Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Are Ice Tool Leashes As Archaic as Gaiters, Screamers and Third Tools?

The picture above is the last one I could find in my photo collection where I have a leash on a tool--Norway 2005.

This is another blog post inspired by a question from a reader. The question was roughly, "I was wondering your take on leashless climbing for beginners?  I am a sorta old school ice climber that still uses leashes for those 4 days a year I manage to get out ice climbing. (father in washington state)  I feel that I don't get enough time on ice to get strong enough to enjoy the benefits of leashless climbing.

I have heard many peoples opinion that beginners should start out leashless for several reasons.  many guides start clients this way.  I feel that the beginners need every advantage they can get to enjoy the day.

What is your take?"

Back in the day I thought leashes for ice tools were the only way to hang onto ice tools, and that gaiters were the only way to keep snow out of my boots. I now seldom to never use either leashes or gaiters. And I don't use Screamers/Force limiters much on ice screws, and I don't carry a third tool either. Amazing how what was once standard equipment is now history.

Leashes: To start with, very, very few people set their leashes up correctly to begin with. Most people grab their ice tool at 90 degrees to the shaft, set the leash length and call it good. But your hand tends to rotate when actually hanging on so the index finger isn't anywhere near 90; usually it points more "up" than parallell to the ground. This rotates the pinky up, putting it several centimetres higher than it should be. If your pinky isn't almost falling off the bottom of your tool the tool when hanging onto the tool it won't rotate correctly when swung. Different thicknesses of gloves will also effect where your hand is on the tool. So if you're going to use leashes at least set them up properly, and use a decent one for technical ice climbing like the Android.

That said, I can't remember the last time I used leashes, and don't think in most situations for most people they are worthwhile. Most people are strong enough rock climbers to hold onto the tools when (and not if, when) their feet blow. I have seen a mitten or glove still hanging through a wrist loop on a lonesome tool after the climber has fallen off; leashes help hold on, but not as much as is commonly assumed, and modern leashless tools are surprisingly easy to hold on to. It probably makes sense for people who don't rock climb at all during the sumer to use leashes; they may not have the hand strength to hang on if their feet blow. And in this situation an Android or equivalent really solid leash has to be used or the benefit is missed. I have sometimes used leashes for alpine climbing with hazard overhead, but more often I get too annoyed and just end up climbing leashless. However, I can see the theory even if I can't practice it.

I won't go into the benefits of leashless, other than to say the only thing a leashed tool still does better than a leashless tool is significant: Leashed tools swing better. I have yet to get a better swing out of a leashless tool than a well set-up leashed tool. The perfectly relaxed fast swing is the holy grail of leashless tools, and so far I haven't felt it, and I try every new tool I can. It's just that the other advantages of leashless tools outweight the disadvantages. Many climbers have only swung leashless tools; I've swung both thousands or maybe millions of times by now, and I have yet to swing a leashless tool that swings as fluidly as a leashed tool.

I was also very concerned about dropping leashless ice tools, but I've dropped more leashed tools than leashless tools over the years. I'm not sure why this is, but it's true for me. Occasionally I'll use the BD Spinner, mostly on alpine terrain. I used to think leashes were a good idea for novices so they didn't drop their tools, but they seem to mostly just leave them in the ice and hang on the rope. If they do fall I'm not sure having a leashed tool spinning around them is a great improvement in novice (close to the ground) environments... It might be better to just go pick it up. BD Spinners aren't rated for the sort of impacts a fall can generate and there are all kinds of skull and crossbones warnings on the packaging, but somehow they do occasionally hold slips. Best not to slip so far you need to rely on a piece of gear that's not at all designed for catching a slip...

There's a temptation to set your tools up to work with leashes as well as leashless "just in case." But a tool set up for leashless climbing has a different pommel/lower grip and swing than a leashed tool; the pommel/finger grip interferes so much with a leashed swing that it renders the tool near-useless. You can still swing a pair of leashless tools with the leashes clipped off to their own straps on your wrists if you set the "manacle" part up short, but not the other way around. If you're so pumped or weak that you want leashes then you should probably stop, clip into the bottom of the tool and rest on it anyhow, whether you've got leashes on or not. Climbing stupid pumped on ice is stupid, it removes any safety factor. Rest, retreat, whatever, just don't fall.

