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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A second look at modern dry tooling?

In 1976...not like there were many options, Chouinard or curved gear and the lone Terrordactyl.  Ice climbing alone would bend or break them.  Hit a rock?   Minor disaster the majority of the time!    

Most give the credit of "modern" ice climbing to Yvon Chouinard and curved gear.  Chouinard may have marketed it and made it popular in North America.  I don't think he influenced the sport long term as much as many of us might have thought originally.

No question there was a modern ice climbing movement that could easily be defined world wide as the free ascent of Bridalveil Falls as the defining effort in 1973 by Lowe and Weiss.

Jeff Lowe writes of seeing torquing and hooking picks as a logical extension of climbing with tools. He was doing it back in the '70s by his own admission. His routes are clear testimony to his skills and less obviously the techniques he was adapting to during those early years.

Tobin Sorenson and Gordon Smith did a major new route on the Grand Jorasses in 1977.

"Tobin Sorenson and I did the first free ascent back in late October 1977 and we didn't use Desmaison's fixed stuff at all... we found plenty of ice and snow on the lower section, including a beautiful narrow ice gully about 1/4 of the way up reminiscent of Scotland at its best. We took a variation on the right and did not find any of Desmaison's fixed stuff until the top of that beautiful gully - where a rope came in from the left. That was pretty much all we saw. (NOTE: The right hand is definitely the most logical start to the route). We bivied a few pitches above this on a ledge to the right of the route proper just above a large roof which we turned on the right. A lot of mixed climbing up a series of ramps and a notable 'shark's fin' of granite sticking out of very hard blue water ice took us to the headwall. We bivied again on the headwall behind a flake of rock in a horrendous blizzard - Tobin used my padded overpants (courtesy Desmaison found on a broken footed retreat from a previous attempt with Black Nicky Colton) while I was wrapped up in a bivi tent (also courtesy of Mons. D). Tobin joined me in the bivi tent eventually and we sat there until it got sort of light. Then we went out for a wild Scottish day of howling snow and gale and gripping climbing ... Tobin led the crux headwall pitch (thank goodness) with 2 falls and much wailing about the need of a sky hook. He was brilliant! Note: we didn't have a sky hook for him to use ... he didn't even have a terror for 'dry hooking' - only a curved Chouinard axe - we had a pair of terrors for me and a chouinard axe and hammer for him and we both had bendy grivel 12 pointers. In fact all Tobin's gear was borrowed as his only ice climbing experience was the first ascent of the Smith-Sorenson ice groove on the West Face of the Plan a couple of day's earlier. I got rather nervous as our ropes were 2 x 200 foot 8MM laid ropes ... very thin looking!! I knew the descent from the Walker and Croz so we almost beat nightfall to the Italian hut ... There I found I had two frostbitten feet which were hard to hitch home to Blairgowrie with and Tobin went on to do the Eiger Direct with Dirty Alex (GRRRR - and they used those 8MM laid ropes of mine)... It was a great mixed route and very sustained with not a lot of resting spots and quite the feeling of seriousness (especially given the empty rucksack we found behind our bivi flake ...). The Smith-Sorenson ice groove was very nice and would have fitted in well on the Ben - it's just to the right (facing the cliff) of the Gabbarrou Picard-Deyme couloir and quite similar to that climb for difficulty."

Some perspective?

Gordon and Tobin Sorenson did a major new route on the North face of the Grand Jorasses in 1977.  A British party claimed a first free ascent on similar terrain in '07.

More from Gordon Smith on tools and ethics:

"What do you do with one of the new tools when you go over the top of a bulge of hard (or crappy) ice into deep powder snow? That was one of the main reasons I loved my terror axe and would have considered climbing with 2 axes and a peg hammer, except that the axe was too light for hard, brittle ice. I never had a 'Barracuda' to go with my Chacal...I gave up alpinism before it came out (even before the Chacal was available commercially). What was the adze on that like? Judging by your photo I think I would have really liked to climb with a chacal and a barracuda.

I refer you to the article on the Croz posted above ... Kingy (Terry King)  (and I) considered 'hooking' and 'torquing' etc as pure cheating (near the end of the article). Clearly ethics change!"

1981 Stump and Aubrey on the N. Butt of Hunter? Stump used a short Curver axe, a Roosterhead hammer (US copy of the Terrordactyl) and SMC rigid crampons.  And similar gear on the East face of Moose Tooth with Bridwell. But Bridwell used a pair of Forrest Serac Saber tools. The Saber is easily compared to an over grown Peck Terrodactyl. And a key piece of gear for that climb by Bridwell's account. The first written account of ice tools being used to climb rock that I have seen.

