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    Fifty-Footer Rips Three Screws

    15-Dec-2012
    By

    On November 21, two climbers from Canmore, Alberta, made the long approach to Planter’s Valley, a canyon on the south side of Devil’s Gap in Canada’s Ghost River Wilderness Area. They started up the first pitch of the 330-foot Weathering Heights (WI 4). The leader, Simon, encountered extremely brittle ice and very cold conditions—minus-14 degrees—but managed to climb 100 feet and establish a belay consisting of a 20-cm and a 16-cm screw clipped to a self-equalizing sling. After belaying his partner to the screw station, Simon climbed six feet higher, placed a 16-cm screw and clipped it with a load-limiting draw, then placed a second 16-cm screw roughly six feet above that.

    He described what happened then in a post on gravsports-ice.com: “After placing the second screw, I was hit with an overwhelming, nauseating case of the barfies and took on the screw. I sat there for at least three to four minutes, warming my hands up, and chatting with my belayer. I was also assessing the ice for a possible Abalakov because the conditions were so cold that it was time to retreat. Next thing I knew, I was falling backwards through the air.” Both screws pulled, then the 16-cm belay screw also ripped. Simon stopped about 30 feet below the belay. “We were climbing on two 8-mm ropes, and one rope was shredded down to the core, three core strands of six cut.” The other rope was undamaged.

    Despite a long fall by the leader that pulled out all the screws but one, both men escaped with minor injuries. Simon gashed his elbow and required stitches. It was later surmised that the rope was cut during the fall by a sharp crampon point.

    “We were very lucky,” Simon wrote. “{I'm} going to sacrifice a goat to the climbing gods soon.”

    Analysis

    Seven days later, Calgary climbers Grant and Ryan hiked into Weathering Heights to climb the route, retrieve gear and provide photos and analysis of the accident. Once again the ice was brittle. The temperature hovered around minus-10 degrees. In his subsequent post to gravsports-ice.com Grant described “a shell over either older ice or chandelier, which seemed to be widespread.” He had trouble getting good screws at the belay and decided to incorporate V-threads, but had a hard time finding good ice for them. After he brought up Ryan, the two bailed and posted up the photos.
    Will Gadd, the administrator of the gravsports forum, looked at the pictures and commented: “That ice is classic ‘white’ ice that forms fast when the temperature really drops. This is the sort of ice that I’ve bounce-tested screws out of while on a rap. Usually when screws go in, the cores fall apart in almost rice-like bits rather than come out as ice. Even if the placements weren’t in shell ice, which it looks like they were, this ice is really, really weak, almost ‘snow ice’ but still quite hard to the touch.”

    Prevention

    Ice morphs and changes constantly. Dig and clear until you find solid, uniform base ice. Most people don't clear enough ice. As Gadd wrote toward the end of the Weathering Heights thread: “If a screw isn’t in good, well-supported ice, tip to hanger, then it’s not a good screw.”

    Other tips for placing good screws:

    Place screws waist high so you don't have to reach up and get pumped.

    If you feel like you need a screw, place one. Don't keep running it out!

    Note any sudden change in resistance as the screw goes in. A placement that gets noticeably easier to twist has hit an air pocket or bad ice. Consider it suspect.

    Check the ice core. Is it solid?

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