Mar 12, 2013

Why You Should Use The Upper Grip On Your Ice Tools Carefully

If you have traditional style ice tools (Viper, Cobra, Quark, X-All Mountain) and use the upper grip, or grab the upper portion of the shaft of the tool frequently while ice climbing read on - you might want to rethink your ice climbing technique and the habits you've developed as a climber.

Several years ago, when I was still using the old style Quarks I attempted to match my hands on an ice route called Gomorrah in the Catskills. I was really pumped and not climbing in control. After matching I kept my one hand high so that I could loop the rope over the pommel (pinky rest) of the tool to have my belayer take tension. As I was pulling up rope to wrap it over the tool, the tool blew and I went for a long ride (extra long because I pulled up extra rope). I stopped upside down near the ground. I was bruised but otherwise fine.

That long, near-groundfall taught me that I shouldn't really be trying to match much with my traditional ice tools. On that occasion I had a pretty decent tool placement, but the subtle shift in grip position caused the tool to lever out of it's placement.

Recently, I've watched a lot of beginner ice climbers using their traditional, more straight-shafted tools in an unconventional manner while climbing ice. I've seen people liberally using the upper grip on the shaft, grabbing the top of the tool to pull down, pulling on the shaft just below the head and looping the rope through the pinky rest while placing screws.

Seeing these things makes me cringe; I've learned the hard way that grabbing your conventional ice tools above the grip can cause them to pull out. If you're leading this could result in a leader fall - not a good practice on ice.

I think many beginners see other, more experienced climbers matching using radically curved mixed climbing tools and think "this must be how everyone switches hands, even when your're using a straighter tool". I usually try to break clients of this habit if I see it. It's not a huge deal when you're a beginner and you only toprope, but if you carry habits like this over to a lead environment you're setting yourself up for a lead fall.

At the same time, I don't see any of my more experienced friends doing these things. These climbers predominantly use the lower grip of their tools while ice climbing, and carefully grab the upper grip while mixed climbing or for an occasional match on ice. Additionally, they're all using dual-grip tools like the Nomic or Fusion, which are balanced for matching using the upper grip.

Unless you're using a dual-grip style tool, grabbing the shaft anywhere other than the bottom main grip is a risky proposition. The straighter traditional-style tools are not balanced for multiple hand positions. As you grab higher on the shaft your direction of pull on the pick changes from down (good) to out (very bad). Yes, it's true that nearly all modern ice tools, even the straighter ones, come with a small upper grip. However, knowing when it's appropriate to use it, and how you use it is very important.

First, lets clarify what a solid tool placement is, and then we'll look at safe ways to use our straighter tools if we're going to use anything other than the bottom grip.

A Solid Tool Placement

As climbers, especially as ice climbers, we act like scientists. We make observations about our ice tool placements, gather evidence about the quality of the placement, and then determine whether it's solid or not. We do this using our senses. We look for fractured ice around the tool and look to see that the pick is buried in the ice. We listen for cracking of ice near our tools, and we feel if the tool is solid or if the ice breaks underneath the tool. We might even tug on the tool a bit to see what happens. We then make assumptions about the quality of the tool placement based on the evidence we have.

Only after we've determined that our ice tool placement is solid will we commit to it. I rarely, if ever, commit to a tool placement that's lousy while climbing ice. The only time I'll commit to a lousy placement is on a mixed route with decent gear nearby and no other options. Otherwise, the tool should be solid.

So, what is solid? Solid is a tool that you could hang your whole body from. Solid is a tool that doesn't wobble. Solid is a tool with little if any fractured ice around it. Solid is a deep hook. Solid is a pick buried several teeth to several inches deep. Here's a quote from Will Gadd's blog about solid tool placements: "I rotate my hand slightly toward the outside to get it into a “swing” orientation, swing away until I’ve got something bomber (no pecking like a chicken, we’re ice climbing here, make it SOLID unless it’s a hook deep enough to hold a 500 pound tuna)"

The Match

Once I have a solid tool placement I'll begin to move my body upward using that tool placement. Ice tools are meant to be pulled straight down. All tools, regardless of whether or not they have an upper grip, are going to be more stable when using the lower grip. By holding the grip correctly at the bottom of the tool you ensure that the pick remains seated in the ice correctly. I always try to pull on the tool in the correct direction to keep the pick in it's original position. If the tool is above me then the direction of pull will be straight down. If the tool is placed on a horizontal ledge, then the direction of pull might be straight out. I'm very careful not to lever the pick out.

Certain "dual grip" tools, like the Petzl Nomic and the BD Fusion, have two grips. The upper grip is nearly in line with the lower grip, making the upper grip feel pretty stable. The pick remains seated correctly most of the time, regardless of whether the upper or lower grip is used.

However, with more traditional style tools (like the Quark, Cobra, Viper or Cassin X-All Mountain) the upper grip should be used very cautiously. These tools are not balanced for matching, and using the upper grip changes the balance of the tool. You are no longer pulling down, you're pulling in an outward direction. If the tool is not absolutely buried it could pop out.

Once you have a bomber, buried traditional style tool you can attempt to match hands gently and as low on the shaft as possible. I roll my index and middle fingers of my lower hand out of the way (while holding on tightly with my pinky finger and ring finger) to make room for my upper hand. This way, I can grab the upper grip as low as possible. I can now remove my lower hand and gently slide the matched upper hand down to the bottom of the tool. All the while I am deliberately applying constant pressure to the tool so that it doesn't move at all.

This "straight-tool" match is something that takes a steady hand, good balance, and plenty of control. It's harder to match when you have to carefully move one hand out of the way than when you have two balanced grip positions like you do on Nomics or Fusions.

Now that we know how to carefully match and switch hands using our Cobras, Quark, X-All Mountains, etc. when do we use this technique? The simple answer - not that often. It's easy enough, while climbing pure ice, to find another tool placement overhead and avoid ever having to choke up on the ice tool shaft at all. Matching like this is useful when traversing on semi-steep terrain, and when you get forced into features like a groove or runnel where it's easier to swing from one side but not the other. So, if you can avoid the match in favor of a higher "solid" tool placement, do it.

The Takeaway

Climbing is all about developing good habits and avoiding the bad ones. The sooner one learns that ice tools placements on ice need to be very solid, the best place to hold on is at the bottom, and that matching tools requires subtlety, balance and practice the better off they'll be as a climber. Practice, on a toprope, for a long time before leading is a good way to go, and will ensure that you've learned to climb ice well before leading your first ice pitches.