Chicken Clip (ice pro pointer)

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.

kc - screw1 IMG_3765(LR)

2. Place the screw.

kc - screw2 IMG_3770(LR)

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.

kc - screw3 IMG_3774(LR)

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.

15 thoughts on “Chicken Clip (ice pro pointer)

  1. I don’t get it. Why not simply hook a daisy (or what have you) with a fifi hook on the end into the hole, or a small loop of perlon (hanging from the hole if the hole is to small)?

    Bringing your rope, when not needed, as noted can add a lot to a fall. and can be a little confusing to your belayer.

    umm guess he just clipped a screw, why isn’t he moving, him looks like he just clipped a different screw, okay now he is moving up. guess he placed two screws, ice must either be bad, or next section is super steep and he is gonna run it out…him nope he is placing another screw, no, two screws again. oy vey this is gettting nutter.

    seems ice climbing, which has always been aid climbing, is always trying to prove it is not aid climbing, first we had tools with no leashes, then we had tools with leashes but with tethers, then we had tools with no leases, now we have tools with no leashes, but tethers, and now this?

    edit-folks of course know that using your ice tools as part of your anchor system is a bad bad idea (unless you have no other choice).

    • good idea on the fifi, jeff, if you happen to have one handy. if you have a daisy, of course you could do that, too. it’s an extra step, versus the quick draw that you’re already using for the rope.
      and it’s not anywhere near as complicated or confusing as you’re making it sound!

  2. any thoughts on draping the rope over the tool? It’s quicker, but sketchier in that the top of the pick is sharp. good for a really quick “oh shit” moment?

    • not sure, mike — yeah, sketchier for possible rope cutting would be my concern. but as you said, in an “oh shit” moment, especially if climbing on double ropes, perhaps?

  3. Sweet. I do some version of this. I normally just clip in chicken sling into my ice axe. But, I almost never climb water ice, since i live in the himalayas. And since i’m not american, what part of the axe is a ‘pommel’? 🙂 By ‘spike’, i assume you mean the pick itself??

    • thanks karn. pommel is the plastic hand rest thing at the bottom of leashless tools. the older leashed tools don’t have one. and the spike is actually the pointy part at the end of the shaft. it’s the part that i clip the quickdraw into, in the photos. most spikes have a hole in it that’s big enough to accomodate a ‘biner. cheers.

  4. kelly…why am i so afraid? why? sometimes i try new things…but it only makes me more afraid. see you at the HVTT…and until then,

    i’m afraid. RC

  5. I was belaying a friend on a long route WI4/5 in Canada (can’t recall what, as it was years ago) and he actually took a fall, near the end of a pitch, with the draw “chicken clipped” into his tool. (1) It was a sizeable fall, even though the tools were at his chest (lots of rope stretch on those skinny cords), and (2) the tool actually held the fall. I wouldn’t count on it or anything, but an interesting bit of information.

    Kelly: if you “hang” on your spring-leash, it seems like they would leave the tools out of reach, no? The BD spring leash seems like it could stretch past my full-extension reach under that much weight, and I’m not THAT small (5’9″ with a +1 ape index…).

    • nice, brian, good to hear the story of your buddy. glad to hear it worked for him, whew! scary shit, falling on ice. to be avoided, for sure.
      indeed, not something to be necessarily counted on, i agree, but it might stack the odds in one’s favor with (i think, all considered) minimal downsides/costs. all this stuff is such an interesting combo of judgement, plusses & minuses.
      spring-leash, yeah, good point for sure, and related to the previous sentence, guess it’s maybe still better than the alternative. whipping on ice can be sooo bad, i figure. ideally, one would clip-in static if in trouble, but we all know how fast that pump factor can rapidly dwindle the realistic options, in which case it’s better to dangle a little below and figure out how to yard up (i guess?) than the whipper? ahhh, yet another consideration!

  6. So if you fall, and the tool does shear out, how does it feel when that tool comes whizzing down the rope and bonks ya or perhaps worse, sticks ya? Ask the BD testers about that scenario.

    eh what do I know. When I started this icy game I got a lot of grief for not carrying a 3rd tool.

    “What no 3rd tool? Your going to die.”

  7. Fifis, chicken-draws….more stuff makes sketchy situations even more tenuous. Better to keep it simple, be focused disciplined and in motion.

    • thanks — good point on the importance of emphasizing discipline and focus. indeed that’s paramount.
      but, in fact, nothing is added here — there isn’t “more stuff” with this technique. you use the same quickdraw you’re using to clip the ice screw anyway.

  8. Kelly,

    FYI but Bill is now in charge of all R&D for BD, not just hard goods. I’ve also had this lengthy discussion with him re: what to clip, when & where. Answer: “Depends”.
    Shingo says “hi”; he’s doing much better. Warbonnet (from MP)

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