Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
It may seem a little strange to be discussing systems designed to help you hold on to your tools when leashless tools are the talk of the town, but for many climbers what is needed is more security not less. The problem with leashless tools is that although you can go sans leash on any route, the technique has originated from competitions and is best employed on similar low commitment routes i.e. you won’t risk dying if you drop an axe.
On just about every type of winter climb employing common sense, care and a good system for axe security, will increase your safety considerably, especially if employed on routes of the aforementioned committed variety like Alpine, expedition and big winter lines. The systems can be broken down into the following three categories, with the one you choose to use being dependent on the level of security you require.
One of the most common ways to drop a tool is while placing protection and this can be avoided by practising a few simple techniques. Firstly, a dropped tool can be avoided by getting a leash that allows you to place gear without removing the axe from your wrist and you need to get used to doing so. The best kind of leash for placing protection is a plain standard leash, one that hangs from the head, not the shaft, which leaves the tool out of the way of your hands, hanging spike down. This tends to stay out of the way better than a more technical leash, a leash that hangs from halfway up the shaft, as this design tends to get in the way of your hands, catches on your gear and hits you in the face.
If you want to take your hand out of the leash then you have a number of options:
Leave the axe placed in the terrain you’re climbing.
If the axe is placed deep into ice, turf or hooked over a chockstone and you’re careful not to dislodge it, then this technique should be fine. Saying that, I know at least three world-class climbers who’ve lost tools that way on BIG routes in the last two years. One option is to clip an extender into the leash or spike, safeguarding both yourself and your axe. This can then be quickly switched over to your protection.
Use a holster
If you want a bit more security, then you can put your axe in either a holster or through a gear loop while placing pro. If you’re using a gear loop make sure your tool can’t drop through it - a real problem with some makes of hammer. A good practice is when holstering a tool to always clip the leash into a krab as a back up. The large ice screw clipper devices (Simond/Black Diamond), can also be used instead of a holster, as these can offer more security.
Use a shoulder
A good trick that can be pinched from the leashless brigade is the old shoulder trick. This is pretty self-explanatory. When you want to remove your hand from your leash you first loosen the leash (with your teeth), then hook it over your shoulder and remove your hand. This is a lot quicker than using a holster and allows you to grab the tool to set the gear (wires in icy cracks etc), much easier than if it’s in your holster.
In the past many climbers played around with lanyard systems, both to stop them losing their axes and to allow them to rest on steep ground. These usually comprise of thin cords that joined the leashes to the harness. The problem with attaching your axes to your waist is that it’s very easy to get in a complete tangle, often making the climbing harder and more dangerous than it otherwise should be. Secondarily, getting into the habit of depending on being able to hang off one’s tools is not recommended.
Firstly it’s unethical (it brings the grade down and should be treated as A0) and most importantly of all it’s best not to count on hanging off your tools when your arms burn out (because one day you won’t be able to count on those leashes). The basic idea though is a valuable one, especially if you’re on a big Alpine face and you don’t want to see your axes tumbling down the face below you. Here are two variations on the theme:
This is a good simple system for big winter routes, expeditions and Alpine climbs. This requires a length of 5mm cord with two small krabs attached to each end (Black Diamond Micro wiregate accessory crabs are great for this job). The cord should stretch from the wrist loop to the point on the shoulder strap where the cord will be clipped, adding a few extra inches to make sure you’re not caught short. This system means you tend not to suffer tangles as the cord is pretty short and stretches down each arm and shouldn’t really get crossed. If they do, then you can just unclip one of the end krabs in order to untangle them. This system is used by several top UK Alpinists and although it’s not load bearing there is the famous tale of Mick Fowler hanging from these loops when he fell out of his wrist loops while climbing Labyrinth Direct. If you’re not wearing a rucksack then you can clip them into a shoulder length sling, or better still into a lightweight chest rig (Grivel, BD).
‘Euro’ chest harness system
I first saw this system about 10 years ago and it is popular with Swiss and German Alpinists and is used by climbers like Stephan Siegrist and Robert Jasper. This system requires the user to wear a climbing chest harness (often not a bad idea anyway), that is connected to the sit harness (either via a tape loop or via the rope itself). A D-shaped maillon is used to close the chest harness and the axe cords are clipped to this. The beauty of this system is that it means you are are tied into your axes at all times, meaning if you get knocked unconscious, or hit by falling ice you may get a second chance.
When I’ve soloed Alpine routes I’ve used this system, as it meant that although I was free soloing I was always belayed to at least one axe the entire time and it’s a system employed by a lot of European soloists. It also means you can climb with your wrist loops undone (meaning you can whip your hands out) as you’re not worried about dropping them, making gear placing far quicker and easier.
These techniques may seem a little antiquated, but I don’t think we should jeopardize safety on the big committing routes just to fit in with the roadside fashions of the ice climbing elite. If you’re cranking 8c+ and can juggle frozen tools in thick gloves then fine. If you’re mortal then these tricks can make all the difference.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram