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Modern Snow & Ice Techniques

Modem Snow & Ice Techniques, by Bill March. Manchester, Cicerone Press: 1973. 76 pages 7 photographs. $3.00.

This is the best manual on ice-climbing technique to hit print since the technical ice revolution began in the mid-sixties. Ten years ago Yvon Chouinard was refocusing his innovative attention from big-wall rock gear onto ice climbing. The droop he forged into the pick of his Simond axe became the model for a whole generation of ice gear that quickly revolutionized the technique of ice climbing. Security and speed of front- pointing were both improved so much that a decade later we are still exploring the limits of the possibilities opened up by this advance. Not until now, however, has there been a useful manual written by one of the modern ice climbers about the technique involved.

This is a functional book by a man who knows how: small, inexpensive, and unpretentious, containing the complete essence of modern ice technique in a few well chosen words backed solidly by experience. March is one of the leading Scottish ice climbers, and it is natural that his approach should reflect Scottish ice conditions and attitudes. Scottish ice is steep, often confined in gullies, and harder than the usual Alpine ice but not as brittle as the typical American frozen waterfall. Consequently, March emphasizes front-pointing with short-handled tools and describes placing his points on the ice where Americans will often need to kick harder to set their points in denser ice.

The discussion of front-pointing is excellent, really the heart of the book, beginning with the shape of tools before applying them. Marchis not afraid to name advantages and shortcomings by brand, and to support the dampening qualities of a good wood handle. There is a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of different methods of tying the axe or hammer to one’s body versus the danger of poking holes in oneself, clinched by the wry observation that a sliding wrist loop adversely “affects compass!” However, his drawing (p. 27) of the single axe anchor position incorrectly shows the spike of the axe resting on the ice, a common mistake which weakens the pick’s crucial bite into the ice. Just the opposite, pulling gently outward on the bottom of the shaft, will seat the toothed pick most securely. Several photos show this clearly.

French technique is not as well organized. This subtle and elegant way of climbing flat-footed on intermediate slopes of softer ice really deserves a chapter to itself. Instead, March has integrated French techniques into smooth progression with front-pointing, which emphasizes the way technique adapts to steepening angles but not how it changes with the hardness of the ice. I would rather front-point on ice of only 35° to 40° if it is brittle, but I will gladly French-step at 55° when my points will penetrate securely on softer ice or frozen snow. March neglects to mention that a longer axe (70-80cm.) is necessary for good French technique. But we can easily excuse the emphasis on techniques more suited to Scottish winter, as long as we remember French for ourselves on those beautifully crunchy mornings in the Tetons and Palisades.

March s respect for the varied dangers of ice climbing is worth noting, especially by Americans coming to it from the more secure rock. He devotes a lot of space to self-arresting and belaying, while clearly pointing out the limitations of each: self-arrest is as chancy on hard ice as ice-axe belaying is in soft snow. Warnings about uncautious glissading and moving together while roped are well taken. It is impressive to hear a modern hard man’s technical excellence balanced by such caution. I would modify his emphasis to rate self-belayed prevention ahead of the self-arrest, scratch sitting hip belay anchored to an ice axe in favor of the more reliable boot-axe belay, and junk the Clog deadman, which can fail suddenly, in favor of the much more reliable fixed-angle MSR snow fluke, Larry Penberthy’s redemption for his useless “ice axes.”

Five years ago March s countryman Johnny Cunningham said in an interview, “cutting steps in ice is immoral.” March adds to this, observing that the chest sling on the hammer, “… could be a method of resting on long steep ice pitches or used as a position to place ice screws. Etriers may also be used in conjunction with the hammers which would be used as temporary aid points. Both these methods are unethical and retrogressive as they complicate a fast clean technique of climbing.” Bravo. I hope they’re listening in Calgary.

Thanks for the book, Bill. It’s not elegantly done, but it is packed with well-distilled experience. I learned a lot. It’s a pleasure to have a manual to recommend when everything else is out of date.

Doug Robinson