Ice Anchors

December 8, 2008

Reading Time: 14 minutes.

Although many climbers view ice as being dangerous and unsound, it actually offers the skilled climber endless opportunities for protection. A sound understanding of modern ice anchors is crucial for both ascent and descent, but once mastered many of the classic ice faces suddenly feel far less committing. Ice is a constantly changing medium, affected by the environment that has formed it and will some day reclaim it. Good ice provides anchors far stronger then a climber would ever need. Bad ice if identified as such and treated properly will still allow safe passage. The more ice you climb, the more you understand how it forms and breaks down, how it fractures and where its strengths and weakness lay.

Abalakov ice anchor

The king of anchors. Safe, easy to build and low impact both on the environment and your equipment. All that is needed to build the anchor is one long screw (22cm) a threading device and a length of tape. Here is a break down of the abalkov procedure.

How to make an Abalakov

Find a large sound piece of ice and remove all soft surface ice, being careful not to fracture the ice below. Place your long screw twice to form a v thread in the ice, at an angle of around 45 degrees. Place the abalcov hook in the first hole to act as a guide. Thread your rappel cord/tape through the v thread using the Abalakov threader. Tie off the cord with a double fisherman’s. With good ice this anchor is as strong as the cord, with even very small threads offering very strong anchors

In really soft wet ice you can make two anchors one above the other an axe length apart (40-50 cm) and equalise them. It is worth backing up this anchor with a second screw, with the last climber removing it when they leave. With the Abalakov system you can descend huge ice faces with nothing more then a single ice screw and some cord. If you find yourself without a long ice screw then a shorter (17cm) screw will still work but it may be a good idea to double up your v threads depending on the quality of the ice, and test before committing. If you don’t have a threader then you may be able to use the sharp teeth of the screw to snag the cord/tape. It may sound drastic but a friend of mine once had to remove the wire from his jacket hood in order to retreat down of the Grandes Jorasses one winter.

Retrievable ice screw

This trick offers the climber a way of retreating without loosing any equipment and should only be used over the Abalakov when running out of abseil tat, unable to make such an anchor due to no threader or if the ropes have become two frozen to pull. This technique only works when using a high quality long (22cm) ice screw and 1.5 metres of 4-5mm perlon cord. Back up anchors must be used, with the rope ends being tied into the next anchor when the last climber comes down. Place your back up screw and clip in. Place your long screw 40-50cm lower. This screw should be placed perpendicular to the ice. Insert and reverse the screw several times until it runs easily and smoothly. Tie one end of your 4-5mm cord into the hanger, then slowly wind the screw into the ice, letting the cord rap around the tube of the screw as it goes in. Run the cord back and forward until the screw is left sticking out by about 5cm, blocked by the cord, with the hanger pointing upwards. Take both untied ends of the abseil ropes and place the end of the abseil cord with them and tie the whole lot into an overhand knot. Loop the climbing rope over the screw, with the knot being on the correct side for unscrewing the screw. Backed up by the top screw the first climber descends, being careful not to pull unequally on the ropes. The second climber can visually check the screw and check if it’s sound. Some creeping may occur. Once the first person down has built the next anchor (two screws one above the other equalised – with the retrievable system being set up once all climbers are at the stance) the last climber removes the back up screw and descends. Once on the next belay a good hard pull will see the screw shoot out of the ice, bringing the rope and anchor down. Once the cord has been retrieved the next retrievable anchor can be built using the bottom screw on the belay.

Natural threads

Icicles provide fantastic natural anchors, generally being super strong. A screw may be needed to form threads, with an Abalakov threader proving its worth when trying to poke and pull your cord into difficult spots. Check for fractures and try to place cord around the base in order to avoid a direct outward pull on the column. If the columns are thin or fragile then several can be equalised together.

Ice screw

Some times you may have to simply sacrifice an ice screw in order to get the hell out of there. This may happen when retreating off v threads and you come to an exposed spot under a serac or in the line of fire from rock falls, and it is prudent to just leave a screw in order to save time. It goes without saying that if you have good quality screws this will defiantly be a last resort and for this reason it’s often a good idea to take along a couple of old trashed screws you don’t mind leaving behind. If possible back up the screw until the last person down removes it.

Ice bollard

A dying art and rightly so. Cutting a bollard is time consuming and only recommended for low angle ice. With the introduction of the Abalakov v thread the bollard is now resigned to the bottom drawer of climbing tricks labelled ‘step cutting’.