Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cold Case: Ice Gear 101

The biggest barrier to ice climbing is getting the gear. Well that, and seasonal weather patterns. (Winter is coming!) As with any sport, If you don't have the right gear you will get less from the experience. The specific gear you need is dictated by your specific type of activity. Ice climbing is a broad term that covers a wide range of adventure. On one end of the spectrum you have Alpine Mountaineering, attaining large summits by tackling glaciers and snowfields. On the other end you have Technical Ice, scaling actual walls of ice that can be vertical or even overhanging. Depending on your objective, your needs can be more alpine, more technical, or a mix. Either way you should know what gear serves what purpose so that you are best prepared for your objective. Below is a very basic run down of the types of ice gear that you might find and a brief description of their uses. For pictures you can follow along with this slideshow that I created when giving this presentation to the MN Rovers.

Boots: Hard Shell vs Soft Shell
Hard shell boots offer more support than soft shell boots. This can be an advantage because it can create a stronger connection to your crampons.  The double-layer design also can keep you a bit warmer than certain soft shell, single-layer boots. They are heavy though and can be clumsy to work with. Soft shell boots have become much more popular over the last few years because of their overall comfort and flexibility. They are lighter weight and ideal for technical ice climbing. The also look cooler.

For more info on boot and crampon selection, check out this Rock and Ice article.

Crampons: Three Variables
Points- Glacier vs Technical- Glacier crampons are identified by their flat, downward curving points. they are more flexible because they are designed for hiking long distances They have non replaceable points and are usually the ones you get when you rent crampons from a local outfitter. They work for technical ice but technical crampons work much better. They have points like ice tools so they penetrate ice for better foot placements. They have replaceable tips and are usually stiffer for better boot connection.

Connections- Step in vs Strap on- Step in crampons require a special boot with a ledge of hard rubber on the front and back so that the "bail"(hard metal wire), has something to lock into. This operates a lot like a ski boot: step in and snap the binding shut.  More modern designs of crampons are using a strap on system using a rubber strap on the toes to secure the boot to the crampon. This works with more styles of boots but arguably gives a softer, less effective connection.

Configuration-Dual vs Mono- Like camels, some crampons have one point,some have two. Dual point is the more common configuration for beginners. It gives the climber more stability when it comes to ankle rotation. Mono point is the single point configuration. It offers more flexibility and rotation on the toe of the crampon and also deeper penetration as the kicking force is not split between two points. This is often used by dry toolers as the pick on the crampon can fit in the same places as the tool pick does.

For more info on crampon selection, REI did a nice job putting this article together.

Tools: Mountaineering vs Technical
Mountaineering tools are designed for stabilization, self arrest, and anchoring on the vast glaciers and slopes of bigger mountains. They are not designed for vertical ice. The long shaft makes for a slow swing and the straight handle would be incredibly difficult to hold on to with a downward pull. As climbers have pushed into more technical routes, tools have become shorter, lighter, and more aggressive. A technical tool has a curved shaft and ergonomic handle to make swinging and hanging on easier. While they are not the workhorse tools that mountaineering tools can be, they are specifically designed for speed and accuracy when swinging. Leashes were introduced to help climbers keep a grip on these shorter tools, but as handle design improved, technical ice climbers have cast off their leashes for the improved maneuverability that leashless climbing offers.

Outdoor Gear Lab put together a nice buying guide for mountaineering tools and Rock and Ice has review page for more technical tools.

Extra: T and B Rating?
Both picks and shafts have a circled T or a B rating stamped right on it. What does it mean? The B stand for Basic which means it can withstand less force than a shaft or pick with a T (Technical) rating. So is the T rating better to have? I actually prefer B rated picks for ice because they are thinner an give better ice penetration than T picks. But when I am dry tooling, I would go for a T pick every time. The forces exerted on a pick why dry tooling are intense and I can feel my B picks flexing in ways that make me uncomfortable. This is a nice summary of the B and T pick dilemma.

Which gear is the best to get? Just choose the right tool for the right objective.

