Ice screws — they are heavy and annoying, awkward to rack, time-consuming to use, and tend to catch and puncture expensive clothes, and worst of all, they are expensive! Let's make the choice right, then.
Points to consider in choosing ice-screws
There are several points to consider in choosing ice-screws. What is the most important varies, depending on the situation and route. If it is a gentle 45-degree and short grade II ice route, almost anything is acceptable, then the price may matter? On the other hand, if it is a 90-degree and sustained or precarious ice route at the top of your grade, you will be very picky. Every second in placing a screw would count, and you might be happy to spend whatever extra cost to make the difference, when feeling waning muscle power in your arms on cold ice as well as the bottomless exposure below…
In this review, the latter is more the focus. Indeed, for steep and sustained ice climbing, to place screws is in general the physical crux. Then the quality of ice screws does matter a lot, even though the technique is always the most important.
I am here describing what quality an ice climber would want for an ice screw first, then later what each model offers, to my best knowledge.
Ease of screwing in and out
First and foremost, it must be easy and fast to place. To screw in a 22-cm screw takes time, and so the difference in the speed of screwing between the handle design is significant: easily 10 seconds, or worse, over a minute.
Most modern ice-screws are equipped with some extra (often foldable) handle feature that is designed to make screwing easy and fast. Some cheaper models aren't. Forget about them. When you are at a sharp end, believe me, you seriously wish for the best-ever possible screw in hand. For that reason, I don't take into account the (standard retail) price of screws in this review.
Equally, or arguably more, importantly, the screw must bite easily and quickly into ice in the initial few turns. If a screw doesn't bite, all those sophisticated additional handle-design to accelerate screwing is simply of no use. In practice in placing an ice-screw, a leader usually spends a half or more time to make the screw bite into ice in the initial few turns. Steeper the terrain is, more difficult the task to make the screw bite is, and accordingly more time you are likely to spend for it, as it is harder to keep the pressure on with all your might, while maintaining the posture not to fall off.
Apart from how sharp the tip is, a good design for the main handle makes a significant difference for this. Unfortunately it may contradict the extra design to make later turns easy, though it doesn't necessarily have to be.
To retrieve an ice screw (by a second) is, though much easier than placing, still a labour. Equally importantly, there is a serious risk to fumble and drop the screw while unscrewing to retrieve.
Some models, notably those with a built-in sling/quick-draw, can be unscrewed while the screw is still attached on to the rope (or else) via the draw. Those are practically undroppable, while unscrewing.
Once a second unscrews and retrieves an ice screw, s/he should clear all the ice out of the screw. The most common ways for it are,
- Tap the head (the handle side) of the screw,
- Blow the screw from the head, if the temperature is not too low.
The design of some ice-screws make these methods awkward or inefficient, and so cleaning the ice can be comparatively difficult.
Ice screws are awkward to rack. The most popular way (for leaders) is to use karabiners directly attached to the waist belt of the harness in the up-side down position — there are purpose-made karabiners for the job, such as, (Black Diamond) Ice Clipper, (Petzl) Caritool, (Simond) Rack, (Edelrid) SM-Clip.
Unfortunately some of the screws are awkward to rack like that. Some manufacturers offer purpose-made alternative racking gear, like (Petzl) Ice Flute (discontinued?) and (Grivel) Pan Pipe, though they have their own cons, such as,
- Not work well with other models of screws,
- May not rack well on your harness,
- Extra weight,
- Your second(s) may not have one.
The compatibility with Caritool-type racking system is relatively important for that reason.
Ice screws should be placed on either flat or concave surface. When placed in a concave area, particularly in some convoluted ice structures, a wide head can hinder the screw from going in. You may chip the ice that blocks the screwing-in action with an axe, but it is at best time-consuming.
In that respect, narrower the head is, less likely that sort of annoying situation happens. Unfortunately, that can contradict the feature that makes it easy to screw, though, because a narrower head means less leverage.
Climbing is all about the fight against the gravity. Every gram counts! (particularly when you carry a dozen of them.)
Built-in sling (for quick-draw)
Some models are equipped with a built-in sling; one end is attached to the screw part, and a karabiner will be clipped to the other end. This feature has several advantages:
- Minimises the potential leverage on ice,
- The screw can be unscrewed while still attached on the rope,
- The screw can be racked directly to the gear loop (of a harness) via the karabiner,
- Eliminates a karabiner (in the screw side), hence the overall weight,
- The total time to clip a rope to the screw is faster.
All sound good, but I am afraid they may not be as great as they first appear for the following reasons. The point (1) is good when a screw is placed for its entire length. However, if not, that is, when the ice is not thick enough, this built-in sling can give more leverage than the traditional method of tying off a sling (via Girth hitch, or better, inverted Clove-hitch), because the built-in sling will slide to the head of the screw, when the screw is (and should be) placed slightly upward (12 degrees or so, as long as the quality of ice itself is good; see the article by George McEwan for example). The thing is the case the ice is thin is the time when you want the least possible leverage. In that sense, this design of built-in sling defeats the purpose.
As for the point (3), it is true racking can be easy. However, if the built-in sling is long, the screw, when racked via the krab, ends up hanging annoyingly low, and so you may not rack it like that after all.
As for the point (4), it is only true in the pitch, where the screw is (or will be) placed. In many routes, not all the screws are always placed, or even none in some pitches. Then, those karabiners pre-attached to the screws, as well as the built-in slings, become an extra weight.
As for the point (5), it is only the case when the actual screwing speed is not marginalised, and when any extra extender is not used.
All in all, whereas the point (2) is undeniably good, the other merits may not be always applied. For the (perhaps continental) routes with very solid ice throughout, they are often suitable. However, in Scotland, their usefulness can be marginalised.
