By Scott Backes

Alpine Mentors  Canada Alpine Climbing


What separates a good day of climbing waterfalls from a bad one? In the first half of this In Practice piece, we dealt with the physical factors that influence our ascents. This second half deals with a much more nebulous and individual topic. What psychological and mental attitudes are responsible for our experiences on the ice? What can we do to influence them, and what pitfalls do we need to avoid? Obviously the answers to these questions are as varied and numerous as the individuals who climb ice. There are, however some general principals and techniques that all of us can use to put ourselves in the best possible mind-frame given our circumstances. These ideas and practices will be the focus of this In Practice piece.

When I was younger my need for recognition from my peers, and my desire to prove myself to myself often drove me to undertake ascents of ice-climbs at or above my ability. These “skin of the teeth” ascents were often begun with a samurai’s nonchalance towards the outcome. But, when grappling with the ice itself, it was mostly a different story. Often shaking with fear and failing upwards, I would flail my way to the top. These are the experiences of youth and some of you will be driven to this path. This is what is called surviving the learning curve. I cannot recommend this course, but I will put a few addendum’s on it.

When you find yourself above your head in a dire predicament stop and breathe. Slow deep breaths can do as much for calming panic as anything. If you ice tools are secure, close your eyes for a few deep breaths. Just slowing your breathing and closing your eyes will give you back some of your perspective. After your break, steel yourself to the climbing above. What I mean by this, is you must accept where you are at and accept what work must still be done. Feet are often neglected when we are afraid. Take the time to look down and find good features to stand, at the least look for solid-non-chandeliered ice to frontpoint into. When I am afraid there is a tendency to stop looking anywhere but at the ice directly in my vision. I know this about myself, so I make a conscious decision to keep looking around at my environment. So many, many times when I stop to look, there is some feature to stem to, or some mushroom I can do a back-step or drop-knee on. If your arms are so tired that you can’t control your swing, you must drop one arm at a time, resting it enough to get a good controlled swing. Each placement must be tested before you drop the next arm. It is a slow excruciating experience, but I have managed on several occasions to climb the last half of a pitch using this method. If you can find the will to stay with it, if you can accept the discomfort and pace, you can make it off the climb (at least physically) intact.

So often I have seen climbers let panic overtake their skills. I see them hurrying their placements, or pulling on tools that I wouldn’t trust in a million years. Their feeling of panic is so painful to them, so overwhelming to them that they will do anything to make it cease, they will do anything to get it over with-even if it means risking their lives. Some times they get away with it-sometimes they don’t. But, the mistake they have all made is too let panic rule them. The difference between surrendering to panic and using your fear to propel you to the top, is attitude. Before you even get out of the car, think about the breathing and use your own reservoir of experiences to consider how you have gotten yourself out of difficult situations in the past. If you believe there is a way out, there is. If your panic adds hopelessness to its burden of overwhelming fear; there is a good chance you will be lost. If you can summon hope based on past experiences, and then focus it on the situation at hand, the deep breathing and some methodical climbing will bring you back from the edge.

As I continued my arc towards ice climbing excellence, I started applying my hard-earned knowledge to each new challenge. Instead of the Samurai’s nonchalance, I adopted the attitude of the journeyman. I had a quiver of techniques and mindsets that I applied as needed. The fear of the unknown became the fear of the known, which for me is much more easily managed. My systems were ingrained to a degree, that I was able once I left the ground to forget about them. This left more time for strategy and creativity.

As you approach your objective, take the time to view the route from a distance. See the formation’s cruxes and its natural rests. Consider in your mind how much energy and mental strain will be required for each of the difficult sections and how much you think you can get back from the rests. Plot out ahead of time which aspect of the route you will climb. If you haven’t scoped the route out from a distance, once you get right underneath it, all objectivity and route choices go out the window. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started up a route by what from underneath it looked like the wrong way, only to have my earlier scouting vindicated high up on the route. This however is not an absolute, sometimes when you are standing at the bottom; a better way-a way unseeable from a distance will present itself. Even so the work you did on the approach will still be of service. You will still know what is coming next. By keeping an open mind and by providing yourself with more options, you have spiritually strengthened your resolve and multiplied your chances for success.

Take your time at the base of the climb to secure a belay that is safe from falling ice, and one that you as the leader will have confidence in. If you have correctly positioned and set up the belay, it will be the last time you will need to concern yourself with it. You won’t be taken out of the moment by your partner shouting at you to quit knocking ice on him. You won’t have to consider when you are at the crux runout whether or not the belay will hold. Be methodical racking up and preparing your tools and yourself for the ascent. It is easy when you have adrenaline clanging around in your head to try and hurry. Usually, this results in something being dropped, something being left behind or gear being haphazardly organized. The hurried mindset carries over to the lead and it is a short step from there to panic. I am known for my speed ascents, but rarely do I hurry. I move continuously with intent and by the end of a day I have covered immense amounts of terrain. I take the time to chop away the surface ice for every screw placement, but I put each screw in at my waist to minimize the strength required to turn it and then clip it into the rope. As soon as the screw is in, I start climbing with focus and to emphasis the point again, with intent. I am always amazed at how quickly the screw is twenty or thirty feet below me, and how quickly I am at the belay.

