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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Apprentice... aka ice skills again

"Apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a structured competency based set of skills."

Ice climbing is a subtle sport.  At first glance it would seem to be all strength and bravado.

It isn't.  Knowing the difference between a high volume flow and a low volume flow can not only save your life it might well tell you where the best line on the falls will be or tell you when to climb or not in a snow storm or bright sun light instead.

Having an "eye" to know where the quality of the ice changes and will most effect screw and tool placement is not something you can learn in a day's outing.  It is just a start.  Most will need seasons, or moving to Canmore to accumulate that education.

Pulling plastic has about as much to do with ice climbing as playing basket ball.  Both will get you in shape if done at a high enough level.  Neither skill will mean squat when you clip on a pair of crampons.

Ice climbing is also extremely gear DEPENDANT.  I have said many times any old club will do in place of a decent ice tool if your skills will.  That is true.  But miss match boots and crampons and having the ability to do a gazillion pull ups won't help you for long.

I know for a fact having good rock climbing and rope skills will make you a better ice climber.  For no other reason than it will allow you to manage the rope systems easier and quicker.  Basic rock climbing skills on how a rope runs or should run are required on ice just as they are on rock.

But being able to lead 5.12 trad  (and few really do) isn't going to help you much on ice if you have never placed a screw.   It is simple right up until the point it isn't.  Why anyone would ever put in a bad screw is beyond me.  Finding poorly placed screws while following simply dumbfounds me.   Either the leader is WAY in over his head or they are an idiot.    Take the time to learn how to put in perfect screws while on the GROUND.  Then never, ever put in a bad one.  Learn what it takes to accomplish that.  It aint rocket science but then it isn't all that easy either with out some practice.  Your first grade 4 pillar is NOT the place to be learning how to place screws.

Just as your first 5.10 hand crack isn't the place to learn how to place your first cam.  Hello!

I learned to climb ice with a couple of friends who had also....never climbed water fall ice.  The sport was new then.  The original screws and ice pitons seldom worked.    We learned together as the ice climbing standards became more difficult and the gear better.  We paid our own dues.  Luckily none were costly.  But they easily could have been.  I can still honestly stay I have not taken a lead fall on ice.  But only through the grace of God.

The skilled ice climbers I am lucky enough to climb with can all generally claim the same.  Only "modern mixed" has changed that.  Even then a smart man/woman will go to great extremes not to fall with a pair of crampons on.  You down climb.  You hang on the rope, your umbilicals or a screw.  You DO NOT fall off.  

Remember, "it is a all fun and games until someone loses and eye."  Fall off and it just may be your eye!

These days "ice climbers" seem to be born in a gym.  Falling is a way of life.

Don't get me wrong...nothing wrong with falling.  I have done my own share learning to lead well enough to put up trad .11s and 12s.  And there were a lot of falls involved both on a top rope and on lead.

You must learn how to DOWN climb.

Climbing up something you can't easily down climb is tantamount to swimming off shore and well out of sight of land.  Better to have a safety net.   A big one if you can't down climb easily and quickly what ever you climb up.   Sure you'll do leads that you can't easily reverse.  But they should be damn few and far between.  If you can lead grade 4 ice in comfort, you should be able to easily and quickly down climb grade 3 ice.  Grade 5 ice on lead then Grade 4 ice should be an easy down climb.

Picked out climbs make you lazy.  Make an effort to get on ice climbs that aren't just "sport ice" and totally picked out with foot steps and pick hooks up big sections of the climb. I like that kind of fun climbing myself, "hook and book".  But it is TERRIBLE for the techniques required to climb virgin ice.
Get on new ice when you can.  You might find Grade 3 ice is hard enough again to get your attention and still be really fun.

Following?  If you can't follow any ice pitch faster than your leader can run it REALLY NEED TO STOP AND ASSESS you own skill level.   Reality needs to meet ability.    Because one of two things is happening here.  You are either attempting to climb way out of your skill level or the leader has skills you are a long ways from attaining yet.  Nothing wrong with just makes a hard day (and possibly dangerous day) in the mountains for leader and follower if that difference isn't recognised and understood.   Just be honest with yourself and your partners.  Always push yourself on a top rope or as a 2nd to go faster and climb better.   You can bet that is how the other guy got that much better.

