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Roped Climbing: Protection On Ice

By Don Graydon.

Modern ice screws offer dependable security on ice climbs. However, there is some sacrifice of safety in the time and energy it takes to put them in place. Leaders, therefore, commonly place fewer points of protection in a rope length on ice than they would in a rock pitch of the same length. Ice climbers also make some use of natural protection.

Natural Protection

Ready-made natural protection is hard to come by on an alpine ice route. Good natural protection may be available not on the ice itself but in rock bordering the route or protruding through the ice.

Natural protection is often found on frozen waterfalls, where runners can be placed around ice columns.

Climbers also devise some slightly unconventional protection points. On frozen waterfalls or high alpine routes, where large ice columns may form only an inch or two apart, an ice screw tied off with webbing can be inserted behind the columns and turned sideways as a deadman. You may find a sheet of ice separated from the underlying rock by an inch or two, leaving a slit that can be enlarged enough to insert a screw tied off with webbing; again, turn the screw sideways to function as a deadman. You can also punch two holes in the sheet of ice, thread a runner through them, and clip the rope into it. On mixed rock and ice climbs, rock-climbing chocks may be wedged into ice holes.

Ice Screws

A favorable location for an ice-screw placement is the same as for an ice tool. A good choice is a natural depression, where fracture lines caused by the screw are not as likely to reach the surface. Generally keep screw placements at least 2 feet apart?more in rotten ice?to reduce chances that fracture lines from one placement could reach the other, weakening both.

Placing an Ice Screw

  1. Punch out a small starting hole with the pick or spike of a hand tool, to give a good grip for the starting threads or teeth of the screw.
  2. Start the screw in the hole, angled uphill 10 degrees against the anticipated direction of pull. The eye of the screw must face in the direction of the anticipated pull.
  3. Twist the screw all the way until the eye is against the ice, tight and solid.
  4. Clip a carabiner into the eye, with the carabiner gate down and out.
Energy-Saving Tips

Climbing extremely steep ice is fatiguing, physically and mentally. To conserve energy and keep moving upward efficiently, climbers work to minimize the number of screw placements. If the ice is hard and solid, or the slope not extremely steep, only one or two protection points may be placed on an entire pitch. Unless the ice is rotten, only one screw is placed at each protection point.

It usually takes two hands to place an ice screw, exacting business on extremely steep, exposed ice. For extra support, you can slip one arm through the wrist loop of a solidly planted hand tool. Or clip a runner from your seat harness to one or two securely placed hand tools.

On a moderate to steep slope, it may help to chop a step for standing in as you place the screw. On extremely steep ice, however, it?s too difficult a job, so save your energy. When it?s time to place an ice screw, do it from your front points, and then continue climbing.

After a screw is removed, ice inside the core must be cleaned out immediately or it may freeze to the interior, making the screw temporarily useless. The interior of some screws is slightly conical, permitting easier ice removal. If ice freezes to the inside, push it out with a smaller-diameter screw, your pick, or a length of stiff wire. You can also try to melt the ice with your breath or with the warmth of your hand as it holds the screw.

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