Ready to Lead Ice?

Margo is an accomplished ice climber, writer, and guide; and we're happy to count her as a member of the OR Ambassador team. Here, she shares tips for beginning to lead ice. 

Many people ask me how they will know when they are ready to lead ice, and I always reply that it is only once you have a lot of mileage on a top rope. It takes experience to know when an ice axe placement is good, and to be able to read the ice. It is also imperative to get really strong before you head out on lead so that you have plenty of strength in reserve for placing screws, hanging off your axes, and dealing with the added focus of being on the sharp end. 

Keep all of your equipment sharp, and this includes your crampons and screws as well as you ice axes. Not only are sharp tools more of a joy to use, they save you lots of time and energy by doing their job more efficiently. 

Try out lots of gear before you choose what to buy. The ice axes that are perfect for your friend might be too light for your liking. Some people will prefer a tool with a bit more heft because it will ‘throw’ itself into the ice better. And some companies’ picks will be better designed to fit your preferences. Try out many tools before you buy, because they are all different. The same goes for belay devices, crampons, helmets, and harnesses. Read online reviews, and make sure your decisions are based on your priorities. For example, some people don’t need to worry if their belay device is 4 grams lighter if they are only taking it out to crags instead of up big alpine routes. 

On the question of leashes, I recommend them for beginners who are venturing out into the real world of climbing. If you are doing top rope laps in a canyon then it is good to go leashless, but if you are doing your first challenging lead you might want to consider using leashes both to save energy and for added peace of mind. Follow your instincts and do not bother with what anyone else thinks or does. Leashes can add another layer of safety to your initial forays onto the ice, and you can always ditch them down the road when you feel comfortable doing so. 

Practice mock leading on a top rope. Having the safety of a rope above your head will remove any stress you will have by being on the sharp end for real. This will allow you to learn how to place screws, attach slings, and clip into the rope all while in a relaxed state. When you feel ready to do a real lead it can be helpful to pre-pace screws on a top rope doing a mock lead, and then pulling the rope and climbing the pitch that you are already familiar with with the gear already in place. The final stage is to then place protection while leading the pitch. Learning to lead in this fashion allows you to introduce the next layer of challenge as you feel ready for it. 

It is also a great idea to choose a climb that is well within your abilities. Don’t get caught up in grades; these will come naturally as you get comfortable with your new skills and improved fitness level. 

Know when a screw is good and when it is not, keeping in mind that only mileage will give you this ability. Clean off the surface ice with your axe before making a starter hole with your pick, and then proceed to place your screw. If you see ice coming out through the center of your screw as you feel resistance in the turn, then you can be pretty sure that the screw is good. If there is little resistance and little ice pouring out of the centre of the screw, you are probably in some very airy ice and should not trust the screw. It is also good to watch for fractures developing in the ice as your screw goes in. This is not ideal, and the screw should be taken out and re-placed somewhere else if possible. 

Make sure you know how to get safely down from a route after you have climbed it. Most people take lots of time learning how to climb, only to find they are at a loss as to how to descend. Make sure you know how to do both safely before you venture out as the leader of a party. 

Learn how to make a bomber anchor, whether it is with screws, bolts, or trees. The same basic principles apply to all three of these scenarios. Always have enough gear with you to build your required anchors, including locking carabiners and longer slings. Know how to equalize these, where to put the master carabiner, and what knots to tie. Practice tying knots with gloves on in the comfort of your living room, and practice clipping the rope into carabiners as well. There is no sense fumbling through the learning curve in -20 when you can be doing it beside the fireplace with your beverage of choice. 

Learn how to make an Abalakov, or V Thread, for a gearless retreat. Practice making these while standing on the ground so that you are well acquainted with the procedure when you need to make one off of a hanging belay. Each time you go out, whether it is on top rope or on lead, practice good climbing technique. This will save you a lot of energy that you can then apply to other things like finding good protection, or deciding on the best line of ascent. Have fun out there, and be safe! _______________________________________________________________________ Margo's Recommended Reading: Ice and Mixed Climbing by Will Gadd Learn the basic knots and hitches from a book or the internet and practice these: figure eight follow through, figure eight on a bight, double fisherman’s knot, clove hitch, munter hitch Margo's Personal Gear Favourites: Black Diamond Cobra Ice Axes Petzl M10 Crampons Black Diamond Express Screws Margo's favorite apparel from OR's ice climbing line. All photos in this article are provided courtesy of Cheryl Wallace.