Danger?  Yes, ice climbing will get you killed if you aren't careful.  It aint the gym or the local cragging area.  Things go to shit quickly on ice and snow.   Lots of pointy things to poke holes in your own personal meat bag that can cause problems.  Lots of things falling down for one reason or the other.  Climbers at drastically differing skill levels put the responsibility (and the majority of the safety issues) on the more experience and generally faster climber. 

Leading?   Leading isn't a big deal.  Falling off and getting injured is.  Who do you think will have to haul your sorry ass off the mountain if you take a winger?  Better hope your partner is up to the task. 

No one has the "right" to lead. You earn that right through experience, patience and skill.  You may know how to clip on a pair of crampons.  But do you know how to actually fit them?  You can buy all the cool gear, read of the books or pump your instructors and partners for info but if you don't know how it works and most importantly UNDERSTAND the gear/info what good is it when the shit starts to fail?

And all of it will eventually fail, including your partner...

You better have a good plan.


If you want to climb in the alpine faster and climb more difficult water ice learn how to be confident soloing in your comfort level of technical skill.  In the right conditions WI3 should be casual.  The same bullet proof ice in the alpine might well take a belay, the rope and protection.  Know the difference. Learn how to simul climb and more importantly...when you should and should not simul climb.

Grades on ice and in the alpine mean very little.  Conditions generally mean everything.  Think condition, then the technical grade if it is a concern.

You don't yet know what you don't know.   Again, nothing wrong with that.  But time to open your eyes if you fall into that category and start paying more attention.  We all "fall" into that category in case you are still wondering.  Including me as well as everyone i climb with.    Work harder at going faster, being more aware of your own and your partner's skill set and over all safety.  Learn how to down climb among other things.  Up your rock climbing skills and over all climbing SPEED in the summer.   Better and faster belays, not just your pure climbing speed.    It will help your ice climbing and alpine climbing next winter.

Back to the Apprenticeship?

It is a system of  training the practitioner in a structured competency based set of skills.

To get good and stay safe ice climbing (or alpine climbing) you need to serve a Apprenticeship. 

Either get some good professional instruction or find a friend (or a long list of friends) who has/have the ability and desire to pass those skills on to you. 

I am still asking questions and learning every trip to the ice.  Are you?

Days are long past that I would suggest a few buddies teach themselves how to climb ice....if you want to stay safe while learning our craft.

This post has been called a rant.  Fair enough, but IMO more an impassioned plea.  But rather a rant to wake some up than stone silence and let them get hurt.


eddy ice said...

hey dane,

99% a whole-hearted 'hell yeah!' in agreement.

only contention is about pull ups: they do help, lots.
training is always the equal to gear. once you get those crampons properly fitted the training takes over - both on the ice of course, but also elsewhere for the 90% of time you cant be on the ice.

pull ups?
anyone who can do 15 pull ups almost undoubtably has a good condition over all.
its not about strength, its about integrity, focus and application.
its not all thats needed, but theres a lot to be gained from upper body strength, endurance and integration.

personally id rather older gear and better condition than the latest stuff and no condition.
i can buy the gear, but i have to develop the better condition, theres no short cut.

the good climber refines both i believe.

Ian said...

Dane, I'm stoked that you're out! Your pictures are of exactly where we're headed tomorrow, I'm bummed I missed you by a week.

By the way, fitness always helps never hurts. On the bright side gaining weight will be a positive for you.

Dane said...

Thanks Ian, Here is a link to a TR of sorts:

Dersu said...

Doing loads of pull ups certainly isn't hurting a guy like Markus Bendler and we all know, how good of an ice climber he is :).

Aaron said...

Hey Dane,

Thanks for the article. As a newbie trying to learn the trade, a lot of what you said ring true. It's easy to get in over your head and get into dangerous situations, and reading this is a good reminder for me to always keep things in perspective and to be honest with myself about my abilities. Always time to learn more and practice more.

