Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mixed Climbing

This is perhaps my first post that is essentially aimed at seasoned and experienced climbers. If you are not then you may like to skip this post. I will be using techniques and terminologies that a non-initiate may find hard to grasp or visualize. But read on nevertheless, since in this post I am going to give a brief beta on almost everything that you need to know to experience the toughest form of climbing possible. In the world of natural climbing grounds we can divide it into three prime categories: rock climb, ice climb and mixed climb. I specialize in the latter two, though my best trad rock lead has been a modest 5.12 b. It’s on ice and then on mixed ground that I find myself most comfortable and intense. While rock and ice climbing is easy to grasp and understand, it is the mixed climb (MC) that is often misunderstood and hard to master. But before you begin mixed climbing one must be a seasoned ice climber and a modest rock climber. So let’s get our racks and boots and ice tools ready and go for some of the most challenging climbs possible in the world of climbing.

What is Mixed Climb (MC) or a Mixed Route (MR)?

Simply put it is a route where on at least one or two pitches you would encounter rock or normal ground besides ice. It is often debatable if the ratio of ice to the ratio of rock or natural features should be more or less for it to be classified as MC. My personal choice for a route to qualify as MC would mean that at least one third of the route should be on a ground other than ice, more vertical the better, and the ice patches would be only thin veneer of brittle or rotten or extremely poorly protected ice on underlying ground of rock or earth or turf or even vegetation. When we go on a serious MC, it almost looks as if we are on a death wish since we are burdened with our ice tools on grounds that have barely any use of them. So mostly we would be dry tooling using highly specialized techniques and innovative manoeuvres that come after years of practice. Seen by a non-initiate a MC alpinist would look more of an acrobat rather than the typically elegant and smooth flowing ice or rock climber. MC is all about thinking on your feet, innovating and improvising and maximising your resources within the shortest possible time. We almost never have any idea if the route or the ice is in the nick or where the pros would go since much of the cracks and fissures would be iced up, which needs to be patiently cleared up first. A near absence of ice screw adds to the woe. My most technical, difficult, damaging and perilous climbs has all been MC. What I like most about a MC is its unpredictability; you don’t know what you would encounter till it’s too late to retreat and it requires hundred percent commitment from the word go. Before starting any MC attempt you must practice dry tooling in a safe place first and also get used to sticking your crampon front points in tiny rock cracks and fissures, and the ability to stand on them for long durations. Most often a MC is done at a much slower rate of ascent since lot of snow and ice clearing needs to be done to place pros. No self respecting MC climber will ever bolt a MR or rely on pros placed by others before him. I like the ones I do on-sight, just by the look of a face, which looks nice, complicated and fun.

Where to find MC?

A very valid and logical question with highly confusing outcomes! In tropical climates and in the Himalaya the perfect Mixed Routes are not found in the summers or anywhere in the lower altitudes. They are found at altitudes where they cease to be a typical MC and become a proper high altitude ice climb with pitches of rock in between. In the winters though there are few places in the lesser Himalaya as well where one can find good quality MC, these are often difficult to approach and logistically severe. Ideally speaking, it is in the Alps, Canadian Rockies, and Scottish winters, lesser Andes, Patagonia, etc where we find ideal MC routes. These are ideally at lower altitudes, easy to approach, multi-pitch routes, where one need not be burdened by long and tiring approach marches therefore the techniques applied can be much more advanced, intense and challenging. My best MC have been all in Scotland, Alps, Caucuses, Canadian Rockies and the Patagonia. When I look up at face and have to decide if it is a MC or not then I look at the number of pitches and how they combine to make a mix of rock and ice pitches with at least half of each and it needs to be near vertical or overhanging even, with the ice only with thin white coating and nothing too deep or voluminous for most of the route. This is where many of my contemporary climbers differ in their opinion. Being a serious ice climber I make a distinct difference between an ice route and MR, in the former you may have brittle or rotten or hollow ice that is equally dangerous but it has lots of it, while in the latter, the amount of ice is more of a mere cover and is not really the main constituent of the route. It’s tricky where to draw the line and for most of the ratings, will depend from one climber to another depending on one’s expertise and experience. The route should look whitish with thin lines of ice here and there but not so much where you can apply proper ice climbing tools and techniques.

