Friday, March 25, 2011

How not to suck

The discussion on "Ice climbing is NOT rock climbing" has generally been useful; I learned a few things for sure, and I appreciate Jeff (the videographer) and the guys in the video taking it all well. I've talked to Jeff and the climbers, they're good people. I write this blog pretty much like I talk to my friends over morning coffee, and went a little overboard in not editing my comments a little. My sincere apologies to the Fall team for that, and I look forward to getting out with them next year.

Now for some more harshness: I see the errors in Jeff's video pretty much every single time I go climbing at a popular area; that's why I used his video. Bad sticks, poor knowledge of ice, standing under falling ice, equipment errors, the list goes on and on of what not to do. But these guys aren't special; the average day in Haffner, G1 at Hyalite or any other popular ice crag sees every single one of the errors in the video except perhaps the fall. I'm not picking on these guys personally; but novice ice climbers everywhere. These guys aren't especially stupid, ignorant or wilfully dangerous; they're about average from what I see out there. Yeah, that's right, it's not personal with these guys, I think that broadly most novices I see pretty much suck, and are a menace to themselves. I'm also arrogant enough to think that writing about errors, discussing errors publicly with all of you and sharing those errors around among the ice climbing community will help reduce the quantity of bad decision making I see... So, here's how not to suck:

Protect yourself: Every time we go climbing stuff is going to fall down either from our group, from people above us, avalanches, etc. etc. An ice climbing area is an accident waiting to happen; protect yourself at all times. I do not have to think this way at most sport crags, although I try to keep it in my mind. Ice climbing is different.

Toprope. I keep writing this, but I do not think it's possible to have much understanding of ice until you have done at least 150 pitches of it. I didn't learn this way, and I shudder to think of how many times I came close to maiming myself. I only truly learned to climb ice when I ran hundreds of laps on TR while training for ice climbing competitions. Think about how many pitches of rock climbing it takes to have even basic technical skills, never mind the ability to judge gear in what is a really simple and stable environment compared to an ice climb. So, toprope, lots. I hear people whine that, "I can't toprope in my area, not enough ice." Please. Walk a couple of hours, I can't think of one major ice climbing area that doesn't have plenty of ice if the climbers will walk a bit and get away from the crowds. Use a roadcut, flow some ice off the side of your house, it doesn't take much vertical at all, just run laps, play, learn. A week of toproping in Ouray will do more than ten weekends of sketchy leading one or two pitches a day.

Climb with good people. A basic class is a good start, but most of us enter ice climbing from rock climbing and don't want to be novices. OK, If you can't find a friend to take you who is solid (and by that I mean over 150 pitches of ice) then hire one. The money spent for a good day of instruction is a hell of a lot cheaper than a broken leg, skull fracture or death. If you get a couple of people together or even a small group the cost for a competent guide is pretty low for a day really, we probably spend more than that in the bar or on coffee. Look for guides that have been ice climbing for more than five years, and climb more than 50 days a season. Less than that is not enough. If you're coming to Canmore email me and I'll help you out; I don't guide, but have a lot of friends who do a good job at it. I can and will do the same for a lot of areas around North America and parts of Europe. I do not get a referral fee or anything for that btw.

Watch: There is a tremendous amount of material on Youtube and elsewhere about how to and how not to ice climb....

Read: I wrote a book on how to ice climb. I'd change a few parts of it today, but overall it's still what I believe. But get all the ice climbing books, articles, web stuff, whatever, and read. There is always more to learn. I read a tremendous amount about ice climbing, it's an obsession as those of you who read this blog regularly may have noticed. I'm an ice nerd...

Obsess: No detail is too small to get right, or wrong. I guarantee that you will make errors while climbing, and only if you do enough things right will the errors not kill you. I know this because I've made a lot of errors over the last 30 years of active climbing. I'm going to post my top screwups next post...

Be Honest: Did you climb that route with every single stick a reasonable belay, no foot slips, good gear, and relaxed hands? If not then you weren't climbing it at a "proficient" level. Getting up an ice climb is not good enough if you want to keep doing the sport for many years. Do not judge yourself by getting to the anchors or not, but by honestly how solid every single move was.

Don't be this guy at 1:40: Horrible sticks again, guy pitches off... Later in the video there are shots of top-roping, and it looks like technique may be improving. Cool. Falling off not cool. But it does look like a super fun trip, and unless the video is edited out of sequence the sticks are better at the end than the beginning... Let's be nice in the comments section, thanks.

PS--and for anyone who thinks TRing is boring, check this stunt out. I guarantee they weren't bored, and likely learned a few things. But keep the rope tighter while toproping than this team is, a guy I knew managed to fracture his femur while on TR when his points caught... Tight rope good.


Chris S said...

Could you post some video's of good sticks, or what do you look for in a good stick / bad stick. I've defiantly had bad sticks on top rope... but how do I know when I have a good one?

Unknown said...

Chris... you'll know a good stick after a few seasons.

Josh Briggs. said...

Will buried under "climbing with good people," but I would break it out as it deserves its own category.

Pay for expertise.

People like to spend money on equipment which becomes obsolete, goes out of fashion, is lost or replaced. Knowledge is forever.

Expecting to gain knowledge without being taught is wishful. Reading helps but does not communicate nuance.

Rafal said...

An observation, perhaps distinction, I'd like to make is that getting a guide is not always getting a lesson.

I recently ran across a guy getting guided up a local climb. We chatted a bit and he said he comes out once a month or so and climbs a route with a guide: Cascade, Professors, etc. He also said he hopes to improve soon.

But he wasn't learning or improving, because the guide was out of view at the belay and unable to offer advice while his client - quite literally at times - flailed his way up the ice.

All the things Will talks about were present: no idea about ice (he rained down tons of ice on us, while we found good hooks the whole way up, and barely swung), his sticks were wobbly, his feet blew, he didn't appear to be in good enough shape for the climb, etc.

He sure seemed like he was having fun 'climbing' the classic routes. But I don't think he'll ever get good at ice climbing if he continues to get guided instead of taught.

I don't profess to know how to climb well either, but I do know that going out and cragging with people who do have experience teaches me much more than doing a long route.

Mike said...

Will, I don't think your analysis of the video was out of line. I've seen a lot of people do what the guys in this video did, including friends of mine. Unfortunately, asking, "Do you think that's really a good idea?" isn't enough. I appreciate your directness.

fulton said...

Hey Will, if we GoPro all our ice climbing outings can you analyze what we're doing wrong or right? Sorry, couldn't resist ;-j Really enjoyed and learnt loads from all this. Makes me want to get out more. Thanks again for the blog and the websites.

Kim Graves said...

Re keeping a tight rope while TR: I'm a fan of using a static for TR. Much safer: just off the deck - you won't deck; just off a ledge - you won't hit it.

Will Gadd said...

Good thoughts.

Chris, a good stick is one you trust with either your life or your legs as a minimum. I can talk about it forever, but you'll know it after 150 TR pitches, especially if you push it and play with hooks etc. Also check out the latest blog post for the video of Raph etc., those are solid sticks in bad ice.

Tikka Man said...

Each and every one of us sucks sometimes. The trick is recognizing it and embracing the learning curve, even when you may be an "expert". Check out this bit of Suck Factor wisdom,

robbie.flick said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I recently started climbing ice, and one of the most frustrating barriers to overcome is sucking as a novice, then being blamed for being a novice and sucking. Not a very encouraging loop. Your pointers are great ways for those of us who aren't pros to improve and make the experience safer for ourselves and those around us. Can't wait to read more.