Techniques: Climbing with Crampons

By Don Graydon.

Ice climbers usually employ features of 2 basic techniques, depending on steepness of the slope, conditions of the ice, and their ability and confidence level. They are known as the French and German techniques. Although each technique has its own distinct benefits, modern ice climbing melds the two. Mastery of both French and German technique is essential for climbing in the changeable alpine environment.
French Technique (Flat-Footing)

French technique is the easiest and most efficient method of climbing gentle to steep ice and hard snow?once you learn how to do it. Good French technique demands balance, rhythm, and the confident use of crampons and ax.

German Technique (Front-Pointing)

Developed by the Germans and Austrians for climbing the harder snow and ice of the eastern Alps, front-pointing can take an experienced ice climber up the steepest and most difficult ice slopes. With this technique, even average climbers can quickly overcome sections that would be difficult or impossible with French technique.

Front-pointing, in contrast to the choreography of flat-footing, is straightforward and uncomplicated. The technique is much like step-kicking straight up a snow slope, but instead of kicking your boot into the snow, you kick your front crampon points into the ice and step directly up on them. Just as in French technique, good front-pointing is rhythmic and balanced, with the weight of your body over the crampons. Efficiency of movement is essential, whether it?s planting your front points, placing your hand tools, or moving on the ice.

Modern Technique

Modern crampon technique evolved from the French and German styles. As on rock, climbing on ice involves the efficient and confident use of footwork to maintain balance and minimize fatigue. Flat-footing is generally used on lower-angle slopes and where point penetration is easy; front-pointing is most common on slopes steeper than 45 degrees and on very hard ice. In practice, most climbers blend them into a combination approach, sometimes called the American technique.

In any technique, the most important element is confident use of the crampons. Practicing on gentle and moderate slopes helps develop skill, confidence, and the aggressive approach needed at steeper angles.

A skilled ice climber, whether flat-footing or front-pointing, displays the same deliberate movement as a skilled rock climber on a difficult slab. The crampon points must be carefully and deliberately placed on the ice, the weight transferred from one foot to the other smoothly and decisively. Boldness is essential to skillful cramponing. Exposure must be disregarded and concentration focused solely on the climbing. But boldness is not blind bravado. It is confidence and skill born of time and enthusiasm, nurtured in many practice sessions on glacial seracs and on ice bulges in frozen gullies, and matured by ascents of increasing length and difficulty.

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