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Breaking ice curtains on lead: what would happen in the worst possible scenario?


Original Post
Detrick Snyder · · Michigan, for now · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 140

As a novice ice climber with the ice season underway, this scenario has occurred to me a number of times.  I'm curious what you might think would happen:

You're climbing a mixed climb or a discontinuous ice climb.  You have a solid screw/gear in before you get onto a separate curtain/dagger (piece #1).  You place a screw (piece #2) in the new formation asap, but unbeknownst to you the ice above that placement is not that solid.  As you climb above the screw, the curtain falls along with you and piece #2. What happens? Does piece #2 break free, leaving you hopefully unscathed, dangling from piece 1?  If piece 2 sticks in the falling giant hunk of ice, will the force be great enough to break the ice around piece 1? Are you pretty much gonna die either way?

See this photo for context, except in my hypothetical scenario the climber is on the curtain with a piece as it falls. I could also imagine this happening in a worst case scenario illustrated in this photo.

A similar situation, of which Will Gadd has written, is if you're anchored into a giant block of ice and the whole thing breaks off. Are you basically tethered to the ice block as it careens down?  Or do your pieces rip and you maybe don't get crushed by a giant ice block?

I know that this scenario is exceedingly rare. I know screws in solid ice are very secure. I know you probably wouldn't be climbing on the sh*t ice described. But still, I'm sure it's happened before. What am I missing and what are your thoughts?

Thanks.

Nolan Huther · · Potsdam, NY · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 530
Detrick Snyder wrote:what would happen in the worst possible scenario?
You and your partner die
FrankPS · · Atascadero, CA · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 275
https://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/article212485444.html

"One of his most painful experiences happened in his hometown of June Lake on Jan. 29, 1996. He and two friends, Pete Schoerner and Doug Nidever, had decided to attempt a first ascent of a new ice formation that had formed up on a wall just a half mile from their homes. At the last minute, he had to opt out due to some work-related issues. But he watched them from his job site from down below, and then tragedy happened...
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  “I watched Pete take a 130-foot fall when the ice detached from the wall,” Rosnau said. “He died. The following morning, Doug, myself and another friend went up to recover his body, 400 feet up the wall. It remains one of the most painful experiences of my life.”
Read more here: tri-cityherald.com/news/loc…
Greg Shea · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 10

If the chunk of ice your screw is in falls for any reason it will most likely rip you off and kill you and probably your partner as well. Be careful what you attach yourself to.

Jonathan Awerbuch · · Boulder, Colorado · Joined Nov 2013 · Points: 41

It's not rare. You'll want to continually asses the quality of the ice you are climbing on. My only lead fall on ice was when a large block came off, and both my tools were in that block. Fortunately my last screw was in solid ice.

People avoid putting screws into any formation that isn't solid. If you're lucky, the ill-fated placement rips and your next screw catches you. If not, you fall to the ground. I can imagine three main options:
1. The bad screw holds. Either the rope cuts, your lower placements rip, or your lower placements are too low to catch you, and you fall to the ground.
2. The bad screw rips, and you're caught on a lower screw.
3. Nothing rips or cuts, and you're left suspended with the ice that broke. I haven't heard of this and I wonder if it's happened.

Just don't put screws in if you aren't confident that the formation is good.

David Bruneau · · St. John · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 1,376
Detrick Snyder wrote: As a novice ice climber with the ice season underway, this scenario has occurred to me a number of times.  I'm curious what you might think would happen:

You're climbing a mixed climb or a discontinuous ice climb.  You have a solid screw/gear in before you get onto a separate curtain/dagger (piece #1).  You place a screw (piece #2) in the new formation asap, but unbeknownst to you the ice above that placement is not that solid.  As you climb above the screw, the curtain falls along with you and piece #2. What happens? Does piece #2 break free, leaving you hopefully unscathed, dangling from piece 1?  If piece 2 sticks in the falling giant hunk of ice, will the force be great enough to break the ice around piece 1? Are you pretty much gonna die either way?

See this photo for context, except in my hypothetical scenario the climber is on the curtain with a piece as it falls. I could also imagine this happening in a worst case scenario illustrated in this photo.

A similar situation, of which Will Gadd has written, is if you're anchored into a giant block of ice and the whole thing breaks off. Are you basically tethered to the ice block as it careens down?  Or do your pieces rip and you maybe don't get crushed by a giant ice block?

I know that this scenario is exceedingly rare. I know screws in solid ice are very secure. I know you probably wouldn't be climbing on the sh*t ice described. But still, I'm sure it's happened before. What am I missing and what are your thoughts?

Thanks.
If the situation you've described has happened to you multiple times, shouldn't you know what happens? 
FrankPS · · Atascadero, CA · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 275
David Bruneau wrote: If the situation you've described has happened to you multiple times, shouldn't you know what happens? 

I think he means he has imagined this scenario happening.

Allen Sanderson · · Oootah · Joined Jul 2007 · Points: 1,187
Nolan Huther wrote: You and your partner die

Actually there are things worse than death, like living but being severely and permanently injured (i.e. not being able to wipe yer own ass and having to drink beer through a straw).


