Winter Climbing Booster

December 4, 2008

Reading Time: 15 minutes.


Would you set out on a difficult rock climb with your sticky boots covered in mud or full of holes, the rubber long since ground away to your poor old toes beneath? No, of course you wouldn’t, because you know from experience that doing so would make life a lot harder for yourself, plus the chance of falling off would be far greater. It’s funny then that, in a way, that’s sort of what the majority of winter climbers do when they head to the hills, if you consider the state of their ice-axe picks.

Now I’m not preaching here, because for years my picks were like everyone else’s - having the scalpel-like precision of a bowling ball - but I very quickly learnt that by investing a bit of time in my picks I would save a lot of energy, making routes feel grades easier and a great deal safer.

When you wallop that frozen liquid with your blunt mallet of a pick, you impart a great deal of energy into the ice. How much energy? Well I’m no physicist (as anyone who has read any of these articles will attest) but consider your axe weighs around 700g, on to which you’re adding a considerable amount of momentum and arm power, all of which is focused on to a square area of only a few millimetres and you’re talking a lot of energy. With a blunt pick you must strike much harder, as the pick can’t just slice into the ice. This force causes shock waves that pass through the ice. Fracturing then occurs, the severity of which depends on the temperature of the ice (the warmer the ice the better the molecular bond). This can cause small problems like surface fracturing where you waste time bludgeoning the more fragile ice away, right through to full depth fracturing leading to catastrophic collapse. A good example of this problem is when leading thin ice over rock. If your picks aren’t sharp you might as well be hitting the ice with a hammer because the ice just breaks up as the fractures go full depth. On delicate pillars this can prove terminal, as you can snap the whole thing off (that’s why you should never place your tools parallel on a pillar) and that’s why you can tell a good ice-climber by the state of their picks. Climbers with old style, thick, blunt picks (uncared for, old Vertiges for example), will often say how bad the ice was, when in fact the ice is fine and it’s the picks that are to blame.

With a sharp pick you can just tap it in with a controlled amount of force. Good ice-climbers go for one or two inches of penetration but this is down to how gripped you’re feeling. Even if you’re going for sticks that are so deep only the shaft sticks out, a sharp pick will still make a difference, as the pick will slice into the ice requiring less energy.

What about mixed routes though? Well hard mixed climbers say that even on mixed ground a sharp pick is crucial, as it goes into thin seams and cracks better. A sharp pick also works in thin dribbles of ice, letting you get some purchase rather than just knocking it off. For the majority of mixed climbers operating at a more normal level (up to grade VI), who might encounter everything from ice, névé, snow, rock, mud and turf, a moderately sharp pick is probably best.

In these days of specialization it’s probably best to go for two sets of picks if you want to maximize your pick potential, swapping in the morning before you leave the house depending on what type of route you plan to climb. This may sound expensive but it should work out cheaper than buying a new set of picks every year.


It’s rare to find an axe manufacturer whose picks are good enough to climb with from new without some modification. Reshaping your pick will maximize its performance, allowing you to save a great deal of energy in cleaning (removing) the pick from the ice (often a major factor in fatigue both of body and pick) and improving penetration and holding power on thin ice. All you need to modify your pick is a small metal file and a bit of time (a vice is nice but not necessary). When buying a file don’t go for some eight inch-long jobby with a big plastic handle. Buy a small thin file (about ½” by four inches) without a handle (put some gaffer on the end), as this will be lightweight and small enough to take on big routes (good for Alpine ice routes and expeditions). When filing, file in the same direction as the grain of the metal, not backwards and forwards.

1. File down any teeth on the underside of the pick that lie two inches further than the shaft and the pick. These are generally there to make the pick look techno and generally just make them harder to remove with deep penetrating sticks. The teeth at the top are useful for gripping and hooking ice features and these can be made sharper if that’s your thing, although they will trash your gloves more. 2. File the top edge of the pick so that it will slice into the ice when you pull the shaft back to clean it. This will let it cut up into the ice, allowing you to slide the pick out without the teeth on the bottom engaging in the ice. 3. Bevel all the underside teeth so they have no edges to catch and hang up on the ice when cleaning. 4. Angle the first tooth so that it hooks better on thin ice and small edges. 5. Round off the top edge of the pick and sharpen the first tooth of the pick to improve penetration.

Advanced modification
If you’re heading out to try some steep cascades in France, Italy or North America you can modify your picks further to enhance their performance. This entails taking about 30% off the top two inches of pick in order to further decrease ice fracturing. Some high standard climbers file their picks to the point where they are literally lethal weapons, meaning they only need jabbing or flicking into the ice, rather than be slammed home. An important difference if you’re planning on tackling fragile ice routes.


Both your tools are planted high and you’re feeling like you’re only just on. You feel as if you make one wrong move you’ll be off, yet you know you can’t fall because you’ve got no protection in. You’re pumped stupid, gripped silly and you are sure you’re about to die. Gear racking using a chest rig

Somehow you manage to get a hand free from your frozen leash allowing you to attempt to reach down and grab some pro from your harness. You feel your other forearm getting more pumped and you start to wonder how secure the pick is. The route is so steep all your rack hangs behind you from your gear loops, the waist down around your hips due to the drag of your frozen ropes. The gear on the front of your harness is blocked from your view by the baggy fabric of your shell, leaving you to blindly search for the right piece of gear by feel alone - not an easy thing to do when your hands have turned blue. I’m sure we’ve all been there - so what can you do? Well here are some ideas.

