I’ve witnessed three leader falls in my ice climbing career. I think of leading ice a lot like I think of free soloing–falling is not an option. Sure you have a rope on and it’s attached to what you’re climbing at (hopefully frequent) intervals, but falling is a bad idea since you will most likely get really, really hurt.
The first fall I saw was a 30′ fall on Twin Falls in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. The leader was about 45′ up the opening pitch (WI3) and pitched off, head first, onto a medium length screw that did not have a screamer on it. He came to a stop a couple feet above the ground, but downhill from his belayer. For those of you with technical interests, that’s a fall factor of greater than 1. It’s amazing that his screw even held. He walked away unscathed, but probably had to change his shorts after almost decking.
The second was at the Junkyards, just outside Canmore, Alberta. The leader had just topped out on a short curtain, placed a screw, and was moving up to sling the anchor tree. He was fiddling with the leashes on his tools and popped off feet first…initially. Then he caught his last screw with his crampon, tweaked his ankle, and flipped upside down for about a 15′ fall. Surprisingly, even after watching his ankle bend well beyond its normal range, he didn’t break it.
Two days ago, however, I saw the worst ice climbing fall I’ve ever seen. The leader was on the final pillar of “Power Play” at Chapel Pond in the Adirondacks of New York. He was about 60′ out from the belay on very dense (pick breaking density) WI4 ice. As he tried to place a screw, he pitched off and free fell 40′ onto lower angle ice below his belayer before his screw caught him. He hit on his back and head, breaking his helmet, dropping his tools, and going unconscious. Fortunately the screamer on his screw kept his piece in, otherwise he would have factor 2’d onto the belay. As he lay there unresponsive, bleeding out of his head, all of the nearby parties started to mobilize. Fortunately, after what seemed to be an eternity, he righted himself and “batmanned” up the rope to the belay where his partner lowered him to the ground. He was a very lucky man that day. We saw him yesterday morning, buying a new helmet and wondering how he even fell. He kept saying “I had it in the bag”…no, you didn’t. You fell and are lucky you didn’t die since you fell 40′ onto your head.
The good news of all of this is that ice screws actually do work. OK, so if screws work, then why all of this diatribe about not falling? Good question. Falling on ice is a bad idea with all of those sharp objects attached to you. Crampons are good at catching and breaking ankles in even the shortest falls (I know a guy who fell less than 10′ and broke both ankles simultaneously). Ice tools can cut ropes and puncture soft tissues readily (read Mark Twight’s story about putting an ice tool through his cheek). Not to mention that you’re likely to be running it out, so falls are way longer than those on rock climbs, meaning you’re more likely to hit things while you accelerate at 9.8m/s/s.
So what can we do about it? All of these falls would have had much less severe consequences if the leader had protected himself better–be it clipping in before building an anchor or placing screws more often, especially when just above ledges. So…protect early and often on pitches. Place screws in good ice, especially in concavities. Use screamers on the first few pieces off the belay. Tie your belayer down and out of the firing line of falling ice. Don’t fall. Period.