Jim Bridwell specifically mentions hooking stone and "nuting" with a pick of a Forrest Serac Saber (over grown Terro) on the 1st ascent of the Moose Tooth with Stump in '81. "A desperate struggle ensued at these overhangs. ice axes and hammers became useless weapons against these fortifications. Forced onto tiny edges for crampons and shaky pitons for handholds, I often used my ice tool picks as cliff hangers on rock edges or wedged in cracks, nut fashion." "Dance of the Woo Li Masters"

Duncan Ferguson on "modern mixed" :

.…” But it was only after reading about Scottish climbing, “that I sorted out what I wanted to do with my ice climbing--forget the ‘thick ice’ part of it and see how far I could go with a pair of Terrors and a new attitude and vision. A redefinition of what ‘ice climbing’ was…. Spent the entire rest of the season wandering around by myself and bouldering and traversing and soloing short mixed climbs. Rock climbs really, with a set of Terrors and crampons. Thin ice, snowed up rock, rock moves between patches of ice and pure rock.…”

Ferguson's word, "redefinition". And I think rightfully gives credit to the McInnes and his Terro for our current "mixed climbing". The Terro is also the basis for the tools we now climb ice with. In my mind there is not question it wasn't Chouinard who "invented" modern ice climbing but the Scots and the Terro.

“Without the Terrordactyl, we’d still all be swinging.”--Duncan Ferguson, 2001.

Duncan Ferguson again: “even though credit for much of the impetus for modern ice climbing has gone to Chouinard and his curved tools, I strongly feel that it is the Scots and MacInnes in particular and [his Terrordactyls] that ushered in the birth of modern mixed climbing.”

Mick Fowler and Chris Watts might have called it aid in 1982 on the South East Buttress ace of Taulliraju in Peru. But a few pictures of the Chacal and its mate the Barracuda adze in action on that ascent in MOUNTAIN MAGAZINE at the time made me aware of the potential of the new tools on mixed.
I was climbing on both the Forest Lifetimes and the new Simond tools by the winter of '80 and '81.  No question  they upped my game on pure ice.  But it would be years before I would take full advantage of the technology on mixed with a Nomic.

Today? It is not the same sport. Gyms, bolts and most importantly tools that are designed for and able to take dry tooling and full body weight torques are the norm. Climbers are stronger and smarter. But the tools and what we accept as the ethical norm today allows us to pull on any wall. M5/M6 (5.9/5.10) is now a trivial M-grade in the mtns when you consider current technical standards. Modern leashless tools not only allow you to use the tool as a "sky hook" but correctly fitted, it is a TCU through a medium size cam, a good thin hand to full hand jam, and works as a decent nut to pull up on from 1/4" to over an inch, all usable for BOTH hands on one tool.

Raphael Slawinski said, "Dry tooling where a few years earlier climbers would have tried rock climbing and, failing that, resorted to aid, has also helped turn some alpine test pieces, like the Andromeda Strain, into trade routes. To some extent, a new generation of mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies is blurring the distinction between M- and alpine climbing."

"To some extent?" Raphael's article is 10 years old and already out of date. Just as ice climbing changed radically in the mid '70s mixed has as well in the first decade of this century.

More of Raphael Slawinski's original article:

And more on modern mixed:

A-Strain is now regularly done as "crag" climb, car to car @ M5/6 AI4 with great pro. This rating is from a recent winter ascent in terrible, dry conditions.

A-strain was originally rated as a V 5.9 A2 WI4, as a 2 day summer climb and state of the art in '83 after years of attempts.

Most of the great Canadian North faces have fallen to similar tactics, time and grade changes as techniques and tools changed.

We are all using the M-grades now for mixed. I think we should acknowledge that beyond a new grading system, somewhere along the line the mixed climbing game changed. My take is that change occurred the moment we had picks that you could torque in a crack with full body weight or do a stein pull on.

How about "REinvented hard mixed climbing"...simply 'cuz it aint anything like mixed climbing has been up until even just a few years ago.

