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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Time Warp and Ice Gear"

I wrote this back on 2/20/08 on our local climbing forum.  That winter was the first year I climbed with a pair of Nomics.  Not much has changed in the last 5 years that I can tell really.  Head lamps have gotten better.  Boots marginally so but nothing earth shaking.  Clothes have gotten warmer and lighter.  But some of this seemed like a real revelation 5 years ago.  Umbilicals and leashless tools are common now.  They weren't well received by all 5 years ago.  Most of all I am just  glad I finally got off the couch again!  It has been a fun ride.

Hopefully beginner and intermediate ice climbers and aspiring technical climbers in an alpine environment will find the info and opinions to follow helpful. Nothing new here. Twight and Gadd cover it all much better in their respective books. The two books compliment each other. Buy them. Twight’s “Extreme Alpinism” has the best coverage of the details. His book is the “required read”. Gadd takes up the technical discussion from where Twight ended. I’ve reread both in the last month several times and gleaned other's suggestions for the Internet to try out. Gear choices are constantly being out dated. Good gear makes climbing easier...and safer.

I have little time for the guys who have opinions but have yet to have btdt. So a little back ground, and still enough ego to share an opinion. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I was fortunate enough to climb a few routes that are still considered worthy accomplishments. In no special order, the 2nd ascent of Slipstream, mid January, in 7hrs with a car to car time of 14 hr. r/t and a walk down the Athabasca. An early one day ascent of Polar Circus with 3 more ascents of the route by 1982. 2nd solo of the Becky route on Edith Cavell taking a direct line up the climb from the car door, 7hrs from lacing up my boots to the summit cross down climbing the East Ridge and back for lunch. A new route on N face of Temple. The 2nd ascent of Super Couloir on Deltaform, in a storm, via the original finish. Other water fall routes like Upper weeping wall (twice), Pilsner, Carlsberg (a couple of times), Takakkaw, Borgeau LF, among many.

So nothing horrendous even by the standards 20 years ago and light years behind stuff being done today. But climbs many guys are still aspiring to as they gain confidence and skill today.

By ’85 I wasn’t really climbing much ice. I was doing a lot of trad climbing up to .12b. Sport routes held little interest for me. I found other hobbies and work too committing. Climbing began to take a back seat after living that life style for 20 years. At some point I realized I wasn’t climbing at all. Not climbing rock, ice or mountains! That went on for too many years.

Then in Jan '08, a full 20 years later, I'm was dragged into Canada for ice, cold turkey, off the couch.

Past 50 years old (trust me that sounds older to me than it does to you) I at least have the means to generally buy what ever I wanted for gear. Yes, time will even solve the major problem of most every dirt bag climber \:\), even this one.

I bought into the Schoeller revolution. I had a pair of stretch European salopettes from the '80s that I last guided and heli skied in so I knew that was the right track. Bought the Arcteryx soft shell MX top and bottoms in several weights. More on that later. Also bought a new set of tools, a buddy gave me a set of newer crampons (more later on the subject as well) and off I went.  Fat, dumb and if not happy at least excited to be climbing ice again.

Avalanche conditions in Canada this winter could hardly be worse. We started off on Louise. It is cold, I mean –30C cold. I have fewer clothes on than I have ever climbed in. I have the lightest gloves on I have ever used for winter ice and the most flexible ankles in lwt boots that I could image. I hate that damn pillar no matter how many times I have climbed it (over a dozen). But with this gear Louise’s pillar is the easiest I ever seen it.

The next 14 days of ice and mixed climbing were a real education thanks to my many old and new partners and mentors willing to put up with me.

OK, here are “MY” opinions. Not every one will share them. Remember everyone has one and you too are welcome to yours here.

After a full two weeks of climbing in everything from a pissing down NW rain, a snow storm dropping 6” in an hr, and down to –30C with hallowing wind I can say hard shell clothing is obsolete for technical climbing short of some really horrendous conditions I can’t actually image being out in. And with 7 trips to the Alaska Range I can image some pretty shitting conditions. My suggestion? Buy the lightest weight, most stretchy garments and learn to climb in what Twight calls his “action suit”. If it aint got a hood that will go over a helmet easily don’t buy it.

