Two stunning vertical ice climbs, the Rigid Designator and the Fang, split a limestone bowl above East Vail, Colorado. Behind these classic pillars is an overhanging cliff that helped launch the modern mixed-climbing revolution, starting with Jeff Lowe’s visionary Octopussy back in 1994. Over the following two decades, this soft rock bore the brunt of hundreds if not thousands of dry-tooling ascents, leaving divots drilled by monopoints and rows of scratches carved by frontpoints and tool picks. As one climber put it, the most popular routes look like they’ve been attacked by Freddy Krueger.
Such is the price of dry-tooling on soft stone. And in places like Vail where the rock is much too chossy for rock climbing, and only ice and mixed climbers ever see the cliff up close, the scars don’t bother many people.
But what happens when dedicated dry-toolers venture onto established rock climbs in search of new places to ply their craft? Dry-tooling is still a tiny subset of our sport, but the numbers have grown steadily in recent years with improvements in gear and the widespread development of bolt-protected “M climbing.” Dry-tooling may seem weird to many climbers, but it’s challenging, strenuous, and plenty fun.
“As mixed climbers get stronger, more and more people are able to do hard dry-tooling, and they’re looking for new terrain,” says Joe Sambataro, access director at the Access Fund.
So far, conflicts between dry-toolers and rock climbers have been relatively rare, and dry-tooling has not raised the hackles of land managers. “Most dry-tooling areas are separate from rock climbing areas, so they coexist,” Sambataro says. “However, mixed climbers need to tread lightly to prevent future access issues.”
Dry-Tooling: Best Practices
- To avoid conflict, avoid existing rock routes. Most areas have chossy or mossy cliffs, road cuts, quarries, masonry walls, or other areas suitable for dry-tooling where rock climbers never tread.
- When in doubt, ask first. Local tradition may accept dry-tooling on certain routes, but don’t assume a splitter tips crack is ripe for torqueing just because there’s snow on the ground. At the risk of sparking a flame war, you can quickly get a sense of what’s generally accepted by posting a query at sites like Mountain Project, Cascade Climbers, and NE Ice.
- Avoid soft rock. Dry-tooling causes much less damage—and generates less controversy—on harder stone like granite or gneiss than soft limestone or sandstone. And if you do dry-tool on existing rock climbs, choose steep routes with big holds. “It’s really bad style to destroy a good rock route just because you want to hone your thin mixed skills,” says Minnesota climber James Loveridge.
- Wear rock shoes for warm-season dry-tooling. Crampons generally cause more damage than ice tools. Plus, as Loveridge points out, dry-tooling in rock shoes can improve your footwork for summertime rock routes. “I’ve learned all sorts of subtle ways to make my feet stay on the rock,” he says.
- Train on an artificial wall. To learn the subtleties of technique, you need to climb outside. But to get stronger, a wall or home woody works great. Gyms such as CityRock in Colorado Springs or the Minnesota Climbing Co-Op allow dry-tooling in designated areas or off-hours. There also are special indoor-climbing tools designed to hook over plastic holds (alpkit.com/drytooling; schmoolz.com).
- Be careful when rappelling. At many areas, crampons scratch the rock more during lower-offs and rappels than during actual ascents. Stay on the ice when rappelling or lowering, and remove your crampons before descents—but only if it’s safe to do so.
This is an excerpt from Mixed Emotions: The Impacts and Implications of Dry-Tooling, published in the Winter 2012 issue of the Vertical Times. See the full article here.