Yvon is eyeing a small serac at the snout of the Teton Glacier. He asks how we might attack it, and a student heavily armed with two very shiny ice tools and new rigid crampons begins a mad display of poor front pointing and flailing until he gets to the bulging top, where both tools lever out and gravity plants his ass back in the snow where he started. YC smiles, and works his way up the serac using only one tool, starting in piolet ramasse and switching to ancre when the ice steepens and calmly climbs over the edge to the top.
In class Chouinard drilled us on piolet ramasse, piolet ancre, piolet rampe, even a boot/axe belay while walking. The next summer in the Tetons and Canada I practiced these techniques until they were solid. Very solid. Since then nearly every one of the techniques YC taught me has either saved my life or helped me get off big mountains with clients before dark. When other guides didn’t. Piolet ramasse, piolet ancre and piolet rampe are techniques you won’t be comfortable with the first time on smooth ice. But done perfectly they all work beautifully for what they are intended. Good French ice technique will make you a better all-around climber wherever you chase your ice.
Yvon Chouinard wrote “Climbing Ice,” in my opinion the best book ever written on ice climbing. If you are serious about learning ice technique, buy the book and read it. Over and over. And practice the various forms until they become second nature. Some argue French Technique has little application for Wasatch waterfall climbing. But it does, not only for local waterfalls, but also for the big mountains which may be in your future. The French tradition of ice has a technique for every angle of ice, not just lower angled stuff. Yvon’s book also talks about other little-known techniques like hip axe belays and axe/bollard anchors, which have proven very valuable to me as a climber and guide.
Ice climbing can be elegant, the closest thing to dance that climbing has. Unlike rock which dictates what you hang onto, and when, ice demands climbers use skill and style to make your own holds. If you fall on ice, it’s only because you didn’t make your holds well enough. And any fall on ice is nasty, never as benign as a simple slide down a granite slab. Crampons can catch at any time and snap ankles in nanoseconds. Climb well, don’t fall.
Ice tools need to be very sharp at all times. George Lowe actually sharpened tools while on belays in the Canadian Rockies. YC said they should be able to draw blood. In fact, some of the more delicate movements of French ice technique cannot be done safely without sharp tools. Best not to try.
“High heels” are a critical front pointing flaw, when heels creep up higher than front points. A low heel position relaxes the legs and engages not only the two front points, but the two vertical points below them as well. As the ice gets steeper, your body needs to be away from the ice so you can keep low heels and prevent them from levering out. Especially when going over bulges which nearly every waterfall in the Wasatch has somewhere. Good front pointing technique uses the body’s appendages like an X: feet well-spaced and level, top tools up and outward. Kick front points into the ice with a single good kick, perpendicular to whatever angle the ice may present. In ice curtains, this may mean your feet may be pointing in different directions, but try to get both feet level eventually, and spread apart for balance. Then move your tools higher. Climb up on your tools, with quick sort steps if you wish, but your tools should never dip below your nose. Eventually get your feet solid and level. Then move your tools again. You should front point when it is the best technique for the climb at hand, not because it is the only technique you know.
The single most important ice technique reflects other disciplines: it’s the third foot position in ballet, many sumo wrestling moves and the cat stance in karate. On ice it’s called troisième, feet at right angles to each other, used for ascent, traverses, or even descent. On ascent, one foot front points while the other places all downward-pointing spikes flat-footed into the ice, at a right angle with the toe of the front pointing foot. When the front pointing foot gets tired, and it will, reverse the feet. Beautiful for big alpine ice, fifty to sixty degrees in steepness. On waterfalls it is very useful for rotten ice near the edges or for verglassed rock. On traverses, lead with either the “French” foot or the front points, but as the hardness of the ice increases, it is usually front points which want to step out first. Much easier and faster than front pointing alone. On descent, one foot points straight down and the heel points are engaged first, rolling onto the rest of the down points. Then the other foot is placed at right angles to toe of the first foot, with all ten points pointing downward into the ice. Rolling onto points heel first instead of trying to “stomp” them all in at once is actually more secure and uses much less energy. Troisiéme is also great for rapping on ice.
Single tool technique is good to practice. Try it when following a pitch, using one tool to increase speed and save strength. Place a single tool as high as you can reach and then climb up the shaft as you front point, eventually placing a palm on top of the tool. This is one time you do climb past the tool and take it out near your waist. Being able to do one technique or another is practically useless by itself. It is the seamless blending of various techniques as conditions and angle change that makes a good ice climber.
Ice climbing is not rock climbing. On rock, most people think of the rope as the belay, but on ice it is your tools which are the true belay. Your tools should be able to catch you if crampon points lever out, or if an ice dinner plate shears off while placing a tool above. Three of us were on the Chouinard Route on Mount Fay in Canada when another group approached the face grumbling that we were going to be in their way all day. They were climbing on a single 165-foot rope with a climber tied in the middle, which meant they were doing 80-foot pitches. All three of them were double tooling and front pointing. We were on a 300-foot rope with two climbers tied in ten feet apart at the end of the rope, which meant we were doing 290-foot pitches. And when following a pitch we were single tooling in troisiéme with a comfortable belay from above. We were off the face, off the mountain and back at the hut before those three guys got off the face. They were climbing ice as though they were on rock. A bad idea unless you actually like bivouacs.
Another time in Canada we caught up to a group on the Silverhorn Route on Athabasca, at the bergschrund, roping up for the ice face above. There were few spots for a belay, so we politely asked if we could tie into their anchor and climb out parallel to them so we wouldn’t knock ice chunks down on each other. As soon as I started up I noticed why we had caught up with them: their leader was placing ice screws every fifteen feet or so. I took off on perfect nèvè, or styro as we call it, because it felt like climbing with crampons on a perfect styrofoam mountain. I went out about 75 feet and placed an ice screw. Meanwhile, down at the belay, the natives didn’t like my going out that far while tied into their anchor, so my companion said, “He would never do that unless he was absolutely solid.” And she unclipped from their anchor and stood (in perfect troisiéme of course) at the edge of the ‘schrund. She knew the rope was for her. She told me about it when she got up to my belay and I laughed. After all, I had just been doing a little dancing.