The Thin Ice Handbook: Essential Equipment

This is part 1 of 3. Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2: Knowing And Understanding Thin Ice.

Frequently, moves of thin ice climbing guard entry to classic or otherwise appealing routes. Early-season, and post-thaw conditions are their own genre of semi-frozen desperation. But whether you chase water ice or alpine smears, at some point you’ll find yourself on something lean and mean, where you’ll need an extra ounce of technique and specificity in your gear to get the job done. For elusive objectives, “thin but in” prizes and barely-there bonus pitches, here are a few thoughts on making vertical gains when you find yourself working with meager rations.

For better or for worse, the experience of climbing ice is inseparably bound to the clothing and tools it requires. The best equipment can make a difference in achieving your goals. When pushing your limits, reliability and comfort with all that connects you to a climb helps support confidence and nudges the plausible toward possible. Choosing excellent gear that fits right, and being able to fine-tune it for your purposes, is vital.

Here are some ideas for getting the most out of your kit—to improve both security and enjoyment—when you tackle thin ice.

Start sharp and stay sharp.
Precise points fracture less ice. The colder the temps and the thinner the ice, the more having truly sharp points matters. I’m talking about crampons, picks, and the ever-important teeth and threads of your shortest ice screws. Consider a little tuning of picks in the field after a scrappy pitch. Carry a small, flat file for “touch-ups” at belays on multi-pitch routes when the crux may still be ahead. For screws’ teeth, Petzl’s Lim’Ice Screw Sharpener works well. You can protect the threads of your screws by carrying them in cloth or plastic sleeves.

[Peter Doucette putting up Odin’s Tiers. Sharp points and modern gear have their hand in making steep ice and mixed climbing more secure.]

Select the right pick and care for it.
Using different picks for different objectives is a nice luxury. New ones are expensive, though, so keep your picks functional as long as possible. After the first tooth is gone, they’re done. Up to that point, they are easily salvaged and their geometry is still working in your favor.

After climbing consecutive seasons, you may find that cycling older “re-tuned” picks back into the mix for training days—especially dry tooling—will maximize longevity of your kit. Re-sharpening beat-up equipment will also improve your tuning skills. Maintaining the all-important first tooth and chisel front profile are most crucial. Check out sharpening techniques here.

Plan and equip your tools at home for the conditions you expect to find. New “ice” specific picks (often rated “B” or Basic) are ideal for pure ice and penetrate more easily with less displacement. “T” rated (or Technical) picks are workhorses for long mixed routes where you may be swinging into cracks and doing more dry tooling that includes torsional loading.

[Sam Bendroth, climbing on the first pitch of The Myth of Sisyphus, a notoriously thin line.]

Dial in your crampons.
Shorter front points are nice for several reasons on thin ice and edgy dry routes. Shortening your points decreases the leverage on thin foot placement, saves wear and tear on your calf muscles and puts your toes that much closer to being over your front-point(s). This adjustment is easily made by moving the toe bail of your crampons forward one setting. You’ll also need to adjust the overall length of the crampon under your foot once the first adjustment has been made. Depending on your crampon/boot interface, having a front-point(s) that extends roughly one inch beyond your boot can work great.

[The right gloves—Alibi2 shown here—and climbing pace allow for dexterity and precision when it counts.]

Go for multiple gloves.
My favorite gloves for leading, across the spectrum of temperature, from light- to mid-weight are: OR Alibi II, OR Super Vert, OR Stormtracker, and OR Lodestars. It’s also possible to fit a thin fleece or polypro liner in the Lodestar if you size them for it. I do this routinely when I’m guiding on cold days—or I reach for the OR ExtraVert.

Whatever your thermostat, you should find the right pair(s) for warmth, fit, dexterity and grip. Your connection to your ice tools is important. It takes experience in cold conditions to know your own circulation and how light a glove you can sport and still keep your hands content. Warm hands are very much about consistent movement and maintaining circulation. The first hard pitch of the day is often the comfort crux, especially for the digits. Doing some cardio, full body warming movement, before starting a challenging pitch can help to avoid the flash pump and also the flash freeze.

Once you’re moving, shake out frequently, relax your grip on the tool and spread the work around until the blood is circulating. I climb in as light a glove as possible and then stow them between inner layers—trapped above the waste belt of my harness—to stay warm, if not dry, when I’m belaying. I carry a warmer dry pair of gloves to belay in.

Don’t neglect your boots.
Boots should fit well and be tightened before you leave the ground. Your boot and crampon should act as a stable platform. If your heels lift in your boots, it will be much harder to trust your foot placements, and they’ll feel less secure—not to mention, your calf muscle will be working double time. Belay with your boots laced comfortably. Tighten them to climb. When leading, I tighten boots as soon as crampons go on. If you’re seconding, make sure your boots are snug enough to follow when you’re still warm from the approach. Adjusting your laces when you’re already cool from a long belay is a miserable task.

[Alden Pellett builds a nest of protection that’s appropriate to the task. A stopper in a verlassed constriction, backed up to a pin to address anticipated direction of pull.]

Trad mixed climbing and thin ice usually requires diversity in your rack. Take a couple more short (~10cm) screws than you think you may need. Double up on pro when you find it is a good self-preservation technique. “Super stubbies,” (screws less than 10cm long) aren’t a myth—but they also aren’t rated or commercially available. If you look hard enough you’ll find some, or you might find yourself making them yourself, or having some made. Carry rock protection other than cams. And expect to place more pieces per pitch, because it’s unlikely all placements will be solid.

Nuts, hexes, pins, Spectres, peckers, and other “poundable” kit for verglassed cracks can be the difference between good pro and no pro. A small piton hammer is useful because most aggressive tools these days are not great for pounding pins. But always consider the local ethic with this type of protection. Adding pins to existing routes may not be acceptable. And work to avoid, or at the very least minimize, damage to the rock and climbing resources when placing such pro.

[Michael Wejchert on a wandering pitch where 1/2 ropes proved the right tools for the job.]

Rope selection
There are a lot of good ropes out there. Some are even triple rated for twin, half and single application depending on your need. Still, a good pair of dry half ropes covers your bases, and keeps weight within reason. Half ropes offer low-impact forces on your protection. This means in the event of a fall on marginal pro, the pro will be more likely to hold. Though you will fall a little further than on a single-rated rope due to stretch, it’s generally better than ripping gear. Also, alternating ropes when clipping pieces reduces the slack in your belay system if you slip when making a clip. And half ropes can offer redundancy when edges and loose rock are a concern. Finally, when it’s time to descend, you can rappel a full rope length, giving you a longer range to reach the best anchors.

In conclusion, the small things matter. On lead, on thin ice, and above gear. Practice consistency and control and gradually increase the level of difficulty you engage. Set yourself up for success but avoid overcommitting. The most important pieces of the equation will always be using your judgment and experience to make good decisions. Don’t get distracted by your equipment, or anything else at the cost of missing something fundamental or losing sight of the big picture. Preparation and patience make space to focus on efficient execution when the time and conditions are right. Good luck and stay sharp!