Only caveat to that is your base layer. You might want to think about putting some wool next to your body and a light synthetic layer/s over it. Add hoods that will go under and over your a helmet. The “R” series Patagonia hoody or the really simple Nike hoody (which I like even better for cold weather) works well. Thumb loops on the sleeves have been around 30 years at least and are really cool features in cold weather BTW.

Always take a few pair in the pack or pocket. At least one pair specifically for when it gets really cold from a change in weather, your exhaustion or a long, cold belay. Depending on the climb I will use a thick glove or a mitten. You'll want to error on the side of caution when choosing the “big” glove. You don’t want to pull out the ‘big ‘uns” and find you still are not warm enough and screwed. Heat packs are a good option to carry as well. Remember hydration and calorie intake are as important or more so than big gloves and a belay jacket. I’m using a really light glove made by Mountain Hardware, the “Epic”. REI has the same glove just a bit less durable. Go light…you’ll be amazed. Carry spares to stay dry as required. I’ve only pulled my “big” gloves once this season. But I have gone through up to three sets of the lighter gloves to keep my hands dry. The light gloves aren’t very durable. Leather rappel gloves are a good idea and work well on some hard mixed depending on temps.

Hats? Headbands under the helmet regulate heat better with helmet and layers of hoods than a hat will. The band will also add to your warmth if pulled down to your neckline and nothing to drop. I no longer carry a hat. But I pull on or off any one the layers of hoods over my helmet at belays or while climbing. Try that with a hat while climbing a hard pitch!

Leashes? This ought to get some comments. You’d have to be an a complete, uneducated knob to climb with a leash on a modern tool. No ifs on that one. The human form and the tools are finally a synergistic extension of the mind while climbing. Ice climbing at any level is simpler, warmer and EASIER leashless. Hard to believe but that will make even hard grade 5 ice more secure.

Several of my buddies disagree some with my conclusions and they know the differences, tells me I only came to my conclusions because I haven't climbed ice in 10 years so the change was easier for me. Remember I am an old guy, and trust me if leashless wasn't faster, easier and warmer I would NOT be doing it. I don't give a shit about appearances, I just want to get up the climb as fast with the least amount of effort as possible. Leashless is a big part of both.

Umbilicals? For what the mind can’t control? If you are less than 70m from the ground climb leashless and forget the umbilical. If you are higher than 70m put an umbilical on the damn thing. Nothing worse than sending your 2nd  your spare tool or climbing a hard pitch with one tool or being forced to jug or worst of all rap. Trust me, an umbilical is better than wrecking a good relationship or worse yet an expensive trip.

I now flatly refuse to climb with anyone that hasn’t got their tool tied on to something. My time and experience is just too valuable to me to waste it on a tool getting knocked off at a belay or dropped for what ever reason, including me knocking it off by accident. How about leaving a tool at a v thread on the rap.    That has happened more than once to even some very experienced climbers.    Umbilicals use to be seen as a sign of incompetence.   Now I see there lack as a sign of ignorance on anything past a short sport route. Before you start rolling your eyes...take a look at what the "big boys" are doing these days on alpine routes. Makes me think that passing 4 tools around between 3 guys (after dropping two leashless tools) on one of the bigger/harder alpine routes made a broad impression.

I've already had to rap 2000' after a partner dropped a tool on a hard alpine route in perfect weather. Lost a perfectly good alpine rack as well in that experience. Not excited to repeat that costly adventure.

Boots? Fruit boot technology is catching up to the Mtn. boot technology. You’ll climb different in them but you’ll also climb better. Ice becomes more like rock climbing in the soft ankle boots. Haven’t found one I want to send 1000m of hard 55% alpine ice in but it is entertaining trying to figure out how to rest the calves with French technique at every opportunity. More time in soft boots will likely encourage me to take them on endurance alpine ice.

