Roped Climbing: Belaying On Ice

By Don Graydon.

As in other forms of roped climbing, ice climbers have the options of using running belays or fixed belays. They also have the use of boot/ice-screw belay techniques.
Running Belays

Ice climbers can get a measure of protection that is somewhere between climbing on belay and climbing unroped by setting up a running belay. It?s another way for a team to move faster when storms or avalanches threaten and, more than ever, speed is safety. It can also be useful on gentle to moderate terrain where danger of falling is minimal and actual belays would be too time-consuming.

A running belay on ice is created very much the same as a running belay on rock or snow.

  • Members of the team, usually just two climbers, move simultaneously.
  • The leader places protection as they climb and clips the rope through it; the follower removes the protection.
  • The idea is to keep at least two points of protection between them at all times to hold the rope in case of a fall.
  • The protection is usually spaced so that as the leader makes each new placement, the follower is removing the bottom one.
Because the technique of running belays sacrifices much of the safety of true belaying, the decision to use it takes fine judgment, based on extensive experience.
Fixed Belays

Fixed belaying on ice requires a belayer, belay anchor, and intermediate points of protection, just as it does on snow or rock. A belay anchor is set up and the leader climbs the pitch on belay, sets up another anchor, and then belays the follower up the route. The climbers can either swing leads or have a single climber continue as the leader.

Belay Anchor

A standard anchor set-up for an ice belay takes two ice screws. (The ice bollard or the Abalakov V-thread also can serve as a belay anchor, but they are more time-consuming to set up and therefore are used primarily for rappelling.)

  1. Place the first screw in the ice in front of you, a bit to one side, at about waist to chest level. Clip in a carabiner and tie into it with the climbing rope as it comes from your seat harness. Use a clove hitch or figure-8 knot.
  2. Unclip from the hand tool that was placed as a temporary anchor and replant that tool above and to the outside of the ice screw. Clip the tool to the screw (via the wrist leash or a runner) as a backup to the anchor. Then tell your belayer down below that you are off belay.
  3. Now you can place the second ice screw. Put it above you and about 2 or 3 feet higher than the first one and off to the opposite side. Extend the climbing rope from the first screw to the second screw and tie in with a clove hitch. There should be little or no slack between the two screws. This completes the anchor set-up.

Belay Methods

You have the choice of using a mechanical belay device, a Munter hitch, or a hip belay. The anchor set-up is the same in any case. Your choice will probably depend on what you?re accustomed to and on your degree of confidence in the anchor.

  • The hip belay tends to be somewhat dynamic, with a bit of movement at the belay?resulting in a slower stop to a fall but less force on the anchor and intermediate protection points.
  • Belay devices and the Munter hitch, on the other hand, tend to be less dynamic, stopping a fall faster but putting more force on the anchor and intermediate protection points.

Boot/Ice-Screw Belay

For flat or gentle ice slopes, the boot/ice-screw belay is very useful.

  1. Start by twisting an ice screw into place, and then clip in a carabiner and run the belay rope through the carabiner.
  2. Plant your uphill boot over the screw, perpendicular to the direction of pull. Place the boot so that the inside point of your midboot row of crampons goes through the carabiner. Don?t jab the rope.
  3. Bring the belay end of the rope over your instep, around the back of your boot ankle, and into your uphill hand.
You control friction on the rope by the amount of wrap on the ankle, much as in a boot-ax belay. You can also adjust the space between the edge of the boot and the outside edge of the carabiner. If the climber falls, slowly tighten the rope low against the ankle with your uphill hand.

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