Review: Ice screws

Various ice screws
Ice screw collections

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.

Initial bites

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.

Retrieving

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.

Cleaning

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,

  1. Tap the head (the handle side) of the screw,
  2. 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.

Racking

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,

  1. Not work well with other models of screws,
  2. May not rack well on your harness,
  3. Extra weight,
  4. Your second(s) may not have one.

The compatibility with Caritool-type racking system is relatively important for that reason.

Compact head

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.

Weight

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:

  1. Minimises the potential leverage on ice,
  2. The screw can be unscrewed while still attached on the rope,
  3. The screw can be racked directly to the gear loop (of a harness) via the karabiner,
  4. Eliminates a karabiner (in the screw side), hence the overall weight,
  5. 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.

Length

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.

Number

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.

Miscellaneous

Threading

Grivel boasts its Inverted Thread technology for threading of their screws, which is supposed to help the screw bite ice better.

Resharpening

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

DMM / Revolution

DMM Revolution ice screw

©DMM

The only ice screw in this review that is not equipped with the handle to accelerate screwing. Then, why worth the review?

I have found when it comes to the initial bite, DMM/Revolution is almost unrivalled, with only the potential contender being Grivel/Helix. The sizeable handle makes it easy to press, and the angle of the tip is very acute and sharp. I have repeatedly come across the situation, where other screws were slow to bite, while DMM/Revolution did almost straightaway.

At the end of the day, if the screw doesn't bite, the world-most sophisticated-designed handle to make screwing easy is of no use. In that respect, DMM/Revolution wins. In particular, lack of sophisticated handle is marginalised for those stubby (short) screws, where the initial biting time may well take longer than the time to screw the rest.

Also, it is comparatively light, though by no means the lightest in the market any more. The ergonomic design of the handle is probably the best among those with no-acceleration handles, although far inferior than other modern screws.

Still, I believe DMM can do a better job by redesigning it. Come on, DMM!

Black Diamond / Express

Black Diamond Express ice screw

©Black Diamond

Probably the ice-screws seen most commonly in Scotland, and perhaps with a good reason. In short, it achieves an overall good balance.

Its feature to help accelerate screwing is a little foldable knob. In my first impression I thought it would be fiddly and tiring (to screw in), particularly with chunky gloves. However, after using them for many years, I can testify they actually work pretty well. After all, as a rule of thumb, you should not be using too big gloves while actually climbing, at least in Scotland, where the temperature is not excessively low.

Because the knob is so small, they rack neatly, and to keep pressure on for the initial bite is quite effective, too. And they are fairly light for what they are.

A downside of the little knob is, there is more chance to fumble and drop it when screwing out to retrieve, than other models with a larger handle.

A note is, make sure to fold down the little knob after you place a screw before climbing on, and don't leave it unfolded. There has been an accident reported, where a rope was severed by the knob when a leader took a fall.

Petzl / Laser Speed Light

Petzl / Laser Speed Light ice screw

©Petzl

The lightest ice screw in the market by a good margin (possibly except for a kind of legendary titanium screws made in old Soviet?), thanks to the steel-tip and aluminium body construction.

I have used them only a couple of times so far, so I can't comment much.

Petzl / Laser Speed

Petzl / Laser Speed ice screw

©Petzl

More durable and heavier version of Laser Speed Light. Having said that, alhough heavier than its brother, they are lighter than any other model from other manufacturers, except for E-Climb Klau.

I have never used one.

Petzl / Laser Sonic [Discontinued]

Petzl / Laser Sonic ice screw

©Masa Sakano

Previous generation of Laser Speed (Light) from Petzl, and the design is radically different. Maybe the first major ice-screw, which allows a second to unscrew and retrieve the screw with a quick-draw being kept attached on, hence there is little chance of dropping while unscrewing. The same is applied to a leader while placing one, too, if s/he wants.

However, screwing-in, particularly into brick-hard ice, is a pain, because you have to pinch the handle in an awkward position for faster screwing, which is actually not so easy and is tiring. For the same reason, screwing-out is more tiring than other modern screws.

Also, racking is a real pain. Caritool-type racking would not work well, as its handle rotates all over. Petzl sold a specifically designed flutes for its racking, which are recommended to use. But I should note they are an extra weight and how to rack those flutes for both the leader and second is another problem.

