Sharp, Pointy Things
A Guide to the Gear and Techniques Shown in “Climbing Ice”
There’s nothing quite like climbing up the sheer, brittle surface of vertically frozen water. With a specialized ice axe in each hand, and a set of crampons strapped to your feet, you can pick and kick your way up the wildest—and most dangerous—formations.
The ice climbing pictured in Tim Kemple’s photos from this journey —in which he, a two-person film crew from SmugMug, and two of Europe’s best ice climbers explored the Vatnajökull, or Vatna, glacier of southeastern Iceland—is unique because they were climbing on, and sometimes inside, Europe’s biggest glacier. The location inspired not only spectacular visuals, but also challenged the ice climbers to try to ascend overhanging ice caves.
Just how did they do it?
What’s so cool about ice climbing is the ice itself. Ice climbing provides climbers with an appreciation for just how strong ice can be, yet how brittle and delicate it is as well. With proper technique, and a set of sharp ice tools, a thin veneer of ice can support a person’s entire body weight, if not more. But with improper technique, ice blocks can come crashing down onto the climber, or you can find yourself sliding out of control off the edge of a precipice.
Here’s a guide to some of the equipment ice climbers use to ascend these ephemeral, vertical landscapes of frozen water.
Modern ice tools have come a long way from the “alpenstocks” of Europe in the late 1800s, when climbing mountains for fun was first beginning to capture the interest of adventurers and explorers located in the Alps. Back then, alpenstocks, with their heavy wood handles and steel-forged heads, resembled miner pick axes. Today’s ice tools, however, can weigh under two pounds each. The picks are specialized with jagged teeth and a finely beveled top edge, which allows the pick to insert itself into the ice, displacing as little ice as possible, and then be removed without getting stuck.
Crampons, which are 12-pronged metal soles affixed to stiff-soled mountain boots via straps, played a pivotal role in advancing the sport of mountaineering, allowing climbers to move much faster and with more security across glaciers and up steep couloirs of ice. Before crampons, climbers would have to chop steps into the ice, as if they were creating a slippery staircase in the sides of mountains, in order to climb—clearly a time-consuming task. Henry Grivel, an Italian climber, began mass producing the first crampon in 1910, which ushered in a new age of mountaineering that pushed climbers up the slopes of the Eiger north face, and Mt. Everest. Emboldened by improvements in equipment, climbers pushed their limits with higher, harder, steeper mountains and frozen waterfalls of ice.
Typically, ice climbers bring a rack of 10 to 12 ice screws, which are hollow metal tubes around eight inches long and with four sharp prongs at the tip. By simultaneously pushing and twisting the tip of an ice screw into an ice wall, the screw’s threads catch, and, using a built-in ratchet system, you can quickly drill the screw right into the ice with just a single hand. An ice screw placed in cold, solid ice can hold up to 1,500 pounds of force, more than enough to catch a falling climber. But if the ice is really melted or hollow, an ice screw might not be capable of holding 15 pounds.
For one of Tim’s shots of the ice climbers ascending out the depths of a dramatic moulin, he set up a Tyrolean Traverse across the mouth of the void.
Tim did this by creating two anchor points using four ice screws—two on each side. He tied one end of his rope to the two ice screws, equalizing the forces so that if one of the ice screws pulled out, the other one would theoretically hold him. Then he did the same on the other side, tensioning the rope using a pulley system until the rope was as taut as possible. It’s scary to think of committing your life to an anchor drilled into a piece of ever-melting ice. But with proper rope techniques, including safe anchor-building, Tim constructed a Tyrolean Traverse that was safe and allowed him to get a perspective that few other people would’ve been capable of capturing.
An ice climber attaches himself to the ice by kicking the front points of the crampons and swinging the picks of the ice tools into the ice. In general, good technique involves building the feet up high with increasingly higher kicks of the crampons. Then you stand up on your feet while locking off on one arm—like doing a pull-up with just one arm—as you simultaneously reach with your free ice axe, and swing it into the ice and get it to stick. Build the feet up, lock off the other arm, reach up, and do it again.
The nuance of ice climbing involves swinging the ice axe with as little effort as possible: grabbing onto the ice tools lightly to conserve energy and avoid getting “pumped” forearms, and having finely tuned balance that allows you to trust that your feet won’t just give out underneath your quaking legs.
No ice-climbing primer would be complete without a discussion of one of ice climbing’s most detested moments: the screaming barfies. This unpleasant experience happens at the end of your climb, when your fingers, which have gone positively frozen numb, begin to have some sensation return as the blood begins to flow back into your wooden fingers. But this is part of the fun of ice climbing.