Climbing in ice

In the old classic era, climbing in ice was possible only by chopping out footholds with an ice axe. Even despite this terrible effort the results were never too impressive. In this way only inclined slopes can be climbed. A great step forward was achieved by the development of the ten-point crampon constructed by the Englishman O. Eckenstein. Using these crampons spread most in France in the area of the Mont Blanc massif, and from there the so-called “French style” of climbing emerged. In substance it consists of placing the crampons flat against the surface of the ice so that all points can grip. It is critical to perfectly balance the body, the positioning of the torso in relation to the legs leads to the characteristic leaning of the ankles away from the slope. The French style removed the necessity for the mountaineer to hack steps, but could still only be used to climb inclined slopes. Nowadays the French style has been surpassed and for all practical purposes is no longer used when climbing in ice. Its use has been limited to walking along the steeper firn slopes. At the end of the thirties the Italian L. Grivel discovered the construction of a 12-point crampon, on which the first pair of points are pointed forward, to enable sticking the front points of the crampons with the toe. This style was favoured in the thirties above all by the Germans (12-point crampons were used for example by A. Heckmair and L. Vörg during their first ascents of the face of Eiger in 1938), and therefore they acquired the designation “German style”.

And yet crampons are not the only decisive gear for climbing in ice. The ice tool is also critical. The basic construction innovations of the ice tool were achieved only at the end of the sixties by the American Y. Chouinard during a visit to Scotland. In Scotland the local climbers had for years conducted specialized ice climbing, of course they also used the ice axe to chop out handholds, which prevented most climbing in vertical ice. As soon as they got Chouinard’s ice axe with the markedly angled shape of its pick, they were able to develop this style of climbing to such an extent that it is nowadays known as none other than the “Scottish style”. The Scottish style is similar to free climbing on rock. The climber uses ice tools and crampons to obtain handholds and footholds. Here the rule of three points applies, as with climbing in rock.

Classic climbing technique

In the default position you have both ice tools embedded at head height, and you pull them toward you by bending your arms. One ice tool is powerfully embedded, the second only lightly. The legs are stretched out and the front points of the crampons are also embedded. Afterward withdraw the more lightly embedded ice tool from the ice and extend your arm upward in order to embed it deeply in the ice above. Lead the movement from the elbows and wrists, while the shoulders remain firm. Since you have embedded the upper ice tool deeply, you now have sufficient resistance for withdrawing the bottom, also deeply embedded ice tool. After withdrawing this ice tool from the ice you once again embed it above you by stretching your arm out above, of course this time a bit more lightly (in the next step it will be this ice tool that is withdrawn first).

Now you should be in a stretched out position, hanging by your hands and standing on the points of your crampons, your pelvis pressed against the ice, your shoulders leaned slightly back – the most advantageous position for resting in a climbing position. In the next phase you will press your pelvis away from the wall (the cat pose), until you remain hanging from the hands and you can see your feet. In three steps you step upward gradually with your feet until you have your head at the level of the pick of the ice tool. The first step with your feet should ideally embed the crampons in the same vertical plane as your body’s centre of mass, and on each individual step you will bend the pelvis to the side above the loaded leg which you are shifting upward.

a - the extended arm phase, pelvis against the wall, ideal for resting; b, c - pelvis comes away from the wall (cat position), looking at feet; d - embedding the first step in a vertical plane with the centre of mass of the body; e through h - climbing up in several steps, pelvis swinging above the loaded leg when stepping; i - completing the climbing movement

a – the extended arm phase, pelvis against the wall, ideal for resting; b, c – pelvis comes away from the wall (cat position), looking at feet; d – embedding the first step in a vertical plane with the centre of mass of the body; e through h – climbing up in several steps, pelvis swinging above the loaded leg when stepping; i – completing the climbing movement

Triangle technique (Evolue)

Another climbing technique of the Scottish style is the technique of moving in a balanced triangle position, which is sometimes also called the “Evolue”. This method is more economical in the number of strikes of the ice tool and the crampons into the ice. It is, however, more difficult in terms of maintaining balance and is therefore recommended for more experienced climbers only. In the starting position you have the ice tool embedded high above your head, the second ice tool to the side of your head. The upper ice tool and both crampons thereby form the triangle. To take a step, stick your pelvis backward and to the side over the loaded leg and the raise the second, lighter leg, which is on the same side as the upper ice tool. In this alternating manner you will carry out several small steps with your legs until your head reaches the level of the upper ice tool. Only now will you embed the second (currently lower) ice tool above you and slightly to the side of the first. Then traverse with your legs using several small steps until you bring your body’s centre of mass under the now highest ice tool. In this manner you have brought yourself once again into the starting position, which is the mirror image of the previous, and similarly your advance in the next climbing movement will be the mirror image of the previous movement. From the beginning this triangle climbing technique may seem harder and more arduous, because at many points in time the entire weight of your body will be on one hand, while it is on two with the classical method. Of course it is important to bear in mind that the majority of time and effort is most often consumed by hacking and withdrawing ice tools. With the triangle technique the ice tools are embedded half as often, and also farther apart, which eliminates the fragmenting of the ice due to strikes with the ice tools.

a - basic starting triangle position; b - first step executed with foot under the higher ice tool; c, d - several small steps with the feet, pelvis over the loaded leg; e - head level with the higher ice tool; f - the second ice tool in the new higher position, but slightly off to the side; g - step to the right, centre of mass under the higher ice tool

a – basic starting triangle position; b – first step executed with foot under the higher ice tool; c, d – several small steps with the feet, pelvis over the loaded leg; e – head level with the higher ice tool; f – the second ice tool in the new higher position, but slightly off to the side; g – step to the right, centre of mass under the higher ice tool

Advanced triangle technique (variant A)

This climbing technique allows you to return to the starting position and also reduces the number of strikes with the crampons. From the position where your head is level with the upper ice tool (see phase “e” in the previous image), the other lower ice tool is embedded much higher than the first. With two steps of the feet you climb upward so that your head reaches the level of what is now the higher ice tool, whereas you begin with the foot that is on the side of the lower ice tool.

Variant A: a, b - lower ice tool embedded significantly higher; c, d - sticking the pelvis out and shifting to the side onto the loaded leg, first step up on the side of the lower ice tool; e - second step with the feet; f - completion of the climbing movement and new starting position

Variant A: a, b – lower ice tool embedded significantly higher; c, d – sticking the pelvis out and shifting to the side onto the loaded leg, first step up on the side of the lower ice tool; e – second step with the feet; f – completion of the climbing movement and new starting position

More in e-book.

Title Part 5Mountaineering Methodology – Part 5 – Snow and Ice

ISBN 978-80-87715-11-6

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

For example U.S. store – link

Another countries – look on the page Download

Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).

Title Part 5 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 5 – Snow and Ice

ISBN 978-80-87715-16-1

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play