When the ice is thick enough, longer a screw is, more solid and secure it is. On the other hand, longer it is, more time-consuming it is for both placing and taking out.
For normal situations, middle-size screws have been demonstrated to be strong enough, providing the quality of the ice is good. For that reason, many climbers take a couple of longest screws, and the rest are middle-size (17 cm ish) ones.
If one expects to encounter thin ice to place a screw(s), then it is better to take short screws (aka stubby). Although it is possible to tie off a sling on a longer screw to minimise the leverage, it is both awkward to set up and weaker than clipping in the handle of a full-in screw.
In some Scottish routes, it is advisable to take some long screws, even if you don't expect to encounter very thick ice. Snow-ice in Scotland often has multiple layers. What sometimes happens is, When you screw in a long screw, it first bites, then after a few turns it goes in a void, before it again bites in a layer deep at the bottom. A long screw may reach the second or even third layer of solid ice, whereas shorter ones would not.
How many screws does one need?
It entirely depends how many screws one wants to (and can) place! Suppose you climb a route with a 50-metre pitch of pure ice. You would need a couple of screws for both lower and upper belays; say you use 5. If you place a screw runner every 5 metres, which means you might fall for 10 metres, you would need 9 screws (note in reality you should place more screws in the initial part of the route and more sparsely in the later part). So, you would need 14 in total.
Your mate perhaps have some, but that is a number a party would need/want.
Grivel boasts its Inverted Thread technology for threading of their screws, which is supposed to help the screw bite ice better.
The crucial point of ice screws is their sharp tips. You must keep the tips as sharp as possible. Nothing is more annoying than brunt-tipped ice screws!
By far the best and easiest way is to change the screw tips (except for buying another brand-new screw, of course). E-Climb Klau is the only model that allows it, though.
You can order professional service of resharpening. In the UK, Needle Sports offers the service, using the Grivel machine. Last time I ordered, I was rather disappointed with the result…
Or, Petzl sells the hand-resharpening kit, Lim'Ice. Personally, I am not hugely impressed with it, having resharpened dozens of my screws.
Be it the Grivel machine or Petzl Lim'Ice, they resharpen the tip as those of Grivel ones and Petzl Laser, respectively. Then, if your screw is made by Black Diamond for example, it may not be ideal.
Nowadays, I sharpen screws by hand with files. The most comprehensive guide of sharpening a screw I know is "Ice Screw Sharpening Procedure" from adventure-science.com, though I admit I am not following this laborious, though as good as it could be, approach…
Actual models in the market
|[†]Including the weight of a built-in sling|
|Petzl / Laser Speed Light||91||100||110|
|E-Climb / Klau||105||106||116||126||136|
|Petzl / Laser Speed||113||128||143||161|
|DMM / Revolution||116||126||148||165|
|Black Diamond / Express||118||134||145||159||168|
|Grivel / Helix||145||168||191|
|CAMP / Radion[†]||155||177||199|
|Climbing Technology / Revolve Steel[†]||175||195|
|Grivel / 360||156||179||203|
|Petzl / Laser Sonic||165||185||205|
|Salewa / Quick Screw[†]||180||191||228|
|Initial bite||Screwing||Narrow head||Racking||Weight||Retrieving||Cleaning||Sling|
|Grade scale in 1 to 5 — 1 is the poorest and 5 is the best by the author's subjective view.|
|Petzl / Laser Speed Light||3||5||5||3||5|
|E-Climb / Klau||3||4|
|Petzl / Laser Speed||3||3|
|DMM / Revolution||5||1||1||4||3||1||5|
|Black Diamond / Express||3||4||1||5||3||2||5|
|Grivel / Helix||4||5||2||4||2||3||5|
|Grivel / Helix Speedy||4||2||2||5||2||5||5||Yes|
|CAMP / Radion||1||2||5||Yes|
|Climbing Technology / Revolve Steel||3||3||5||5||1||3||1||Yes|
|Grivel / 360||2||5||4||1||1||3||1||Option|
|Petzl / Laser Sonic||3||2||1||1||1||4||5|
|Salewa / Quick Screw||5||1||5||Yes|
Here is my conclusion of my preferred ice screws. Taste vary, and so this is just my personal view. Also, even my preference varies, depending on the circumstances and route of choice. For example, if it is mountaineering in a remote place or high-altitude climbing, the weight will be of paramount importance. If it is a continental water-fall ice routes with reliable ice throughout, ice screws with a built-in sling makes more sense, and there will be no need of stubby screws.
For Scottish and steep ice climbing, I will want a couple of stubbies, couple of (22-cm ish) long screws, and 8 or so medium-size screws.
I would want one or two 6-cm stubby (E-Climb/Klau). For 10-cm stubbies, I would choose DMM/Revolution, as it bites so well. But, E-Climb/Klau can rival it — I want to try.
For the medium sizes, I want a couple of Grivel/Helix, as they are the best screws in terms of the ease of placing I have ever used. But they are heavy, so others will be Black Diamond/Express. Or, both Petzl/Laser Speed Light and E-Climb/Klau are good candidates, though my experience with them is either poor or none. Also, I want to take one narrow-headed screw for constricted placement: either Grivel/360 or Climbing Technology/Revolve Steel.
For the longest ones, I vote for Petzl/Laser Speed Light, as the difference in the weight is more significant. If you place such a long one at a sharp end in a strenuous position, then how easy it is to screw in must count a lot. Grivel/Helix may win in that sense. However, I would not likely place the longest screw at a sharp end. Rather, I would more likely use them for belays and abalakov threads, where the position to place a screw is less likely to be so strenuous.
9th April 2015