Awesome pics and TR too. Looks like a great time and I'm glad you're getting back out there! Canmore looks amazing; I think I know where my next trip is going to be.

Dane said...

Seems everyone wants to fixate on pull ups. One can never been too light, too strong or too beautiful :)

But that said I'll take skill and technique any day over brute strength.

In the grand scheme of things how many pull ups you can do means little.

Brad said...


Great article - thanks. In the photo, looks like you're climbing in Stainless steel B.D. crampons. Interesting, given your recent posts....


Dane said...

Good catch Brad. I was testing a pair of the new Sabers. Note there are no botts on them so I can easily check every pitch for cracks. Climb was Professors. Easy to walk off every pitch if it is required.

I used them on one day of climbing out of 5 this trip. As the reports of failed stainless crampons keep coming in here @ CT. Just trying to get a feel for the extent of the problem myself without actually dying.

Rafal said...

Agree with Dane on the pull-ups, fitness is definitely not as important as technique and skill. Once you have those two, fitness will help you get further, but fitness without technique will probably get you killed.

Feet and body position are a lot more important than strength. Find a piece of hard ice and TR it endlessly. Climb with one tool, one crampon, no crampons, climb when injured, climb with extra weight, climb fast, climb slow. One day of doing random shit like that will teach you much, much more than miles of within-your-limits multi-pitch.

I would even venture a suggestion that, if you want to become good and comfortable on ice, and are within driving distance of Banff / Canmore, a weekend of TR on Tokkum Pole (30-35m of WI5/6 that's 10 minutes from the road, you should be able to run 6 laps on it in a day) will teach you more than a whole week of climbing the classics (WW, Cascade, Professors, etc.)

As far as the apprenticeship, I whole-heartedly agree - there's nothing quite like learning from those with more experience. I started ice climbing with someone with 10 years of experience and a solid WI6 leader. Within a few months, I was leading WI5/6 myself, mostly due to the consistent and frequent exposure to ice at that grade (though I do live in Canmore...) Now I find that even one day of proper alpine-mixed with really good climbers teaches me more than I could ever learn by trying to advance myself at a crag.

Get out there lots, practice often, know your limits, climb with someone who'll allow you to push your limits. Keep in mind that an epic day climbing big lines isn't always the best way to progress.

Gear:30 said...

My two cents:
I totally agree that fitness is vital in the mountains. However, last year I could do 15-20 pull ups on any given day. This year, 10; 15 on a really good day. Yet, this year I am COMFORTABLY leading ice that is a grade harder than I was TRing last year. This year I have been TRing a lot to work strictly on technique and really learn to understand the intricacies of ice. My technique is far better this year than last and it has improved my ice climbing immensely. So, I agree, technique trumps fitness.

Anonymous said...


Dane said...

Looking for a copywriting job per chance?

Unknown said...

Hi Dane,
great post, thanks. I've just started ice climbing and am very much in a learning stage. Your post helps in reminding what is important.
Would ik be ok if I re-post it (with credits, off course) on my blog?

David said...

I am by no means up to the level that probably a lot of people are that read your blog, so take it for what is worth, but I totally agree with your comments on the importance of down climbing. Ironically, my one experience with extended downclimbing (Chair Peak) probably taught me more about ice technique and increased my confidence than any number of laps top roped that I have done.

Dane said...

Sieto van der Heide?

Of course. Thanks for asking.

PurpleJesus1994 said...

Been lurking for quite some time. Joined a week or two ago?

How do you like the Beal 7.7's in the pics of you climbing this last week?

Dane said...

Thanks Purple! The Beal Ice Twins?

My third set. I love them for any type of ice and/or long walks.

Anonymous said...

First off, thank you for the time you put into this blog. I find the information is always helpful. At the very least, your reviews help me to think more critically what I expect out of gear and what best suits my needs.

Second, I seem to recall you were planning to do another ice ax review in February or so. Is that still in the works, or was it not able to come to fruition?

Ian said...

I just got back from Canmore on Monday and I have to say, I flailed my ass off. Avi danger was very high when I was there so we did mostly ice crag instead of the iconic stuff which was probably best. I'm planning a trip next year but I am going to head to Ouray first.