Since shattering my leg nearly three years ago, I’ve been unusually scared of ice climbing. Ice never particularly scared me before; I love the ephemeral medium, the psychological control and judgment required, the wildness and beauty of the backcountry in winter. The adventure.
Granted, when scratching-around in the alpine of RMNP you rarely get enough ice to place screws, but when I can, lately I’ve used what you might call the “chicken clip.” It’s an old technique – nothing I invented – that gives a little more security when doing the pumpiest part or ice climbing: placing screws. Consider it temporary pro, not real pro. Certainly not whipper pro. But it can provide an extra margin of safety.
Goes like this:
1. Place your tools solidly. Let go of your “free” tool (the one you release in order to place a screw), clip a quickdraw to the hole in its spike (assuming your tool has a hole in its spike…), and then clip the rope to the draw. It’s obviously not for holding a shockload fall – ice tools aren’t made for this. But if your tool is in good ice it should hold body weight if you have to hang.
2. Place the screw.
3. Move the draw from your tool to the screw. Since the rope is already clipped to the draw, presto, now you have real pro.
To vet the idea, I first checked with a couple of AMGA guide friends. Check. Good idea, they said, but don’t let the technique lead to false confidence, which leads to big problems of its own. Excellent point. Leading ice isn’t like sport climbing – it is not OK to fall. Don’t push it that far.
Next I checked with some friends at Black Diamond who oversee product testing and development. They said they recommend the technique to buddies. Cool. But again, be wary of false confidence. This won’t make you a better climber. Do it right. Get your tools in solidly. This isn’t real protection; it’s a (solid, when done right) hedge against falling off when in the sometimes vulnerable spot of placing pro.
Kolin Powick, who runs BD’s quality control and testing program (and who does a ton to further our collective knowledge of safety systems and gear), told me:
“Clip to spike is fine.
BD spikes are burly.
Don’t clip to a pommel.
They’re as weak as you are. Maybe even weaker if that’s possible.
That’s a good tip.
Of course the ice is always the question.
Picks could shear with a dynamic load like that.”
Nearly everything in climbing has advantages and disadvantages, and this technique is no exception. I think the plusses generally outweigh the minuses, but decide for yourself. Perhaps play with it on ice that’s well below your limit. Some considerations:
• Added security with minimal energy cost. The only extra step is a small one: moving the quick draw from your tool to the screw.
• If you slip-off while placing a screw – a time when you’re vulnerable, due to only one hand on a tool and the mounting pump, and potential body wiggle while turning the screw – it can prevent the whipper.
• If you pump-out while placing the screw and need to clip-in to your tool, you don’t have to do the frantic and dangerous fumble of trying to clip-in while pumped. You’re already clipped in, and can call “take.”
• If you have to clear-away more ice for your screw placement, it’s a hassle because the spike of your “free” tool has the draw, with rope, clipped to it. So first you have to move the draw back to your harness (or someplace else) temporarily, while you use that tool to clear-away ice. This costs energy, which could increase fall potential.
•Possible solution: chicken-clip your draw to the spike of the tool you’re holding onto (rather than the “free” tool”). This can be awkward, though.
• Not all ice tools have strong end-to-end strength. I didn’t survey the various companies. I only asked my friends who design and test the gear at BD, since I use BD tools.
• NOTE (important!): don’t confuse the plastic pommel for the spike. The pommels can break at surprisingly low forces. Some of the tests on various pommels, and returns to large retailers from breaks, are rumored to be quite startling. Bill Belcourt, who’s in charge of hard goods at BD, told me: “Our philosophy from the beginning was that the pommel was the replacement for the nylon leash, and it should be as burly, even though there is no standard saying it needs to be.”
• If you weight the rope, you essentially have a pulley system (like a top-rope) off your tool, which is more force than if you clipped directly from your waist to the tool with a runner. Granted, a stretchy rope holding body weight on a well-placed and strong tool should still hold.
• If you slip or fall and your tool breaks or shears out, you’ll fall farther. How much farther? About twice the distance from your waist (point of your tie-in knot) up to the clip-in point (where the rope goes through the bottom ‘biner of the draw clipped to your tool). In most cases, this will be an additional couple of feet. Could be enough to smack a ledge. Or to clear one. Ice climbing falls are usually bad, so the question: what’s the probability of the system failing, and if it does, what are the likely consequences of a slightly longer fall? No way of knowing. No formula. To me, it’s a slight hedge in safety, via fall prevention, that’s often worth using.
• Beware of thinking this makes ice climbing safe. It doesn’t. If you get on something way too hard for you, it can be bad news. Get complacent, even on easier stuff, and it’s still bad news. Don’t develop a false sense of security – the number one rule of ice climbing absolutely remains: don’t fall.
Times I Chicken Clip, times I don’t:
• I do it if my tool is placed in solid ice, especially if I’m scared (happens often).
• I do not do it if my tool is in mank, or a wobbly placement (which you try to avoid when ice climbing, but it happens). Then, I save the sliver of energy, breathe, and try to climb more delicately.
• I don’t do it if I’m climbing with keeper cords (the elastic leashes that go from your waist to your tools), which I often use on long routes, where dropping a tool could be serious. Most keeper cords will hold body weight if you have to hang, though they won’t hold a fall – a friend snapped one last season, for example, when he fell.
• I rarely do it if the ice is exceptionally complex, like lots of undulations that I know I’ll have to clear to get the screw in. Ideally you chop these away before placing the screw, but often I mis-judge how much ice I need to remove.
Most importantly, climb well, and don’t fall. Get out, get comfortable with the medium. And, when it makes sense, hedge your bets on the safe side. Maybe this pointer will help.