10 February 2011

The arm test

Category: Winter Climbing tips

How many times have you set your pick into a lump of turf, a patch of ice or onto a flat hold but been to scared to move up on it?  Probably quite a few??  Also how many times have you moved up on some crappy placement, only for your feet to cut loose and leave to locked off - and not falling - from said placements?  Probably also quite a few times??

Free climbing with hands and fingers allows you to judge in a split second if you can hold on, your finger tips sending back an OK instantly as they touch that crimp.

Lets consider what happens when we no longer have that relationship between what we want to grasp and the brain.  In aid climbing and winter climbing this link is broken by a necessary barrier (and axe, a peg, a sky hook), because what we want to grip is ungrippable (ice, snow or holds to small to hang).  In this situation we can only go by our understanding of our psychical world, the laws of psychics and a big dose of trust and experience. 

A non climbing would trust an ice axe pick hooked onto a climbing frame, because they know that if they pull, the pick won’t be able to unhook itself.  But if you asked them to climb a tree they would be less confident, because although they understand that a tree is soft anough to take a pick, they are unsure how far they pick would have to go in to hold them.  An ice climber on the other hand builds up this knowledge, slowly at first; over driving picks into ice or turf, and slowly defining in their head how much depth is needed to hold.

This is a combination of knowing how a pick works, and an understanding of the medium on which your climbing.  The same goes for mixed climbing; and axe tourqued at 45 degrees will hold, were as an axe tourqued at 15 degrees won’t. 

Slowly we learn what is possible.

What I’m trying to say is that we don’t learn what we can crimp with our fingers - we just know - but we don’t know what we can climb using artificial means beyond the obvious, and instead need to build this up over time.

So this is where my tip comes in.  What if you don’t know?  What if you’re pushing your limit, say your on the Ben and you’ve got to climb ice only 2 inches thick and you’ve only climbed neve 3 feet thick; or you’re on a ledge and have to pull up on a flat hold and you’ve only hooked big stonking flakes before?

In aid climbing when you don’t know what a piece of gear is capable of doing, and the outcome of it coming out would’t be great, you bounce test it; clipping in a sling and applying full body weight.  This not only tells you that the gear is up to it, it also tells your brain to relax and do the move.

In winter climbing this same approach can work really well when you’re unsure, or have doubt in the placement.

Unlike an aid climbers who has two daisy chains to do this, you instead use your arms.

To do this place your tool, and if you want to know if it’s good give it some good hard tugs.

This actually takes some practice, as you need to do it in such a way that if it does rip out - you won’t fall off!

Also go at it in the right frame of mind; think “I WANT TO RIP THIS PICK OUT!” rather than “please don’t rip out”.

This technique is a great one for pushing your limit, but don’t overuse it, as you’ll climb much too slow, and your arms will get very, very tired!

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Andy Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.

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