So, if you're a much better ice climber than you are a rock climber, and don't have the strength to hang on then your choices are either get stronger, which won't take all that much work, use leashes, or don't ice climb. Two of those solutions are reasonable.

And then there's gaiters. I use these slightly more than leashed tools (I just realized I don't even have a set of tools set up with leashes anymore so that's not saying a lot), but I like pants like the Arcteryx Gamma that have grommet holes and a grippy strip around the cuff. This offers a great seal without turning your boots into sweat baths like gaiters--a great deal of moisture goes out the top of your boots, gaiters just seal that in and soak everything. Most of my winter boots also have built-in gaiters, but these are more for warmth than to shed snow. Still, the combination of the pant with a lace hook/rubber strip/underfoot strap and a boot with a built in gaiter means no snow gets into my boots even when swimming in the deep stuff. If I'm wearing really light, low-cut boots like I'll use for sumer alpine adventures then I'll occasionally break out the lightest, most breathable gaiter I can find. But I don't like 'em, they are an inelegant solution to a problem.

Screamers: A good rope has relatively low impact force (single, I don't use half ropes much except for low-angle alpine scrabbling, their impact forces are often too high to be worthwhile except for gentle falls), so unless the gear is super sketchy I don't use Screamers anymore. I work hard to get good ice gear, and retreat if I can't. The nebulous line between "maybe good enough" and "GOOD" is too fine for me. I want my gear to be good, or I either solo or go home. Bad gear leads to bad decisions for me, others may have more self-restraint. Gear is not meant to be jewelry, it's meant to be solid. Playing games with shitty gear is seldom going to work out better than retreating if the movement isn't well within my skills. I used to believe "Some gear is better than none," but I'm moving more toward, "I like good gear, and will work hard to get it. If I can't get good gear then I go into solo mode, or retreat." 

Third Tools: haven't carried one in 20 years since replaceable picks came out. I did drop a tool once and had to borrow Jack Tackle's third tool, that was embarrassing enough I haven't done it since then, but appreciated the loaner.

So, what are we going to lose next? Socks? Hammers on our tools? Oh right, we lost those too! The future is definitely less, not more when it comes to gear. In the future leashed tools, gaiters and 60/40 Anoraks will all be found in the same section, and only available in dull earth colours. Or maybe, like tie-die shirts and disco, everything old will be new again one day, we'll see.

Thanks for the question.


tucker said...

interesting article, thanks for posting up will. what do you think about leashes in an alpine environment where leashless pommels/etc. can decrease the plunging performance of a tool? do you still prefer to climb with a leashless tool and make do? or are you strong enough that you can climb leashless-style with a tool like the bd venom, grivel matrix, etc? thanks.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I entirely understand your part about single vs. half ropes. You say that half ropes develop too high an impact force and that you only use them on low angle terrain. Don't half ropes develop much lower impact forces? Of course I mean when you clip them alternatively, not both throw the same piece of pro.

Anonymous said...

Some guys lose ... tools!
leashes seem to be no longer an issue here

Anonymous said...

I just started ice climbing last year, and learned on leash-less tools. I never once felt that the tools were too hard to hold on to, and I immediately enjoyed being able to switch tools from hand to hand when traversing etc. I can't comment on leashed tools swinging better, but from a beginners perspective I can say I've never felt the need for leashes.

Bruno Schull said...

HI Will. It's been a long time, but it's great to have you back! Ha, Ha, Ha...leashed tools swing better than leash less tools. Another paradigm shift: first it was horizontal vs. vertical points, now it is leashed vs. leash less and gaitors. Good stuff. My questions: as Craig posted, any further explanation for single vs. half rope impact factors? And, I assume when you say leashed tools swing better than leashless tools, you mean leashed tools...without a leash? OK, all the best, and have a great season. Bruno.

m p lunger said...

Hi, nice observation, that leashy tools still swing better than any leashless.

I always wondered about myself, when I - without thinking about it - took old 1st gen cobras leashless for very easy ice instead of new leashless supertools...... Only the very newest petzl nomics have ended that habit of mine, mayby most leashless tools before where just bad design...

leashed tools used to be bad design for a long time too, started iceclimbing on stubai tools wighting a kilo each and with a shaft diameter of about 5 centimeters. will go search them in the basement today and check their swing.....

great blog, really like it


Will Gadd said...

