Like many winter climbers I look forward to the winter season with keen anticipation. I’ll spend hours pondering where the ice will form on “the Ben” this year, and sketch out many a potential trip in my head. But in reality such well made plans tend to fall apart, and the best approach is to remain flexible right up until the last minute. And this means climbing any terrain available; ice, frozen turf and snowed up rock. So just what tools do you need for the job?
Choose your weapons
The popularity of winter climbing in the UK and abroad has resulted in equipment manufacturers striving to make the best tools possible. This is good news - it’s left us with a startling array of technical tools to choose from. For hill walking and mountaineering routes up to grade I/II, a single traditional straight-shafted axe is likely to be more than adequate. But if you’re keen to push up the grades a little, then a matched pair of technical tools is the way to go. Technical tools generally consist of an inclined pick, an adze for chopping and cutting, or a hammer head for placing pegs and ice and turf protection. And with the extra stability afforded by two tools, climbing steeper pitches will feel much more secure and a lot less harrowing.
The old adage of “If it’s sharp and pointed it’ll do” sadly doesn’t quite ring true anymore. Most manufacturers make a number of picks for their tools, with the choice being driven by their intended use. For Scottish winter climbing and alpine mountaineering it’s best to make sure that you have ‘T’ rated picks, which can take much more abuse in comparison to their ‘B’ rated counterparts, these being better suited to continental style cascade climbing.
Adze or hammer?
Most climbers choose to have one axe with an adze and the second with a hammer head. The adze will allow you to chop away ice and crucially clear away snow to find that all-important protection. Having done this, a decent sized hammer will help to gently persuade in large wires, hexes, warthogs and pegs. Phew.
Technical tools are now arriving with more and more wildly curved shafts, combined with grip rests and trigger bars etc. These are great for steep ice, but can be a bit of a hindrance when you are trying to torque the axe in a confined Cairngorm chimney. For those who love tinkering, these can usually be retro-fitted or removed, making tools like the Grivel Taakoon a good bet if you’re choosing a tool for the years to come.
You’ll usually want to be connected to your tool somehow. This will take the strain from your forearms and help prevent you from dropping your expensive new toys. Most people choose to use a leash for this purpose, removing their hand to place protection. Examples of these are the Black Diamond lockdown leash and similar designs by DMM and Grivel. Many people have recently tried to escape this “faff management” by climbing leashless. The leashless ethic will no doubt catch on, so it might be worth thinking ahead and purchasing a full specification tool that you can modify later. Definitely experiment in a controlled situation first - climbing well within your grade. Half way up Mega Route X is not the place to find out that you really want your leashes back. On steep ice clipper leashes are a good compromise, and allow protection to be placed quickly by unclipping from a tool. But the bottom line is that loads of practice will make the whole process a lot smoother - whatever system you choose.
Pick a tool for you
Personal preferences are important. What feels good to your mate isn’t necessarily going to satisfy you. When choosing a tool go to an understanding shop and swing your tool around, holding the base of the shaft as you would on a route. Ultimately, what feels right is a function of the size of your hands, your grip, and forearm strength. So if you get the chance to try before you buy, then so much the better.
What about crampons?
Again, there is a huge range to choose from. Basic level crampons are either rigid or articulated, and the former will vibrate less when used, but are generally less versatile if you want one pair for all situations. In that case, you’d be better off with a pair of articulated crampons. Then you have to choose between mono-points or two front points. A lot of ice and mixed climbers swear by their mono-points, as they find it gives them greater sensitivity. There is no one answer, but have a clear idea about what style of climbing you’re going to do and then decide. Whatever you decide, it’s crucial that they fit your boots well, so choose your boots first and take it from there.
Keep ‘em honed
Remember that whatever type of ground you’re intending to climb, keep those picks sharp, a blunt mallet is only useful for hammering in tent pegs. n
AMI member and MIC holder James Thacker has been climbing for many years. He is based in the Peak District and runs his own instructional company offering all aspects of climbing and mountaineering, both summer and winter. Go to www.jamesthacker.co.uk to find out more.
This issue’s technical winter guru Mark ‘Baggy’ Richards is an AMI committee member with many years’ experience working and climbing in the Scottish and Welsh Mountains. He holds the MIC and works full time at Plas y Brenin in North Wales.
Q. Is light really right?
A. Buying a set of ultra lightweight “Gucci” tools may seem a good exchange for your money and might help you on an alpine snow/ice route. However if you’re climbing in Scotland then your axes will take on the whole spectrum of conditions including the tough stuff - rock.
Q. With so many tools available how do I decide what to get?
A. James offers good advice above. However for a superb, all round, bombproof, technical axe then consider a pair of DMM Flys. These axes will take anything you throw at them, will suit all types of climbing and come with a modular pick system. Mine seem indestructible.
Q. What’s the best way to carry my lovely axes?
A. Whilst walking into routes having the two axes either side of your pack will equal the weight out. Consider sliding them down between the side compression straps and sac, with the picks pointing towards your back or tucked under the rucksack lid. This prevents eye level peril for people behind you.
Q. Can I ice axe arrest with a technical tool?
A. Technical tools are certainly not as easy to arrest with as a traditional axe. In order to protect yourself effectively you first need to either remove the leash or wrap it around the top of the shaft and the head of the axe. Now you can swap the axe from hand to hand more quickly and efficiently. Stay on the ball as the axe could well grip the snow/neve quicker, and with more grab than a traditional axe whilst arresting.
Q. Should you climb with the pick only?
A. You can use the adze, hammer, shaft and head to assist you in that quest for the top - your axe is a tool not a valuable jewel. The term torquing is used to describe the procedure of putting an axe part in a crack and twisting it to get purchase. Take extra care when torquing with adze as the pick will be staring you straight in the face. Ouch.
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