I have always considered my self as a pretty careful ice climber. I try to put in protection pretty often and climb well within my abilities. It’s been years since I’ve taken a lead fall on ice. Then all of a sudden I took two couple of weeks ago, while climbing in Tamokdalen, Norway. Well, they were on different days, but still very close to each other. Fortunately, both of them were “soft landings”, so no serious damages; just a few lost ice screws and a “black thumb”.
Supposedly lead falls on ice are serious events that one should be scared of and avoided at all cost. Still, instead of fright my immediate reaction was an anger to myself; “Fuck, how the hell did I get my self here?!? I’ll get my self up there!”. Yes, I agree, they can be serious, but not necessarily. Having said this, taking lead falls on ice are still definitely off from my agenda. Based on my own three experiences however, it all depends on many variables. This article tries to go through some of that stuff.
Why did I fall
First of all, the falls were not because the climbs were overly difficult nor above my usual limits. So why did I fall then? They were, as usual, mixture of several things. Here’s a recap.
Fifi hook – On first of the two falls, I really screwed it up. I got pumped and clipped my self to my other axe (I’ll get to point why I got pumped a little later). However I didn’t unclip before I started to move my axe. As a result I couldn’t (obviously) hit far enough and strong enough to get a good placement. The obvious question is why? I don’t know for sure. It perhaps felt somewhat difficult or I just forgot. As a result, I smacked my axe next to my other axe and both of them broke loose.
Cracking ice – The reason why both of my axes broke loose on my first fall ever was ice that due to very low temperatures (and rapid changes) cracked easily. Easily cracking ice (due to temperature changes) was a contributing factor that realized my error with the fifi hook into a fall as well on my second fall. It also was the main reason on my third fall. Though instead of “just cracking”, ice was more of a dinnerplating type. This is not just an obvious explanation (of course it cracked), but a fact that I remember of thinking of several times before the falls, i.e. that the ice is cracking unusually easily.
So in each of the three cases ice has been unusually easily cracking. While it’s a bit speculation, I think that each time ice cracked a bit differently and for a bit different reason. In first, it was because of very low temperatures (-30 degrees in Celsius or so), which resulted long cracks and fairly large blocks of ice. On second time, it wasn’t that cold, but there was a history of temperature changes behind. As a result, there were some tension between layers of ice – formation however was fairly uniform and there wasn’t very recent flow of water there. Again, it resulted fairly large blocks of cracking ice. On a third time, the ice was formed more of clearly distinguishable layers due the more continuous water flow on different temperatures. This ice dinnerplated very easily.
Low energy balance – During both of those recent falls I had kind of low energy balance. On first of them, it was our fourth pitch and I hadn’t eaten anything during the climb; even worse, I had left the heavily sugared tea that I always carry while climbing, untouched. In fact, the climb included pretty tedious approach and I didn’t eat anything energetic between the approach and the climb. Just a one cup of tea. Now wonder I wasn’t at my best. On second of them, the situation wasn’t as bad. I had a cup of tea and handful of nuts before we started the climb. However I had really bad breakfast; just a cup of tea and single slice of bread.
I presume that due to the low energy balance I ended getting pumped more easily than usually. I also presume that it kind of lowered my mental state, i.e. awareness and decision making. Not dramatically, but just enough to do the trick.
Non optimal route – Last one of my falls was also partly caused (though much lesser degree) because of poor route reading. Well, not really route reading, I were exactly were I wanted to be, but it just happened to be a poor position. Funny enough, I knew it before I got there. There were some crust and soft snow underneath steep pillar I was planning to climb. On right hand side there was a route that had first short steep section and then a good good rest between two pillars and some icicles. As I wasn’t feeling super energetic, I decided to use the “rest-route” instead of directly tackling the pillar. But due to shape of the pillar and the icicles above it was very difficult to move on from my rest position, especially it was difficult to get good placements for my feet.
I’m certain that it would had worked much better, if I would have negotiated the pillar directly from the front. All unnecessary complications, especially the ones that one takes to move some difficult part further ahead, make it even more difficult. I’ve been in such “between pillars – under icicles” spot before. Getting off from there were equally difficult.
Why I didn’t hurt my self
While there certainly was a bit of luck involved, it wasn’t just luck. So what were the “not just luck” factors then? As usual there were several.
Protection – In each of the falls I have been relatively little above the last piece of protection. At first time it was about four meters I guess. On these later ones I fell just, perhaps a meter or so, above the protection. Furthermore there has always been several pieces of protection between me and the belayer. As a result each of them have been low fall factor falls. Also all of the screws I fallen into have been well placed on very solid ice.
No ledges below – I have newer fallen on a ledge. On the first fall it was nearly vertical ice wall, and on two others nearly vertical wall transitioning fairly softly into a slope covered with thick soft snow. On first fall I got some minor bruises due to hitting the ice, but rope stretch covered most of the impact force. On those two others the landing was even softer; partly because of the snow and partly because of very elastic half ropes (Beal Ice Line).
While falling I had a interesting chance to observe some of the safety features of gear. As I had placed my e-climb dissip screamer (not because I needed one, but because it was at hand) on top most protection while taking first of these recent falls, I now have some first hand experience of them as well. First of all, the screamer didn’t open a bit. It is not surprising as I had two or three screws below me. While the snowy slope below me, as well as short distance to the screw had something to do with it I now take it more or less proven that you only need to place screamers on your first or second piece of protection – after all I had enough meters (20 or so) to go down and the rope stretched so smoothly and so long that it’s pretty obvious that rope did the work here.
What else? Spring leashes didn’t cause damage. On second fall I didn’t even loos my grab of the axes, on first one my axes spiked me a little, but not seriously. I think that due to inertia that’s taking the climber and his axes into same direction they’re unlikely to hit badly. Obviously getting axe between you and a ledge would be serious, but again I consider it pretty unlikely event (it would somehow need to get stuck spiking upwards just before you’ll hit it – newer heard of such fall). I also noticed that clippers are kind of weak point. One of mine got clipped into one of the ropes while I was falling. As a result it partly ripped of the clipper slot on my harness and I lost three screws.
Update 14.4.2011: Well, it seems that there’s a mental penalty that struck me with a delay. During the next climbing trip after the fall which we did to Korouoma, I noticed that it was a lot more difficult to take a lead on steep ice and keep my head together while leading. It took enormous hassle and good push – stuck series -type of climbing to lead the brown river. Actually, now when I think about it, it happened also after my first fall – I’ve hated cracking ice ever since.
About the topic elsewhere