Leading Grotto Falls

Leading ice versus rock climbs

Leading on ice? Sounds like some kind of Disney show. To my enjoyment I found placing screws and the mental focus on frozen waterfalls can give quite a fairytale ending.

While I’m no expert, ramble in low grades and have a lot to learn, I found it interesting to reflect on the differences and similiarities between leading on ice and rock. Here’s my initial realisations…

For me, the biggest difference was about falling.

Now, I don’t fling myself off rock routes at the mercy of a pretty #3 cam for the hell of it, but the thought of falling on ice really hit home. You just don’t fall. There are sharp things everywhere and, with my imagination, visions of crampons piercing a calf were just the beginning (sorry Mum!)

Further, placing trad gear on rock can be dubious due to quality and availability. On ice, it was the same, so on top rope I learned about bulges, sounds, bubbles, pillars, and my comfort level. I also practiced placing  tools and screws in different ice and testing it to see what would hold. It was top rope time well spent.

Leading Scottish Gully

Heading up Scottish Gully at the Junkyards

A similarity I found was the ability to build a nest for rest. On rock it’s cams or nuts like a mini anchor when I’m pumped and don’t want to fall. On ice, it’s getting two screws in or, worse case, hammering a tool in and resting on it so I can place screws. It was tips like this that made our guiding day with Yamnuksa so valuable.

Mental preparation was the same.

From waking up in the morning to stepping onto the climb, like rock, on ice I found I needed to be switched on, confident and relaxed. I bailed at Wedge Falls because a couple of screws into the climb I couldn’t get my head right. My body felt fine but I was having a mental shocker, so I lowered and Dikko led the rest.

Wedge Falls Kananaskis

Having words with Wedge Falls in Kananaskis Country after I bailed

When it comes to descent, I think ice is slightly kinder in terms of rappeling. Rather than aiming for set anchors you can rappel and build an abalakov where you need (as long the ice quality is good, and you should always know the descent route of any climb anyway). So, you getting my drift by now – there’s always a disclaimer with climbing! That said, I did remove thread from previous abalakovs and aimed for set anchors on most of our ice climbs.

Racking up for rock I’ve a specific way I like to have gear on my harness. I tried to replicate a similar set up with ice gear but it didn’t work (thanks ice screws for letting my thigh know).  Some shuffling was required and ice clippers made a world of difference. A harness with specific allowance for clippers is the way to go, no question. Speaking of essential gear, ice climbing wins hands down for helmets.

Ice Climbing Gear Harness

Time to learn a new way to rack including screws and screamers

I consider my belayer on rock but I really care for them on ice.

On rock it’s about gear on traverses or how double ropes impact seconding and you usually find beta on loose rock. On ice, there’s those usual considerations but most importantly, I had to ensure my belayer wasn’t clocked in the head with dinner plates. I think both leader and belayer can work together to help avoid a dangerous shower as much as possible, because they’re likely to happen.

Leading Grotto Falls

Leading the ladder of Grotto Falls (like many beginners before me!)

Speaking of belayers, sharing anchors on multipitch ice and rope handling also required attention, all those pointy sharp things that enable you to climb demand extra self awareness in close quarters.

At the end of the day leading on ice and rock are different beasts. For me, I found ice less predictable more mentally demanding, while rock is more physically demanding.

Leading any climb gives me great feelings of achievement and problem solving satisfaction. I learn a lot about myself, have fun and build experiences with my climbing partner. Though if I’m really honest, those benefits feel a tad sweeter after ice, especially in a cosy pub where I live happily ever after!

What are your thoughts on ice versus rock climbing? Any similarities or differences you want to share? Comment below…

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