Style

As I mentioned before, MC if done ethically and ideally is the best (worst?) possible climbing style. It gives you the finest training for pitching yourself against your own weaknesses and fears. I like doing MC in worst possible weather conditions, virtually in hurricane blizzards, in absolute zero visibility, with ice chips biting and tearing my exposed skin like shrapnel. They are short routes, not more than few hundred meters and can be done in hours and needs total commitment. Being totally out of your mind helps though! The racks are heavy and full of metal, a pair of hooking axes, mixed crampons and good ice gloves with reinforced knuckle guards help. The lead climber receives the most brutal punishment so it is necessary to take turns at leading. Every pitch can be long and tiring and very cold and frustrating for all. If you are lucky you may find few resting ledges to rest your aching heels and calves that for most of the route would only be scrapping and desperately biting into tiniest of rock cracks. Forearms and shoulders may cease to exist soon as you would need to clear the placement cracks off ice and snow or even turf. I would strongly recommend double rope for MC unless you are too sure of yourself. Your entire body, face, clothing (no matter if it is best Gore Tex or down) would be caked with ice and snow and frozen, making you totally white from head to toe. But you must smile through all since only a sense of masochistic humour will save the day. Some of my funniest moments on MC have also been the one nearest to eternity. MC is addictive and you can never rest or stop after you have done one and since on a typical MC ground there are plenty of routes right next to each other, so mostly we top up on one and immediately head for another, no matter how much we might have cursed the gods and our own stupidity only moments ago. I remember my last serious MC in Cairngorms, in Feb 2009, on an atrocious day of 90 mph blizzards; I had just topped a vertical MC of 200 m having promised myself somewhere half way up while hanging from the tip of my axe that if I survived this climb I will never again do another MC in my life, and in less than five minutes I and my equally insane partner were heading off towards a frightening rock wall plastered with raging ice.

In an ideal MC we encounter every possible sort of highly technical mediums like rock, turf, snow and ice. There’s no other possible medium to climb through in the world. This has prompted climbers to develop and perfect several out of box climbing techniques and moves that look more like acrobatics and at times break the rule books of a typical ice climb. Once while teaching a neophyte the fine art of MC, as he struggled and gnawed and gasped and sweated but couldn’t find a way, I finally told him that there were no techniques really in MC. Just use your head, hold whatever you can with whatever you have in whatever manner you can and that can be a MC technique. Throw the books and the ice / rock climbing techniques and jargons that had been taught at the climbing schools. Keep the thought paramount in your head that: failing and falling is not an option open to you, and you will do fine. Believe you me, that neophyte, once he saw the point, was climbing like a monkey. On MC think out of the box, do things that you have never done before or never thought of doing before. Improvise, experiment, and go for it. Two techniques that you should know really well are hooking and torqueing using the picks of your technical axes. Don’t forget that you also have fingers and an arm to use for jamming just like on rocks; so use them. Use your knee, body, head, elbow, hips, whatever you have and is needed to hold you there; I use everything that I can get a grip on. Since you would have your crampons on, use them for kicking just like in ice so on turf or thin ice lines, also use them sideways or flat in cracks to jam. Twist them around, try every possible position and see where you get a purchase. On MC thinking on your feet is most essential and you have to think totally unconventionally. The best mixed climbers in the world are those who never went to a climbing school. Pure human instincts for self preservation and survival are what is needed besides your other skills to tackle a MC.

Equipment

You will need all the basic stuff that you need for any ice climbing like clothing, shell, base layer, harness, gloves, helmet, etc and a heavily loaded rack of rock pros. In most MC there’s not much use of ice pros or ice screws or dead man, etc as the ice depth is not significant. Your rock pros should be an ideal mix of hexes and rockcentrics, pegs, friends, nuts. Few warthogs may be useful where there’s more likelihood of turfs. You can either carry your rack on your harness or as a bandolier slung around your chest. It depends on your preference really. I prefer a mix of both. All my slings and crabs go around my neck and chest while most of my cams and hooks go on my waist. A straighter shaft axe is preferable on MC then those extra curvy ones. Charlet Moser is my favourite model. Always remember to use axe with adze. As for crampons select the ones with short points for placing in tiny cracks. Mono points were developed for extremely thin cracks and they are a boon for MC, so go for them if you can afford them. Though some use leash-less axes, I always go for a leash, since no way can I afford to drop my ice tool if I am using my free hand to jam or climb. Another way to do it (if you are without leash) is to hook the axe around the neck, and this looks super cool, so many young climbers master this technique.

Techniques

A MC is a climb like any other in appearance, so you need to get your rope and climbing gear sorted out properly, caution the belay and up you go, preferably with double rope. Tapping and testing the ground every inch of the way. There are only two aspects that need to be highlighted since in this MC is different to another typical rock or ice route. Cleaning and clearing the pro placement is paramount. For almost the entire route, all the placement cracks and places would be covered with snow and ice, which are not deep or consolidated enough for pro, and they need to be cleared by the lead to find the underlying turf or rock to place pros. This is tiring and time consuming but essential. Look for the fault lines and how they grow or form and cut the ice and clear it accordingly. Always make sure that you can see the placement properly and feel it to be sure what it is and there’s nothing underlying that may uproot in case of a fall. Always remember that pros placed in icy cracks are not totally reliable, especially cams that may slide on ice and refuse to bite. If the cracks are too iced up then a peg may be hammered first and into it further pro. Placement can’t be done in a rush in MC, first be very sure where you are hammering your pros.

Conclusion

To be a decent mixed climber you need peak physical fitness, flexibility and endurance along with madness and an ability to think on your feet and out of the box. Club it up with lots of practice and the right equipment and tool and techniques. Now go out and enjoy and at least for once I can be sure that none of you who apply my suggestions for MC would ever be able to come back and tell me that it didn’t work or you didn’t tell us everything since I am telling you right now that it may not work and of course I can’t tell you everything since I myself don’t know everything about MC, no one does, it is like every individual, evolving, growing and totally out of the box.

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