For most of us, looking up at the first section of the climb is intimidating. The ice doesn’t look so good and the angle seems too steep for our abilities. There is a reason for this…its because its true. As I mentioned in the first piece, the first thirty to forty feet of most ice climbs is the crux. When you take that moment to compose yourself right before you start, think back to what you saw on the approach and what you’ve seen on other climbs you’ve led. The knowledge that most pillar climbs let off after the first bit can give you confidence to punch through that beginning section and get into the better ice just above. Perhaps the best compliment I was ever paid, was when one of my partners remarked to a mutual friend, “you can tell that Backes is headed for the belay”. I start up that first difficult section with fear and uncertainty in my heart, but also with a bigger measure of decisiveness and confidence that at the end of the struggle, I’ll be shouting down to my partner “off belay”

As I said earlier, there are as many strategies to cope with fear and panic, as there are climbers, but the ideas I’ve talked about here are pretty universal. The main idea with these pieces is to get you to think about your climbing from a different angle. I have found my greatest jumps in ability have come from new understandings of my self. If you are honest about what you fear and why, you can figure out methods to cope with them. In my experience, it is when I try to deny fear that it has the greatest hold on me.

Scott Backes


By Scott Backes


One of the worst moments in every ice climb that is near the edge of our ability, is that instant when you stand with your tools in the ice, but your feet still on the ground. You’re looking at your belayer and he or she gives you the nod and its time to go. You feel the flush of chemicals course through you from head to toe. A more than reasonable doubt exists as to whether or not you can do it. There may be dread or a feeling of being over whelmed by the task at hand. You may even feel a little doomed as you bring that first foot up to start the process. You may even feel what I have felt on a number of occasions, “What the hell am I doing here?” So you commit to the route and lo and behold, it does suck to be you. The ice is worse than you hoped and it feels steeper than vertical. As you stop to place the first screw, the ice is airy and brittle. The screw won’t start, so you chop away some more ice and peck a little starter hole to help the screw get going, but it doesn’t help. Finally you feel the threads catch and you twist it home. The problem is, that half way through, the screw hits an air pocket and spins in with no resistance the rest of the way. It wobbles as you try to clip it. You start to feel the pump coming on almost immediately. Panic sets in and it’s time for either retreat or a real epic…

We’ve all been there. Grade III or Grade VII it doesn’t matter, if it’s near your ability you will undoubtedly encounter at least some of the fun described above. What the next two “IN PRACTICE” pieces will deal with is how to eliminate as many of epic makers as possible. The causes for our meltdowns are many, but can be divided up into two categories: The Physical and The Mental. This “IN PRACTICE” will deal with the physical  details that can enhance or derail your efforts. The physical factors I am referring to are not your fitness, but rather all the actual implements and the physical circumstances that can affect the outcome of your performance. The next “IN PRACTICE” piece will deal with  how to influence the mental and psychological circumstances of a difficult lead. These  conditions obviously include will and courage but also include a number of relatively easily amendable attitudes and assumptions that are often undervalued or overlooked. Taken together the sum of these parts can change a routine ascent into an emergency room vacation or, if properly applied, change an out of control “Shakefest” into a difficult, but memorable personal best.

The physical manifestations of ice climbing are many. From the medium itself: the flow of ice we’ve chosen to climb, to the instep strap of our gaiters, everything used to ascend has weight in the relative difficulty equation. Lets start with our mode of expression, the ice. Ice is by its nature a changeable medium. We can use this malleability to shape our ascent; even shape our experience with it. Hooking up fragile features with little or no protection during an early season foray is completely different than thunking hero ice in 28 degree March afternoon. You are in charge when and where you go climbing and you are in charge of what routes you do. Be careful to chose your ice climbing objectives to match your needs. Early in my career, being in Canada in March helped me to have the confidence to tackle big routes right at the edge of my ability. The solid blue single swing ice meant that I would have good gear to keep my head in the game and the ease of placements allowed me to marshal enough power for the crux. Conversely, these days easier routes of wonderful quality often times are left untouched. With limited time and unlimited ambition I have often neglected easier classics in favor of an at my limit hit list. Early season ascents have changed that somewhat. By visiting areas right at the start of the season, I have been forced to backed off of climbs two grades below my “normal” ability and have put adventure into routes that I would have normally left for retirement days.