Shoulder strap racks

This is a system that I find works well (as long as you’re wearing your ‘sack), allowing far greater freedom in gaining access to your gear. All you need to do is get some clear plastic tubing (try B&Q) and some three or four millimetre cord. Simply create a gear loop on each shoulder strap by tying the cord from the buckle to about four inches up the shoulder strap using the tubing to make the loop rigid. Try and get the loop so it’s open enough to allow you to clip gear in quickly and easily, but not so big as to get in the way. It’s also worth getting some bright cord so it’s easy to see against the strap. This system lets you rack the gear you think you may need for the ground ahead where it’s easy to identify and grab. It also lets you grab protection without having to remove your hand from your wrist-loop, by hooking your tool over your shoulder, saving time. It also works really well for seconding, allowing you to have all the gear in one place so that you can rack it properly once you get to the belay.

Chest Racking

One tip that can be learnt from the Canadian steep ice masters is to rack your ice screws high on the chest, rather than on the waist. This means that when you are leaning way back off your axes on steep ground, your screws are right there in front of you. Grivel make a specialist chest harness that includes screw tubes for this job, but these may be a little specialized for UK use (good for abroad though). If you are wearing a rucksack you should be able to rig up one of those dedicated ice screw clippers (Black Diamond, Charlet Moser, Simond) on to the chest strap (don’t just clip it to the strap as you’re bound to lose all your screws).

If you’re not wearing a rucksack then you’ll need a Chest Rig. There are various chest rigs out there that are great for winter climbing, allowing you to rack the gear higher and keep the weight off your harness - very useful if you’re climbing with a monster mixed rack on long pitches. The Black Diamond Zodiac is good if you want a light comfy set up (includes crucial chest height racks), otherwise probably the best option is to get a lightweight chest harness (Petzl, BD, Clog etc) and make your own rig to your own spec, sewing on your own gear loops using 10mm tape and tubing (put enough stitches in till you can hang off the loop). A secondary advantage is that the chest harness can be used both in conjunction with your axes as a back up (see next issue) and when used in conjunction with your sit harness, gives you a better chance of not falling upside down (quite likely if you’re wearing a sack). One of the best winter chest rigs is the new Grivel Mano, a combination chest rig and small climbing ‘sack (13 litres/555g), the pack can be removed leaving just a big wall style chest rig and has enough gear racks for any route you might encounter.


Modern bandolier designs that feature gear loops sewn on to the bandolier (Metolius, Troll, Cassin) are much more useful than plain bandoliers, as they stop all your gear bunching together on steep or slabby terrain. They can also be adapted to be used with screw clippers.


A good glove system will make tons of difference. I went over glove ideas last winter and I still reckon the medium weight Schoeller gloves (TNF, BD, Marmot) are the best technical gloves so far. In Patagonia and the Alps last winter they worked amazingly well when climbing, plus they lasted longer than one route. A good tip is to get a big cheap pair of mitts to throw over them for belaying to keep them warm after the lead, or put the gloves near your body to stay warm and put the mitts on to dry out any dampness. You’re only as good as your gloves.

One thing I think is worth playing around with is the old wrist-over idea, as I think when you are climbing a lot of heat gets lost via your bare wrists poking out of the gap between your cuffs and glove. You can often buy those thin polypropylene wrist-overs, but I think they’re a bit too thin for winter climbing and it’s probably best to make your own out of fleece. If you’ve never seen one and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s how to make one.

Take a piece of stretchy fleece (it’ll need to stretch in at least one direction) and sew it into a tube that will fit over your hand (buy it from the mail order fabric retailers in the classified section). Cut a hole in it for your thumb. And that’s it. It’s best to wear it under the gloves and if you find they’re getting in the way you can just push it back on to your wrist for that tennis pro look. Another option is to sew them on to the cuffs of your fleece (extending the cuff), like old Helly fleece jackets.


I know I’m probably being very retro here but I reckon it’s better to have a crap axe and a good leash, rather than a good axe and a crap leash. Simon Richardson told me a good story to demonstrate this point. For years he’d climbed with just a crappy thin tape leash (God knows how), until one day, climbing on the Ben, he dropped one of his tools. His American partner, Pete Takeda, let him use one of his Black Profits, complete with a techno Yates cushy leash. Well Simon said he’d never realized that a leash could make such a difference, holding his wrist comfortably without having to grip on for dear life, making the act of climbing feel grades easier. As soon as he was down, he was on the Internet ordering himself a pair of leashes from the States.

There are plenty of pretty good leashes around, but few amazing ones, with many being let down by poor detail, or being just not thought out properly. Here are my top three technical leashes in ascending order:

3. Simple, low tech but effective, the Black Diamond Lockdown Leash (£14) comes in at number three. Ergonomic wrist angle and secure fit without the need for buckles, this leash is perfect for grim icy conditions that will foul up the more technical models i.e. UK conditions. Wins out over the DMM version due to better finishing.

2. Knocked off the top position but still one of the best leashes around, we have the classic Charlet Moser Locksafe Leash (£10). Simple and tough, this leash locks your wrists in tight and doesn’t let go until you want it too. Loses points for not having an angled ergonomic wrist closure, but as a general lightweight leash it can’t be beaten.

1. In at number one, the leash that makes the weak climber feel strong, the Yates M9 Handcuff. Designed by Jay Smith, these things are state of the art and deluxe with a capital ‘D’. $25 each (contact to order), they’re not too expensive considering how well thought out and well-made they are (you’ll need to pay for shipping and tax if you mail order them from Yates, remember). If you want a more lightweight Alpine version go for the plain Handcuffs ($15). Come on DMM, make something better or at least half as good.