Climb Smart MN is a grassroots approach to climbing education based on community and charitable giving. For information on donation based climbing lessons visit ClimbSmartMN and follow us on Facebook. With over ten years of climbing instruction, coaching, and guiding experience,  Chris Hesselbein strives to better the climbing community through personalized technique and safety education.

Cold Case: N00B Tips for Ice Climbing

When I first started ice climbing I thought I would NEVER go ice climbing. Why would anyone want to hack away at a wall of ice in freezing cold weather? That did not sound like a good time at all. It sounded like a lot of work in uncomfortable conditions. The next season, a guide I was working with twisted my arm and had me come along to set up anchors and manage clients. At least I was getting paid to be cold.  When the clients were exhausted they put me on the rope. Turns out, it WAS a lot of work and I was in fact cold.  So, no surprises there.  What I didn't expect was the fantastic pump and the increased level of challenge I encountered on the wall.  So, I did what any reasonable climber would do. I bought all the gear right away.

Even though I very much enjoyed the experience there are a few things that I wish I would have known at the time. Here are some very obvious but important tips for getting the most out of your first time ice climbing.

1. Ice is actually water in disguise!
Ice climbing can be remarkably damp. If you are climbing a live flow during the day you are almost guaranteed to get wet. It sneaks up on you. Just a little bit here and there starts to add up. If your clothes get wet, you will not get dry. If you are not dry, you WILL get cold. If you get cold, you will not be happy. If you are not happy, you will not have as much fun. If you are not having fun, you will not get invited to the bar afterwards. So, stay dry if you want to party with townies. Wear as many layers as you need to stay warm, but the outermost layer needs to be waterproof, especially your gloves.

2. You are actually thirsty!
Winter outdoor activities dehydrate you quickly without you noticing. You don't feel hot so you don't want to drink water. After a while you may start to feel tired, woozy, or not quite with it. That is exactly where mistakes start to happen. Go for your Nalgene. What's that you say? It's frozen? Oh. I didn't see that coming... How about bringing a heat source or an insulated bottle so that your only source of life giving water doesn't turn into the most boring popsicle ever? Food also freezes! *Pro tip: Drive around for 20 minutes to defrost bagels on your dashboard!

3. Ice explodes!
Hitting a frozen substance with a metal pick right next to your face is a terrible idea. It tends to explode. Wear eye protection. Just do it. It doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be there. Grab your favorite shop glasses, snorkeling goggles, or welding mask and get to work. Actually I prefer sunglasses on a sunny day for protection from both ice shards and reflective glare. On cloudy days, a good pair of clear racquetball goggles does the trick.  Also,  if you have any composure on the wall, aim for the concave (indented) areas in the ice. Convex(bulging out) ice formations will almost certainly blow up in your face

4. Just come down!
I know you really want to get to the top because it would make you win climbing. But there is a very good chance that on your first time you may not get there. Falling is very common and I wholeheartedly encourage people to get back on that wall and push their limits. However, beginners have a tendency to hang on the rope for a long time, not knowing that they are actually spent. Your best chance of sending a route is when you are warm and well rested. With each attempt your pump builds on the pump that was there before. Every minute you are on the wall, your hands are getting colder. Push your limits but know that you have a much better chance of succeeding if you come down, warm up, and rest.

5. Your rental gear sucks!
Ever rent any gear from anywhere? Chances are it sucks. The edges aren't sharp. It doesn't fit well. It might not even be the exact gear you need for the situation. But how would you know? My first time on ice was with mountaineering crampons and straight-leashed tools. There is very specialized gear for different types of climbing. You can read all about it in my post "Ice Gear 101" At least go into it knowing that the gear you are renting may be making this much more difficult than it should be. Don;t let crappy gear make you feel unsuccessful.  I encourage you to learn about the correct gear for you to rent and also to borrow good gear from friends to see what works the best for you.  It is a poor carpenter who blames his tools...but c'mon! have you seen these lousy crampons?

Climb Smart MN is a grassroots approach to climbing education based on community and charitable giving. For information on donation based climbing lessons visit ClimbSmartMN and follow us on Facebook. With over ten years of climbing instruction, coaching, and guiding experience,  Chris Hesselbein strives to better the climbing community through personalized technique and safety education.