They are quite heavy for what they are, too.

They are not produced any more by Petzl. If you come across ones, I wouldn't recommend you to buy one.

Grivel / Helix [Speedy]

Grivel / Helix ice screw

©Grivel

Arguably the screw that is the world fastest to place.

To get the initial bite is also the easiest, particularly on the steep terrain, where it is not easy for a leader to keep the pressure on a screw, thanks to its fairly sizeable handle for both sides. Also, because of the handle construction, it is practically more compact than Black Diamond Express and DMM Evolution, and so they go in marginally narrower placements, though not as narrow as, say, Grivel/360.

My only criticism is it is somewhat heavier than other major modern screws.

As an added neat feature, you can stow a Grivel tip protector on the handle as a cap, so you won't lose it.

Grivel also offers its Speedy version, which is equipped with a built-in sling/quick-draw. I have found it does not work well. Basically, when you screw in, the sling tends to get tangled up. If I try to avoid such a mess, I can not screw in as fast as it could be, so it defeats the merit of Helix.

Grivel / 360

Grivel / 360 ice screw

©Grivel

The screw that is equipped with the foldable long handle. Thanks to the long handle, once it bites, screwing-in is fast.

In fact I have only used its previous generation (it seems Grivel has improved it fairly recently). So, the following contains some guess work.

It has a few troubles. First, to keep the pressure on for the initial bite is awkward, hence it is more difficult and/or time-consuming to get the initial bite. Therefore, it may not be as fast as other modern screws to place (it certainly was the case with the previous generation; the current model appears to be a little improved, though not fundamentally).

Second, racking is awkward due to too many extra features, which get in the way.

Third, for the same reason, cleaning ice, particularly by blowing, is awkward.

Fourth, it is heavy.

As a pro, its quite narrow head means it can be more easily placed in a convoluted ice.

Climbing Technology / Revolve Steel

Climbing Technology / Revolve Steel ice screw

©Climbing Technology

Another model with built-in sling.

The narrow head means it can go in a narrower placement than pretty much any other screw (without chipping the surrounding ice).

However, that does have a drawback, that is, to get the initial bite is a little awkward. Also, to clear ice is very awkward, even by tapping. Blowing is near impossible.

The handle is made of plastic. Mine has been working fine so far, but the durability can be a concern. The leverage with the handle is not as much as many other models, hence you would need more force to screw in. In brick hard ice, it can be problematic. Particularly, there is no place to hook your axe to get the greatest leverage. So, you have to manage with what is available, the little plastic handle.

Also, it is fairly heavy.

Salewa / Quick Screw

Salewa / Quick Screw ice screw

©Salewa

I have never used one, though have scrutinised it once. It looked fairly similar to (Climbing Technology) Revolve Steel. Notably, the screw-tip protector is built in (a sling on) each screw. But I can't comment much more.

CAMP / Radion

CAMP / Radion ice screw

©CAMP

I have never used one, so can't review.

E-Climb / Klau

E-Climb / Klau ice screw

©E-Climb

Again, I have never used this, either.

On paper, they have two great and very unique advantages:

  1. Replaceable tips,
  2. 6-cm long stubby.

And these are the lightest screws, except for Petzl Laser Speed Light.

Summary of the available models 2015

Weights [in gram] of ice screws
Length [cm]610121315161719202122
[]Including the weight of a built-in sling
Petzl / Laser Speed Light 91 100 110
E-Climb / Klau 105106 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

 

Characteristics / Features
Initial biteScrewingNarrow headRackingWeightRetrievingCleaningSling
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 35535
E-Climb / Klau 3 4
Petzl / Laser Speed 3 3
DMM / Revolution 5114315
Black Diamond / Express 3415325
Grivel / Helix 4524235
Grivel / Helix Speedy 4225255Yes
CAMP / Radion 1 25 Yes
Climbing Technology / Revolve Steel 3355131Yes
Grivel / 360 2541131Option
Petzl / Laser Sonic 3211145
Salewa / Quick Screw 5 15 Yes

Verdict

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.


Masa Sakano
9th April 2015

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