By Jake Surman
Sat here on a grey and rainy November day in the Lake District the thought of ice climbing on a crisp sunny day seems far removed given the present weather. None the less the winter season is more or less upon us and so I thought it might be useful to run through the pros and cons of the various ice screws that we at Rock + Run have on offer. Probably the first thing to note is that all of the screws here can be placed quickly with one hand – this capability has transformed the way steep ice can be protected. It’s probably safe to say that the new breed of ice screw with winders or handles on has made the old style obsolete for anybody buying now, such is the difference in performance. Surprisingly, the manufacturers have come up with rather differing designs to make placements as fast as possible for us. An important consideration that is sometimes overlooked when buying ice screws is how well they rack on your harness. Ice screws are best off racked on plastic ‘clipper’ type biners for easy access. It is far preferable to have your screws hanging neatly, pointing behind you than to be sticking out all over the place – especially if you're unfortunate enough to take to the air. No matter how good a screw is when you buy it will be made far less effective if the teeth are blunt. The video below, from Black Diamond, demonstrates sharpening techniques and is well worth watching before you get the file out.
This is a cleverly designed piece of kit with one main advantage over the competition; because all of the leverage required for placement is gained from the folding wire handle the hanger is very compact. This means that unlike the other screws here the 360 can be placed in dishes and pockets with very little cleaning. The 360 is also very easy to place and thanks to the long handle it will crank down into hard ice with relative ease. Another advantage of the folding handle is that once it is folded in the 360 is fairly compact and for my money racks better than the fixed crank Helix. Because the 360 will occasionally go in where nothing else will, it’s worth considering having one or two, even if you mainly use something else. Purchase.
This is a very simple design with a fixed crank opposite the hanger. The tube is the same as for the 360 and so the initial bite is similarly excellent. As a result of its simplicity the Helix is very easy to use, and also very quick. The downside of this simple design is that the Helix is slightly bulkier to rack than most, and does not squeeze into awkward spots like the 360. However if you are purchasing ice screws for the first time then purely for ease of use the Helix would make it a great choice. Purchase.
This is basically a Helix with a permanent quickdraw attached that is free to spin around the shaft. This set-up has a few advantages over standard ice screws: It reduces weight by having one less carabiner; it speeds up placement; and it also makes it much harder to drop, as the Speedy is clipped to the rope whilst placing. The obvious downside of this system is that you loose versatility – the quickdraw on the screw can’t be placed on any other bit of gear. Assuming you already own quickdraws then the cost is also clearly higher than just buying standard ice screws. In all this is probably a rather specialist piece of equipment but if you are doing a lot of pure ice climbing then it may well be worth considering. There’s a slightly bizarre video from Grivel (available here) with Stevie Haston demonstrating them. Purchase.
This high-performance ice screw is perfect for difficult placements where ease of use is paramount. The light, hot forged steel tubing of the Laser Speed maintains durability whilst keeping weight down. The integrated folding crank gives an optimised handle which offers some the best most powerful leverage available, making it easier and faster to screw in and the design of the teeth is optimised to facilitate improved and quick bite into the ice and the patented tooth edge design makes sharpening easier. The screws are also colour-coding helps you identify the screw length. Finally, another great feature of the Laser Speed is the ample crank clearing which allows you to sink the screws in placements that don’t work as well with screws that offer less crank clearance. Purchase.
Black Diamond Express
The Express is a classic design that looks very simple and yet works brilliantly. The hanger has been updated recently; most noticeably by the addition of a secondary clip in point for belays. The hanger is now also made out of stainless steel which won’t rust, and should not heat up as much as the old black hanger in the sun, thereby reducing melt-out (I’m not sure if anybody has ever experienced this in Scotland though!). The knob has also been made bigger, making it easier to use in thick gloves and less likely to be dropped. Less obviously the tube is now tapered so that it is wider at the tooth end than the hanger end, making the final turns quicker and easier. Thanks to the neat design the Express racks very well. Overall this screw is still one of the best and makes a great base for any winter rack. Purchase.