The knowledge of how ice forms and having enough experience to know what to expect, can make a difference in how we go about our ascent. After years of climbing steep pillars I finally started to notice some patterns in the way they formed and the way the difficulty was laid out due to those patterns. In most cases the first 15-35 feet are the technical crux of the route. Because it is the last section of the climb to form, the ice at the bottom of the pillar is more aerated, more brittle and steeper than anywhere else on the climb (umbrella roofs excepted). Obviously knowing this gives you a psychological edge, which I’ll talk about in the mental factor section. But, there are also concrete steps you can take if you know this information. Where are you going to stop for the first screw? Because the ice will most likely be funky, always make sure the first screw on your rack or clipper is a 22cm(long) one and that you have a screamer for it. Look carefully to see where the telltale white/gray ice gives way to blue. Is one side of the pillar a better color or better consistency (even if its steeper) than the other?  Lastly look for rests-mushrooms to stand on, grooves to stem, or subsidiary pillars to lean against or stem out to and plan your ascent around them. My biggest mistakes on those early test piece leads were failing to look ahead and failing to reap the benefits of foresight.

There are two other physical contingencies’ that affect your experience on the lead. The first is the set-up of your gear. The second is the mobility of your clothing system. The single most important lesson I can teach you about gear, is that it needs to be dialed in to the point of invisibility. Your tools leashes, your racking system for your screws and other hardware, your crampon straps-basically every piece of gear you climb with needs to be set up correctly. The experience you are looking for, is one of having all your gear work together so well, that you never think about it. Every time you have to fight to get the right size screw, every time your leashes come loose, every time you are taken out of the moment to deal with circumstances outside of the climbing, you have failed. It might be as minor as a single curse-it might mean a leader fall. Take the time to have your gear in order before you launch up that cauliflower pillar, and you experience will improve immeasurable

The last issue I want to touch on, is mobility. Once again the principal I want to stress here is invisibility. Gone are the days when a set of heavy Gore Tex bibs and jacket was the only real choice to climb ice in. by taking advantage of “soft shell” technology, we can feel much more like rock climbers in tights and a tee shirt than a knight in armor. Scheoller, Powershield, and a host of other like fabrics have set us free. By taking advantage of these stretchy warm and durable fabrics we can let go of another distraction and concentrate more on the matter at hand-surviving our lead. The energy savings that come from unencumbered movement can be put towards the crux.

Taken together, all of the physical factors I have talked about can make a major difference in your next difficult lead. I hope you will take advantage of my learning curve. Next time I’ll talk about the intangibles that come in to play on difficult leads.

Scott Backes

X-treme Tape

Originally developed for the military, this new silicone tape is ideal for wrapping your ice tool. And with the 6 different colors it is easy to individualize your tools.

It’s self-fusing, and requires no adhesive since it only bonds to itself. X-treme tape stretches to 3 times its length, conforms to irregular shapes easily, and withstands UV rays, acids and fuels. Won’t melt to 500° F. Remains flexible to -60°F. Insulates to 8000 volts. Forms a permanent air and watertight seal. Once wrapped over itself, it forms a bond immediately, and is permanently fused in 24 hours. Each roll is 1″ wide x 10′.

This is the best tape I have found for wrapping ice tools and is similar to the original tape that comes on the Petzl charlet Nomic. Sticker but not as durable.

Available from

Duluth Trading Company

Keeping Warm

Add a belay coat to your system

by Doug Millen

The biggest mistake ice climbers make is not working a belay coat into their climbing system. I see more climbers hopping around at belays to keep warm. Sweating on the lead and freezing at the belay is for amateur’s! Ice climbing is a stop and go exertional activity and you need to dress accordingly. A good belay coat weighs next to nothing and can be easily stashed in a fanny pack, some even stash in there own zippered pocket and can be clipped to your harness.

I dress with enough insulation for the days average temperature so I’m comfortable while moving or climbing. I add a light shell over the insulation to shed ice, snow and water. I find that two light shells work really well. Sandwich one between insulating layers (over the one next to your skin is best), the other on the outside. With this system I sweat less while climbing and can move more freely. At the belay I put on my belay coat. Believe me when I say I’m toasty, I don’t care how long my partner takes to lead the next pitch! When it’s my turn I am ready to go and not shaking with cold. Your hands and feet will also benefit from the coat, over all you will be much warmer.

I prefer a synthetic coat to down. We’re talking New England here where everything is constantly damp, we all know the benefits of synthetic fibers when they’re wet. Make sure it has a big hood to fit over your helmet and enough pockets for your stuff.

I find that the right clothing system is as important as the right ice tools. Good systems take time to prefect but once refined you’ll see it’s worth it. Staying warm will improve your climbing by making it more comfortable and enjoyable.