Now we have both warm boots and soft ankle boots that have a rigid sole for even my size 12 feet. They can be amazing. Check out the usual suspects to see what fits you. I like the Batura for cold stuff close to the road (they are hard to dry out) and the Spantik for anything over a day out. There are much lighter boots I could be climbing in. We’ve only just seen the beginning to the newest boot technology. In the future look for a dbl. layered fruit boot that is warm enough for Denali which you’ll actually want to use for that M10 at your local crag.

Tools/crampons? Any of the newest tools from Grivel, BD or Petzel works better that anything from even a few years ago. BD seems to have the biggest issue breaking picks. Grivel has the solid reputation of bomb proof and no one can question how well they climb. Petzl stuff is not cheap but climbs very well and is very durable as well. The other brands at the moment are simply "hangers on". If you aspire to climb hard forget anything that doesn’t have good leashless support.

Mono points? If you want to do hard mixed it is the only game in town. Not impossible to climb hard with dual front points but why bother with the extra effort? Same with fruit boots. You don’t intentionally climb hard rock in big boots. Why would you do hard mixed in them? You need to take the time to fit any crampon perfectly. Then take the first few days you climb in them and fine tune the fit. Dropping a tool sucks. Dropping a crampon can easily get you DEAD.

Ice screws? If you aren’t currently climbing with the newest generation of Grivel screws, specifically the Helix, you are wasting energy. I’ve tried EVERY new screw design currently on the market, in almost every snow and ice condition you can think of. With all due respect and with no hype, no bs, there is no other manufacture even close to Grivel's current production. The Grivel screws are as revolutionary to ice climbing as Jardine's Friends were 30 years ago. Big statement I know. But placing good gear, easily, where you want it instead of were you could makes climbing much, much easier and a lot safer.

Add some quick draws, and a few slings made to absorb the load and pretty much set. The lwt wire gate biners hold everything together and don't easily freeze. Plate or “guide” belay devices that will allow you to belay off the anchors with a documented catch on a 400’ fall (yes FOUR hundred feet) will take the rest of the load.

My rack? Helix mostly and only one 22mm screws. With the newest test results I have switched to a lot of 13cm shorties. The Helix stack on a carbiner just fine. Buy the big plastic racking biners from BD or Petzel. They work even better for racking screws and axes.

Headlamps? I spent the last week intentionally climbing many of the 30 or so 60m pitches in the dead of night with a headlamp. I have the high tech rechargeable BD and a cheap 3 AAA Petzel. I prefer to climb with the Petzel as the softer light is easier on my eyes. The BD on the bright halogen setting was good for scoping out the ropes on free hanging 50m raps and complicated route finding. But the Petzel was tiny to carry (unnoticed) and more than enough to get down anything and good enough to get me up anything I can climb.

I am leading at the same level of difficulty on ice now, as I was 25 years ago. You have no idea how unrealistic that really should be. All the while with less effort, while being safer. The main reason, the Grivel Helix. The rest of the stuff mentioned just adds to a more enjoyable and fun experience. Gear will always change over time so stay up on it if you want to keep up.

Spend your money wisely. Thirty year old designs got me up some decent climbs back in the day. The new stuff, if you buy wisely, makes those same climbs much, much easier. That only makes the next level of difficulty much easier to reach. Stay safe and hopefully I’ll see ya out there! I'm the old guy with white hair, and funny tweetie bird boots, stop by and say "hi".
Edited by Dane (02/20/08 6:34 PM)

Interesting comments on the original thread:

Happy holidays to all!  And thanks for reading Cold Thistle..


nick said...

Which REI glove are you referring to? Also, which Nike hooded top?

James said...

Thanks, Dane! Merry Christmas to you, too!

Dane said...

Hi Guys! No clue on the Nike garment. I bought it at the local outlet store. Just a thin really simple running hoody. Gloves? The REI Minimalist and the Spring and Fall goves look good as well. The Fly Low is another inexpensive glove I am going to use when the ice is dry.

mitochondria100 said...

I really liked how Dane's Grivel Helix screws bite on steeper ice, although they rack differently from what I was used to with the BD Express. Also, I did not re-lead the same pitches on the BD Express to make a definite side by side comparison. Quality of ice might be an important factor here too with one example as of last month being it took me 10 min to place one BD Express in the marginal ice which understandably is a disaster.