Mid-Season Ice Climbing Tips: 3 Ways To Be More Delicate

This time in the ice season things can be a little … dry and old. That fall freeze-thaw is long past and deep winter’s dry air can suck the moisture right out of our favorite ice climbs. Not to mention the effects of a month or two of traffic. Old ice, like old people, can behave very differently than its younger, more flexible former self.

Things to look for on older ice:

Look at the surface.
Fresh ice is very featured. As it forms, the surface is covered in tiny rivulets. But as it dries out, or sublimates, the surface grows more and more smooth.

Look at the color.
Old ice is most often all the same bland color. Here in the Northeast a lot of ice forms with a tannic yellow tint. This drains out of ice that hadn’t been refreshing itself, so you can often see a dark brown tip to the end of an icicle where all the color has drained. That green and blue color we all love also washes out to more of a grey hue.

Is it still bonded?
As thin, old ice sublimates, it often detaches itself from the wall, losing its bond and its strength.

Climbing tips for old ice:

Avoid the bulges.
Juicy fresh ice on a 31-degree day is really forgiving. You can pretty much swing right into a bulge—just like you were told not to—and nothing happens. This isn’t the case with the old stuff. Good tool placement is key. I always tell people to sneak up on a bulge, getting a good stick in a good little indentation just below the bulge, then getting the lowest stick possible just over the bulge. If you look closely and think about this tactic, you can usually avoid that tempting, ice-crushing whack right into the explosive bulge—the consequences of which can be pretty dramatic if that ice hasn’t seen its liquid state in a month.

When you can’t avoid the bulge, chip.
Sometimes ice climbing gets a little real and you can’t just avoid a rounded, bulging dried-out old hunk of ice—but you can still sneak up on it. Usually when you swing, the pommel, or very bottom of the tool’s handle, will rest flush against the surface of the ice when the tool comes to rest. This engages the sharp point of the pick. When I know that a regular swing will destroy what’s in front of me, and maybe me with it, I swing a few times making contact with just the top edge of my pick, chipping a small indentation - instead of the pommel coming to rest on the ice, it is instead out in space. Once I have a good little indentation, I can take a light normal swing with my sharp pick and set it in that spot.

If it’s gonna shatter, don’t swing so hard.
On a really hard day of ice climbing, everywhere you swing the ice fractures. I was just there last week. The first tendency is to try to get a stick by swinging harder and harder. If the ice is old and brittle, everything will start to fracture, leaving you nothing to work with. Instead, try swinging more gently with each swing. If you didn’t totally obliterate the ice where you first swung, but didn’t get a good stick, remember: You just created an indentation. Don’t waste it. The second swing should be a little gentler and the third gentler still. It’ll stick, just have patience and keep your picks sharp. Test the shallow placement for the direction of pull and just make sure to maintain pulling that direction; there’ll be a good stick coming up soon.

Learning to be a delicate ice climber opens up a whole new universe of possibilities that bashers don’t have enough ice to explore. The best and safest way to learn this control, and how much ice you really need to hold your tool, is to toprope some very thin ice. Experiment with how much is not enough; you might be surprised. That delicacy translates very well to getting up that grey old crusty pitch you’re finally in shape for by the middle of the season.

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Photo by Brett Holman.