Hooking and using tools while aid climbing on "M routes" is obviously the norm today, with the tools, boots and crampons all developed specifically for modern mixed climbing. In '81 it was seen as a desperate set of circumstances to get yourself out of a bad spot. There were few replaceable pic tools (Chacal and Forest Lifetime) then. None were 100% on ice, putting any of them on rock was a sure way to break a pick. Imagine using a fixed pick axe like the "Serac" in the same circumstances with no spare tools handy.

Great stuff but let's not try to pass it off as any type of climbing that was done as the norm in the past.

From John Bouchard of Wild Things among many things:

"When I did the Eiger in 1978 with Rick Sylvester, we took the wrong exit crack--I had to climb a rock wall to get out. Since it was snowing and cold, there was no question of taking mittens off. My recollection is that there were small in cut holds that begged for a tool placement. The downward angled blade of the Simond Chacal prototype I was using did not skid off the holds and the crampon front points felt more secure that boots. But of course, on the belay ledge, there was a rotting canvas backpack containing rotting wool mittens and 10 pt crampons whose leather straps were half decomposed. That fact may have influenced my thinking."

"As far as the dry tooling thing; my recollection is that it was something that occurred naturally. I never enjoyed short, hard routes characterized mostly by difficulty or unusual moves--I preferred longer climbs, in the late 1980's when Gerry Handren described dry tooling to me I thought it was something artificial. A
couple of years later, when Mark Richey and I finally did the a winter ascent of Girdle Traverse of Cannon Cliff we wore crampons for the entire route. The Black Dike finish to the route was remarkably tenuous because we had worn out front points down to stubs and our hand tool picks were round."

From Doug Klewin,
who in 1983 with Todd Bibler did the first complete ascent of the North Butress of Mount Hunter:

"I don't think I was quite able then to think "out of the box" and realize to full potential of standing on those little points and hooking the tools like sky hooks. I can remember top roping on the vertical pillars that formed on the road cut on Stevens Pass and with a top rope trying it out. Actual on climb experience is foggy for me. I'm thinking kept the crampons on when Todd  and I did Edith Cavell but no tools...pretty low angle. I also remember  doing a few moves of pretty step rock with the gear at the top to the gully (French route?) when I was on Hunter with Todd & Pat the first time."

From Jim Nelson,
who did among his many winter ascents also did an early ascent of the Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker:

I'll give this some more thought, but I don't think I've ever really done any true dry tooling. Rock only, with no ice. I think the dry tooling I've done has been on alpine climbs where it was mixed rock and ice, or snow over rock, thin ice, etc. A few climbs that come to mind are:

North Face of North Peak of Index. The pitch above the bowl leading to the ridge. Late 70's or early 80's I can't really remember. Before that, some climbs on Guye Peak and Chair Peak. Snow over rock type stuff, with very little if any ice.

A climb I did with Scott Fischer, East Face of the Tooth. 1st pitch not pure dry tooling, but mixed with very minimal ice. The last pitch started with steep rock with no ice. Scott started up the pitch, then backed off and I was able to lead it and pretty sure my tools on rock experience helped. I think Colin (Haley) repeated this climb with Dylan a few years ago. Early 80's, I think." 

From Mark Westman:
Known Alaskan technical pioneer:

"I remember the moment clearly- I was climbing Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak in the Cascades with Joe Puryear in the ancient days of February, 1995. I had only owned ice tools for about 11 months and had used them three-times- Liberty Ridge, Mount Baker's north ridge, and Chair Peak. We were total ice/mixed newbies and probably over our head, but thankfully we were luckier than good. Anyway, we had bypassed the second couloir due to thin ice (in retrospect I think it was fat...) and finished on the north face into the third couloir. There's a steep pitch of rock that gains the third couloir and I had charged headlong up into the rock without placing any protection. Since rock was easier than ice to me at the time, I avoided an ice strip that breached the rock in favor of some rock steps that appeared moderate from below, and then I did what I usually did in the early days and holstered my tools and started climbing the rock with my gloved hands. Before I knew it I had run myself out into a bad situation, far, far, above my gear and suddenly the rock got steep, blank, and not climbable for me- up OR down. The thick strip of ice I had deliberately avoided (after all, ice was scary..!) 20' off to my right suddenly looked great. How could I get over there? The only way was a near vertical traverse across a rock face that was not going to be possible in gloved hands. However, a pair of tiny rails/edges existed, one just big enough for the crampon points on my feet, the other just at eye level and just big enough for the tips of my picks. Using my two mismatched ice tools- one with a "classically" drooped pick- I negotiated this traverse without incident aside from seeing god (later I discovered that I was hallucinating, god is not real, jeez...). It was also the first time I experienced the thrill of sinking a solid tool into fat ice once I arrived at the strip. I don't know if that was an "epiphany" of any sorts but I'll never forget it. Not long after, the lingo "M-Climbing" became popular and I realized that, hey I had done that! :)

