Ice Climbing is Dangerous


So we place tubular screws in the ice to secure the rope in case of a fall. But even placing the  protection is difficult enough to be controversial. You find them less and less, but there are some experienced climbers who feel it is safer to go without protection against all but a catastrophic fall. Their rationale is that the screws are too tiring to place and the placements are not predictably reliable.

As if it isn't hard enough - penalty slack

As if it isn’t hard enough – penalty slack

I disagree, of course, but I’m an optimist. I figure, if the screw hit an air pocket,  it may fail if I take a big fall on it, but that means it may not too, and I know that the ground will be even less forgiving. I have some data to back up my optimism. There are the drop tests done by Craig Leubben and Chris Harmston. Then there’s my anecdotal evidence. I know several people who have fallen on ice screws. The majority came away with fractures, true, but the screws held and all the climbers lived to climb again. In addition, I have personally witnessed two falls on ice screws.


The first was several years ago. A friend and I were watching a couple of guys climb Jaws a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National park. The sun was baking the upper third of the climb and the leader wisely placed a screw just before he climbed out of the shade. About fifteen feet into the tropics, he started having trouble getting his tools to stick. He placed another screw and continued. After ten more feet, it was clear he could not go up any farther; the ice was just too thin and rotten. Things looked better off to his right though, so he struck out in that direction. It proved a false hope. Two moves into the traverse, he slid down several feet. He recovered, made two more tool placements, then popped off. The upper screw blew out of the ice without even stretching the rope. The shadow piece caught him after about fifty feet, just five feet from the ground.


I witnessed the second fall just five days ago. A younger gentleman was climbing at our training area. I had led a solid line just to his right a few minutes before. He wanted to go a bit steeper. The line he chose had a little overhanging icicle about fifteen feet up and he launched for it. Rich had tapped on that feature on his way past it, and neither of us liked the sound it made. I almost said something, but I didn’t want to intrude. Tony’s a good climber; he would be careful. He drove an ice screw in the pillar below the icicle, hooked a tool on a feature in the middle of the hanging dagger, and took a tentative swing for the top of the icicle. As soon as the pick of the tool made contact, the whole thing cut loose. Fortunately, he had his legs out from under the falling chunk, so he missed having his bottom half skewered. The screw caught him just before his crampon points scraped the ground. The screw did not bend and the ice around the hanger hadn’t a chip in it. The fall factor had to be close to 1.5. I shall persist in my optimism.


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4 thoughts on “Ice Climbing is Dangerous

  1. Borut Kantušer says:

    Thanks for the share! Placing protection or not is a grand theme. Many factors are involved at once in a small amount of time. Decision making!
    I popped off once – after having made the decision of placing a screw. I had unleached one of the tools and placed the rope over it. I was urging for a full rest and did not take the time to use a biner. I weighted the installation and the rope slipped off as I next made a move. I eventually hit the excavated bottom part of the candle, but sideways, so I was lucky to get away with only a rib injury. The first and only screw after belay point had caught the fall. I climbed back up to belay and we switched leads – deceived by how relaxed I then followed the pitch. I’m an optimist too, though trying to loose some enthusiasm – ha.

    • Borut Kantušer says:

      Excuse me for commenting on my own post, but I couldn’t find a way of editing the last sentence. It should go: I’m an optimist too, trying to loose some enthusiam – ha.

  2. maxfurr says:

    And I thought I was nutz! I do admire your courage.

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