  You likely are a smart climber so you racked all your Express screws with the winding knob up and open right?   Well I don't.  So I "set",  then turn my winding knob up, (good place to kick a "free" screw loose into space), then I start to wind.  Sink the screw, clip the screw, then clip the rope and finally flip the knob down.   Gotta remember to flip that knob down.   ( can't wait to hear how everyone else muddles through this better than me, as obviously many do:)

So easy to see my dilemma with a fast "bite" as oppose to a fast screw placement.  I like the Express and own  a rack of them specifically for hard alpine ice.  They are lighter than anything available and they 'set" amazingly fast.  But they don't place fast enough to be my preferred screw on water fall climbing.

*Since I am looking at the details here I had forgotten this one.  I think the offset hanger on the BD screws encourages you to start the wind off center to the axis of the screw.  So you get a wobbly start if you are not very careful.  Obviously you can over come this with practice.  But for the newbie or gumbie like myself it is annoying.  The hand position on the Helix (at least for my XL size hands)  naturally encourages you to be more centered to the axis of the screw on your *set*.  That alone almost makes up for the better design on the BD teeth imo.  And in practice makes the *set* on the Helix almost as fast, if not as fast,  as the BD screw for me.

What I would like to see is the BD tube and teeth with a totally new hanger.  No knob to futz with, but a big winder, a hanger that naturally centers your hand for a straight drive on the *set* and keep the BD weight advantage.  Easy enough to do.  BD has the technology in house right now for a hanger as I described it.  I had come to the same conclusion last winter just got there from a totally different train of thought.   Not likely to happen any time soon though :)   No one convinced it is needed except me.*

Damn, just wish my own screw of choice "set" that fast though......gotta think some more on this :)

Jeff again, on the 5th pitch, STH, Provo Canyon

More here on the BD Express screw:


Rafal said...

Interesting comments, Dane. As usual, your analysis is way beyond anything I've thought of!

I've never thought of racking the screws with the knob "out" - will have to try this next time.

One thing I might add to the steps in "placing a screw" is actually choosing and taking one off your harness:

The BD's rack beautifully regardless of length, are easy to find the length you need due to their obvious color-coding and are very co-operative when you need to dig out a screw from the bottom of the rack.

In comparison, I've found the Grivels require more fumbling around when trying to get them off the racking 'biner, and don't rack well at all.

I think if you add this to the speed in which you can place a screw, the BDs will come out on top. But, curious to hear what you think!

Dane said...

Good call on the harness to ice transition...Rafal.

Here is my take. Petzl's plastic racking biner takes 5 easy and 6 tight of the BD Expess or the Helix. Same = same there for me. Grivel Helix winders are also color coded and easy to identify on the harness. Again same = same. BD's do rack "cleaner looking" but in actual use I don't see that as a difference. All I care about is how many can I rack, how easy are they to indentify and how easy are they to get off or back on as you are dicking around.

I truthfully don't find any difference worth commenting on for racking. No question the BDs LOOK better racked!

I was actually surprized that it was the same number racked and with the same "limit" on the plastic harness biners. Hadn't looked at that before and always assumed the BDs would get more on a biner.