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Ice Screw Management

By Dave Evans

The winter is approaching, the nights are drawing in, it's nearly time to dust off the tools and get ready for action. For anyone planning an early hit to the Alps or further afield, the ice screws are going to be essential. A little reminder of screw technique is always useful as, hopefully unlike your screws, you could be a bit rusty!

Get Your Teeth Capped

Make sure you always transport screws with the caps on the teeth. This is essential as you need them as sharp as possible, particularly if climbing somewhere really cold! You want them going in as easily as possible on those first few routes to keep the fear from gripping you! I always carry my screws in a separate light crampon bag - protecting the threads will help them go in quickly.

Rack 'em Up!

Ice screw racks are worth their weight in gold, saving valuable time and fumbles. I tend to put 3 screws on each screw rack, with one rack on each side of the harness. Some harnesses come with these as standard, but you can buy various types in any good outdoor shop. Try them before you buy them, to make sure your screws and racking system are compatible. Extra screws for belays can be racked out of the way on 'biners around the back of your harness.

Take Plenty

Think carefully about how many screws you need for each route. If you need screws for the belays (at least four) and you are climbing long pitches, then 12 won't feel like too many! Otherwise, decide how many runners you would like per pitch - and don't be too brave. I generally carry one 22cm (extra long) screw for belays on pure ice routes (these are also great for making Abalokov ice threads) and mostly 17cm (medium) screws otherwise. There are 10cm and 12cm screws available for use on thin ice. These are excellent on specific routes (like that thin Ben Nevis plating) but you don't have the flexibility with them for use all round.

Look Ahead

You're underneath the steepest section of the pitch, preparing to go for it. Always stop and get a good screw (or two) before setting off on a pumpy section, rather than waiting 'till it's too late. Remember a screw will only ever be as good as the ice you put it in, so it is useful to be assessing this the whole time you are climbing. Look for signs of good quality blue ice in advance. Clear surface-mush away to get to the good stuff below, and try to place screws into natural hollows that already exist in the ice. This will ease placement, and displace less ice, making the screw stronger.

Get In Over Your Head

Ice Screw Management

Make sure you get a tool in well above your head before trying to place - so you can hang in balance off a straight arm. Put the screw in at around waist height, thereby applying maximum force onto it. Also get your feet bridged below your one tool so you are well balanced before starting to place. Get the other tool in the ice out of the way so it doesn't impede placement of the screw. If using screws with 'express' type handles don't start using them until the screw feels solidly in the ice, usually 3-4 turns.

What's the Angle?

Ice Screw Management

There is some healthy debate as to the optimum angle of screw placement in the ice. This will often depend largely on the quality and depth of ice, requiring good judgement of conditions. Generally, if the screw is going to go in to the hilt, with the head flush with the surface, then close to 90 degrees will do for most people. Rather than tying off a shallow placement, it seems mechanically sensible to angle the screw upwards into the ice. This allows the threads to take the load - and saves any bending forces on the tube.
See www.terragalleria.com/mountain/info/ice/bd-test.html for more information. Read all you like about this controversial topic, but I normally find that when faced with placing a piece of protection on a winter route - when cold, pumped and scared - I just want the gear in.

Dry Your Threads

After your massive winter day, never forget to get the screws out and dry them off, as any moisture held around the metal will encourage rust. This will lead to more difficult placement later!


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