Tucker--I find the whole "Plunging" thing to be either no problem with leashless tools, or the terrain is easy enough it does not matter. I occasionally take a big old piolet with me for "mountaineering," if the terrain requires ax belays etc.

Craig-- Half ropes are tested with half weight so the pubished impact forces are not comparable. Read up on that here:

I have some more data since then, same stuff, smaller ropes do not equal lower impact forces, commonly believed myth.

Bruno: Yes. Put a leash on a Cobra with no leashless bits to get in the way and it hums into the ice better than a Cobra set up for leashless climbing. A leashless tool (with pommel etc) set up with leashes is the worst of all worlds for swinging with a leash on, with the leash off it's just another leashless tool.

Make sense?

Tomas said...

All the leashless tools have lower shaft angle too big to allow the same wrist swing as leashed tools. Think range of angles. The only leashless ice tools with "normal" swing are designed in Bozeman and custom made in Kallispel, MT. Will can try them out during the Bozeman Ice Fest next month.

cory said...

Hi Will,

Thanks for your great blog. There is a lot of good info here! One question regarding tying your pant cuffs down: What do you usually use to do this? A shoelace? Do you tie it around the sole of your boot or under your heel in the boot? My pants have the grommet holes, and I hate gaiters, so I'd like to try out this setup.

iggy.solo said...

hey will,

interesting stuff.

while youre on this 'fundamentals role' could you give us your thoughts on training when actually on the ice. not plice or gym stuff, but something for sessions on an ice wall or top rope that will really translate towards 'real ice' out in the valleys.
maybe like what you did prepping for your 24hr thing at ouray.

Scott said...

Thank Will.
I have the previous version of the Quarks. In your opinion, are these suitable for leashless climbing?
Also, I am looking for some ice climbing reading, any suggestions?

Chris said...

Interesting article Will.

The only thing I'd add is that cheap nylon gaiters provide good protection to fancy-schmancy Gore-Tex / Bird-Teryx pants. At the end of a long day footwork can get sloppy and stray points pierce pants. Gaiters solve this problem (as does improved footwork... which is free).


TL said...

I, as a quite novice ice climber, find leashless tools much nicer and easier to use than leashed tools. I did my first climbs with leashes and that unclipping/clipping of leashes was somewhat frustrating and took way too much energy.

When I first climbed leashless my arms got tired very fast and keeping the grip felt almost impossible. After few pitches I noticed that the reason was not that I didn't have the strength but more that I squeezed axes too hard. It took some time(5-10 pitches) to find the "perfect" grip and squeeze power but after that being leashless has been like being in heaven. It is so much easier and gives so much more freedom, especially when leading.

I would recommend people to start ice climbing with leashes if they are not so sure with their technique (especially foot technique) and at least try some pitches without leashes when they get their technique in a decent shape. I am pretty sure that (almost) no one will go back to leashes after giving a good try for leashless climbing.

Anonymous said...

Showing my vintage, I've got an old pair of Black Prophets, that I haven't used for about 10 years. Want to get back into the game this year, is it possible to use these effectively without leashes (given there are not handles like I see on newer tools)? Or do I break down and go for something in the 21st century?


Will Gadd said...

Cory--with a gripper strip around the cuff and lace catch most pants will stay down pretty well. If they stil don't I use a rubber strap with some grommet holes punched in the pants, or just make small cuts and run nylon cord underfoot, works OK.

Iggy--Yes, future post on that topic there, thanks.

Scott and Craig on older tools: If you can afford it get some new tools, the extra clearance etc. will be really nice. But those old Prophets are still decent alpine beating around tools, and the Quarks climbed well, good tools for their era. But modern gear is nicer for sure... That said, plenty of grade six ice got done on worse gear than you guys have, you can always rig something up to make 'em leashless and get 'er done. If buying new gear will make you climb less to pay for it then obviously the older gear is better!

For ice reading, I'd recommend Jeff Lowe's book Ice World, the forums on, Luebben's books, Mountaineers Freedom, etc. etc. And I wrote a book too, ha ha, just read everything you can get your hands on, experiment, and it'll all sort itself out with time out in winter.