The Thin Ice Handbook: Climbing Techniques

This is part three of three. If you missed them, check out the previous posts on gear and reading ice conditions.

Less ice on a route can mean a lot more to keep track of. While nothing has changed with the laws of physics, the degree of control, anticipation and execution must be elevated to maintain a security margin. Whatever the crux, thin climbing demands you bring your best.

Efficient movement is more intuitive to some climbers than others. Great technique can be rooted in athletic ability, spontaneous ingenuity—or, more likely, years of practice. The best climbers among us are intuitive and disciplined. They focus to develop their weaknesses and are still able to play to their strengths. On thin ice, things can go sideways with just a small error. Here’s how to refine your techniques to be more efficient and effective, allowing you to keep your security margin fat when the ice is thin.

Optimize your swings.
Use a precise “chipping" swing that uses a few light test swings to see how the ice reacts, and then a final, precise “open swing” to set the pick as equal part hook and placement. The end result should be a “hook” in the divot you’ve created and shallow “stick” with the very tip of the pick. Remember to keep pulling inline with the shaft of the tool with even pressure. This can maximize a delicate placement’s reliability and utility.  This takes patience and a technician’s approach. Once the pick is set acceptably, stay low on the placement and smooth with your feet. Blowing a foot or tool on truly thin ice can over-burden other borderline placements. These are all great techniques to practice exhaustively on a top rope and in different temperature conditions.

[Michael using a straight arm and alternating grips—in balance—to rest and recover before the final push.]

Maximize the rests and be methodical.
Precision, control and balance on thin ice are crucial, and rushing things can mean unnecessary mistakes, wasted energy or a compromised margin of security. A rest on thin ice can happen under a particularly good tool placement, or on a better-than-average foot. Don’t rush past these “gifts.” A good tool placement after a run-out or in the middle of dicey moves can offer a brief mental break that comes with security. Take these, too—thin ice and run outs are mentally taxing. A rest is a rest. Use it!

Notice positions of balance. Rest in them, move toward them, remember them as a place to return to and sort things out. Practiced climbers can imagine what a position is going to feel like before they reach it. Envision possible rests and ways to get established to place gear. A balanced place to think and recover physically is like being able to take a time out.

[Engaged primary and secondary points stabilize the foot placement and utilize a natural depression in the ice to maximize utility and efficiency.]

Learn to use your crampons completely.
Practice using more than your front points by consciously engaging your secondary points. Notice the utility of points on the inside and outside and those under your heel to rest and get the most out of small, dry features. If you can rest with a variety of positions or maximize a singular position that’s available, you’ll save energy and spread the work out.

Use features beneath the ice to support your placements.
Noticing details is critical. A ripple of ice frozen to a planer vertical surface is one thing. An ice-covered edge of rock is another. The iced edge will generally be more secure if there’s enough ice to seat your pick or front point. Also, when establishing your feet, be conscious of the difference between placing your foot on a feature as a step versus when a kick is required to set your points. You can save a lot of energy by kicking less, and using the natural platforms that ice features can provide in the form of blobs, scoops, holes, and rails. Sharp points make a huge difference with this.

When it comes to your tools, make and use a few really good placements.
Each placement you make should be toward progress, balance, and/or recovery. Each should have a purpose. Swinging without thinking on a fragile climb leads to desperation and fewer options.

If you’re starting up thin or fragile pillars or curtains that might not accept a swing at their base, consider using a feature as a handhold. By walking your feet up, you may be able to swing above an attachment point. This helps to avoid swinging at the base or mid section where impacts might produce leverage and initiate a fracture. Shallow stems, back steps, chimneying—use what’s there. Thin ice doesn’t mean it’s featureless …  using subtle features to create more favorable geometry is the name of the game as climbing steepens. A foot or leg behind a curtain, a stem in an icy runnel and picking up useful dry features as they appear will help to avoid tunnel vision and keep you more rested through leads.

[Ryan Stefiuk, determining the best course of action as he balances steep climbing with lean alpine conditions on Mean Streak, Cannon Cliff, NH.]

Recognize whether crux moves are reversible.
Another way of staying in control is recognizing when down climbing is possible and when it is not. Practice down climbing on top ropes or with protection in above you. If you are deciding to retreat and there’s only marginal protection above you, consider leaving the pieces in place and down climbing under them as a back-up. Always have an exit strategy.

Prep for bail out and retreat options.
If you find things are not what they appear and it’s time to retreat, V-threads, A-threads, zero-threads, (pick the orientation/ option that fits the available ice) these anchors are an ice climber’s best friend. Practice them and always carry a threading tool. A clean (no fractures), honest (measure the ice you’ve excavated around- not the length of the screw you used), 13cm thread in decent ice has the integrity to rap from with a comfortable margin of safety.

I’ve punched “threadable" holes through curtains, tied off small, well bonded pillars at their base, and looped material around trees not much bigger than my thumb (when they’re frozen in). When there are no good threads available, redundant “leaver” anchors are always preferable. If there simply isn’t enough, down climbing, or down climbing under marginal gear may be your best bet. If you’re bailing, don’t be afraid to leave a little equipment behind to save your hide. Leaving $15 in nylon, a stopper, or even a screw when you can’t get a thread is way cheaper than a trip to the hospital—and a whole lot more comfortable.

After you come to terms with bailout strategies and practice a few of them close to the ground, venturing into the unknown can be more enjoyable, that is, while knowing you have an out.

[Adam George, balancing the known with the unknown as he pushes upward into new territory in Hyalite Canyon, MT.]

Use good judgment.
Why is the most important thing to learn also the hardest to teach? All of the above information could be used in making good judgments. However, it’s worthless if it’s misinterpreted and/or misapplied. Easing into activities with significant inherent risks is the right approach, and good mentorship is invaluable. Seek qualified instruction from an AMGA certified alpine guide or someone who’s completed the AMGA Ice Instructor Course and you won’t be disappointed.

“You only get a few of those…” was a comment made to me by a climbing mentor of mine, Chris Marks, after watching me commit to some dangerously thin—and at the time, unknown climbing—early in my career. This statement, part congratulatory and part cautionary, was his nod toward the fact that I’d gotten away with something. Knowing me and knowing my skills at that time, I’d overcommitted myself to dangerous climbing without having an out. Confidence is one thing, gambling when you can’t afford to loose is quite another. You only get away with a few of those in a climbing career, and that’s if you’re lucky. All the time—but especially when climbing thin ice—keep using the muscle between your ears. Be observant and intentional, and that will lead you to good outcomes.