In all seriousness, I think a more teachable moment for me was a few years later when I actually went "drytooling" for the sake of it, at the crags in the Rockies. The lesson was that M-climbing made ice climbing seem SO much easier, and when I took the skills I learned at the crags to the Alaska Range, I suddenly looked at rock sections much differently. I remember Barry's (Blanchard's) report from the Infinite Spur mentioning that the "great drytooling" the rock afforded allowed them to only use their hands about 10% of the time on the rock. Joe and I climbed the route a year later in 2001 and afterwards we joked that we only used our ice tools on the rock about 10% of the time. After I spent the winter of 2003 living in Canmore and climbing nearly every day, including lots of mixed, I climbed the south ridge of Mount Hunter, and when on the rock sections, everything in my perception of how to climb it in winter conditions had changed.

1985...ha. I was a sophomore in high school and still 7 years away from tying into my first rope. The term drytooling in those days for me would have spawned predictable sophomoric humor..... "
From my perspective the real change came from the newest  tools of the late '70s and early '80s.  Dry tooling at least as we know it now was being done by a few/some/many at the forefront of the sport by 1985.  But it was not typically done style before 1977/1978.  And not a fully accepted style for another few years yet.   It seems the date and the tools are very specific once you start looking.  Both the then new Forrest Lifetime and the Simond Chacal which proceeded it by a season or two allowed a climber to break a pick and replace it as required.  The replaceable picks also allowed the metallurgy of the actual pick to make a big leap in durability. The Serac Saber might well have been the beginning because of the new manufacturing techniques used, cutting from flat plate first, forming and then heat treating.  No question is was a stronger pick than the hammer forged curve gear that came before it.

My own experience?  I distinctly remember climbing the last bit of mixed buttress and gully before breaking out onto the upper arete and snow field on Edith Cavell in crampons.  The rock crux I had done in double boots but somewhere, some how I had changed over again and was now back in crampons.  My feet on thin 65/70 degree ice.  Tools intentionally holstered (yes we actually had tool holsters bitd ;) to keep from damaging or breaking them on the rock if I had dared to swing one again.  But there were enough rocks protruding from the ice to offer balance and support.  Wool finger gloves provided all the protection I required.  They were shredded by the time I had climbed through the shale band, cut a small cornice and rolled on to the flat ridgeline just a few steps away from the summit cross.  That was true hard mixed for me in 1980.  I remember the terrain looking a lot like the picture taken on Dragontail almost 3 decades later.

Fast forward to 2008.  Dragonatail in this condition, early December, was the first time I actually used a monopoint crampon on rock and intentionally stuck an ice tool's pick (a Nomic) into rock over and over again and pulled up on it.   Old habits die hard.  But the climbing has gotten easier and more secure from my perspective.  Those same Nomics and their original picks,  a bit shorter of course, are still going strong.  After several more miles of rock climbing, the Darts I eventually sold as "worn out".  
Left to right: Lifetime, Chacal and a Terror.


Neilski said...

When I first started climbing ice in the early 90's I went on a trip to Glen Coe with my friend and his dad. My friend's dad had, in the 70's, worked as a machinist in a factory in Birmingham and as he couldn't afford the 'latest' kit he made his own Terrordactyls during his lunch hours. They were yellow; talk about a banana pick! He was still using them in the 90's when we were trying to find some ice on a warm weekend in march. Ah well, there was always the Clachaig Inn to console ourselves in.

Great article, keep up the good work. Always a pleasure to read. All the best, Neilski.

marcello said...

I think anything with ice tools or crampons back then was so open for, improvement, i guess. not like it was bad or wrong or stupid just very undefined. now its solidified a little more and we almost have it down, like rock climbing. Or maybe we don't really have it down and its still morphing into this thing we call "dry tooling". what do you think?

p.s.I love dry tooling or mixed climbing, so different!

Anonymous said...

Well i Remember preferring the outclassed Terrore scatto ti the more modern Chacal foto ethical reason only. Informazioni forum the fragile Ice of the Alps Winter waterfalls the Terror seemed to me a more fair way...cleaner, more Dangerous but more honest, Luke of a Hunter giving the game a chance ti son