That said I have been on many climbs that were pillars, the vast majority of the time they are done as a solo. I have also been on curtains that have cracked and or shifted, sometimes while on them. Here again they are often done as a solo. 
Curt Haire · · leavenworth, wa · Joined Jun 2011 · Points: 1

for a real life example of this phenomenon, look for the account of it happening to Canadian Ice legend Barry Blanchard back in the mid-nineties.  As I recall, Blanchard was climbing with his wife.  He had commenced an unsupported curtain, placed a screw, climbed above to where the ice was adhered to the rock behind it - when the curtain below, with his screw, cut loose.  This was before leashless ice tools, so Blanchard was attached to his tools with wrist leashes.  His tools placements held, and he did not fall, but the weigh ot the ice in which his screw was placed loaded his leashes heavily enough to dislocate a shoulder.  they aborted the climb... knowing the internet, I'm sure the write-up is around somewhere...

KyleSmith · · Palm Springs, CA · Joined Sep 2016 · Points: 709

Yet another reason why I likely won't ever ice climb...

ElGreco · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 220
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQByrChFhZQ

The way I think of a curtain or pillar snapping with you on it is as if the lead climber weighs several tons. A cubic meter of ice (a block 1m x 1m x 1m) weighs almost 1 metric tonne - a curtain or pillar could be several tonnes. The belayer's weight becomes trivial. He/she gets sucked up to the first screw, if pro and rope don't pull or break. Both climber and belayer likely get pounded by tons of breaking ice.

In the case of someone like John in the video above having the sense not to place any pro in a pillar, I as a belayer would not even attach myself to the rope. I would wait until the climber is off the pillar and has placed trustworthy pro before threading the belay device and attaching it to myself.

Overall, a bad idea. Avoid it... Or make sure a deus ex machina appears at the last minute and throws you a toprope:

http://blogs.denverpost.com/sports/2012/07/10/viral-video-ouray-ice-climber-rescued-seconds-big-fall/22111/

I did this once in Yosemite on a rock climb. Pretty effective. Don't count on it though ;)
Jim Titt · · Germany · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 490

Worst scenario? The falling ice starts an avalanche wiping out the power lines below causing a state wide blackout. The cooling system at the nearby nuclear power station fails and the reactor explodes, a satellite sees a nuclear strike and Trump orders a retaliatory strike against Russia, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and China. They respond and the world becomes a radioactive Armaggedon.

Mike Palasek · · Columbus, OH · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 0

The good news is that as a novice ice climber you will be staying away from these horror shows. Stay on slabby easier routes. Dial in your technique. Follow a lot. Lead when you are proficient after loads of practice.  AND no one will make you climb a hanging curtain like that. If sonething looks unsafe, climb elsewhere.
     If you want to climb an unsupported pillar like that, start by hiring a guide. Mark Synnott led one for my friends and I. We learned a lot and had a blast! Good luck!

Zacks · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 65
Jim Titt wrote: Worst scenario? The falling ice starts an avalanche wiping out the power lines below causing a state wide blackout. The cooling system at the nearby nuclear power station fails and the reactor explodes, a satellite sees a nuclear strike and Trump orders a retaliatory strike against Russia, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and China. They respond and the world becomes a radioactive Armaggedon.

While i was amused by this worst case, wouldn't the cooling system be powered by the nuclear power?  I hope we were smart enough not to put nuclear power plants in slide paths.

I think the avalanche would have.to be epic enough to block a river (removing coolant source) or some butterfly effect type thing.
FrankPS · · Atascadero, CA · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 275
Zacks wrote:

While i was amused by this worst case, wouldn't the cooling system be powered by the nuclear power?  

There is backup power, not reliant on in-house power produced by the reactor.

And in case the off-site power source fails, the nuclear power plants have massive diesel generators to power vital equipment, including cooling systems.

And then. there is the gravity-fed Refueling Water Storage Tank, then...
Tugrul P · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2014 · Points: 30
Derek Doucet · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 64

Climb carefully, waiting until above the attachment point before placing a screw. Your tool placements and movement skills are your belay until then.

Briggs Lazalde · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2017 · Points: 0
Allen Sanderson wrote:

Actually there are things worse than death, like living but being severely and permanently injured (i.e. not being able to wipe yer own ass and having to drink beer through a straw).


That said I have been on many climbs that were pillars, the vast majority of the time they are done as a solo. I have also been on curtains that have cracked and or shifted, sometimes while on them. Here again they are often done as a solo. 

I thumbs'd up at "drink beer through a straw". 

Zack Robinson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2018 · Points: 0

I think the question ultimately comes down to how strong the ice is that screw 2 is placed in.  Drop tests have shown a very wide range of ice screw strength, ranging from a few kN to 20+kN.  If you have a totally bomber placement for screw #2, it's unlikely to come out as the ice tumbles down.  Even if it's just a few kN, that's more than enough to take you with it for quite a while, likely all the way to the ground, depending on the terrain it hits as it falls.  I really can't imagine this scenario playing out very well.  

Detrick Snyder · · Michigan, for now · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 140

Thank you all for the great responses.

Takeaways: I’m multiple hundred hours od climbing shy of considering something like this.  Ice climbing is not rock climbing, and I’m not even aware of my blind spots. And I’ll use more definitive diction describing detailed scenarios. 

AndyPetersen · · Blacksburg, VA · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 175
https://www.climbing.com/videos/ice-climber-collapses-dagger/

I believe this video is close to what your talking about.
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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