What Is Dry Tooling? And Why Do People Do It?
With spikes attached to all limbs, I'm carefully placing each crampon, each ice tool, and testing them before committing. The sound of metal scraping on rock fills my ears and I look up searching for the next good hold. So why am I doing this? Why would anyone want do it?
WHAT IS DRY TOOLING?
Put simply, its rock climbing with ice axes and crampons.
Dry tooling is a strange form of climbing. Rock climbers who haven’t done it before often have very mixed opinions about the sport. Some even pull a face when you mention it.
So what exactly is it?
Dry tooling involves the use of ice tools (also known as ice axes) and crampons (or sometimes just normal rock shoes) to climb rock faces. Dry tooling has its origins in ice climbing and mixed climbing (which is climbing snow, ice AND rock, just to confuse you further).
The most commonly asked question, especially by fellow rock climbers is, ‘why not just climb it normally, with hands and rock shoes’?
Why would you want to dry tool?
WHY DO PEOPLE DRY TOOL?
Dry tooling is a great way to hone alpine climbing skills. This is the first and foremost reason for its development.
It can be practiced in any country, which allows climbers living in areas with a lack of snow and ice to train before heading into the mountains.
So why climb ‘dry’ rock when you are heading into the mountains to climb ice and snow anyway?
At some point in the alpine terrain you may encounter bare rock with no ice or snow. It’s here that your dry tooling practice makes you comfortable and calm. Without it, many climbers can feel awkward or sketchy when going from ice or snow and onto rock. Being safe is all about being prepared after all.
Dry tooling also involves a huge mental component of learning to trust your placements. You can no longer ‘feel’ the rock as you would with hands and feet, but you must learn to take other visual, auditory, and kinesthetic cues to know that what you are pulling or standing on is solid and won’t ‘blow’.
Pulling on the ice tools held in one's hands is also conducive to developing the same strength and endurance used in ice climbing. This is why most climbers who dry tool are also keen ice climbers.
But there are also climbers who love dry tooling without climbing any ice! Climbing has many different styles and dry tooling is one of the rarer ones.
IS IT SCARY?
Yes and no!
To begin with, it is probably one of the scariest climbing styles to get into. The awareness of those sharp points makes you very mindful of the outcome of any fall you might take, especially on lead as opposed to a top rope setup where you don't fall much.
My biggest fear was always having one ice tool pop without warning. But with good technique and safe practices you can minimize this.
So many people also wonder...
HOW DO YOU NOT STAB YOURSELF?
While it may appear that getting hurt is very common, it certainly isn’t the case.
Most people who dry tool have often been climbing for many years and are therefore quite good at making sure they assess the risks on the climbs they undertake.
This is not to say accidents don’t happen!
The ice tools themselves are usually not an issue in a fall. It’s the crampons catching when falling on vertical, or less than vertical terrain, that's a big concern.
To minimize or even eliminate this, dry tooling crags are often situated at overhanging cliffs or caverns where falls are into empty space and are relatively risk free.
And for those times where a fall is potentially dangerous, if the weather or climate permits, rock shoes can be worn which do not ‘catch’ like crampons do. Many dry tooling climbers do this anyway.
TIPS ON DRY TOOLING
Having good technique and knowing the in’s and out’s are the most important way to enjoy dry tooling and keep it safe.
Here's a few tips I've learnt:
► Keep ice tool placements down even as you move up.
Ice tools rely on that 90° shaft orientation to the horizontal axis of the rock hold. Generally, this means keep it in the same position even as you move up. If you change the direction of the ice tool on the hold, like pulling outwards, it can ‘skate’ (fall) off resulting in a blown placement. This is always easier said than done, but try to focus on this as this will make you feel much more secure when dry tooling.
► Manage the fear!
It’s going to be scary, I won’t lie. You’ll have to summon additional mental strength to improve your dry tooling. Assess the climbs and be OK with the falls (on lead climb) if they were to happen. If it's safe to do the climb, then go for it! Fear, like in all climbing styles (and life for that matter), holds you back. So mastering this will not only improve your dry tooling, but all your climbing styles!
Going hand in hand with the above tip, relaxing is vital. Open your thumb from your hand. Shake out regularly. And focus on your breathing and think happy thoughts. Whatever you need to do to relax, do it!
► Rock shoes
If it's looking too dangerous or sketchy to climb with crampons, and its not freezing cold, try wearing rock shoes. At least now you only have to worry about the ice tools!
► Never use leashes!
Having either a hand through a leash, or attached to your harness with one, is not advisable. In the event of a fall, they can do more damage by flicking back toward you.
► Keep it tight down the bottom
For the first 3-4 meters, keep a tight belay as a lead climber falling off the wall can injure themselves, and you as well if you don’t keep them tight. Wearing a helmet is crucial for this reason. You should always receive good instruction for lead belaying and use good climbing practices.
► Keep the back of the ice tool safe
Its best to remove the hammer or adze off the back of the ice tool. With the Petzl ice tools which I use, many can be removed easily with a hex key. For ice tools that have them permanently attached, consider using some foam and taping the back up to protect yourself.
► Watch others climb
You’ll probably have a hard time finding people who dry tool but when you do, watch how they climb. In fact, scour Youtube and Vimeo for dry tooling videos and watch how they move, their technique and how they link the climb together.
Need some to get started? Here are a couple:
Or this one...
And for some great technique tips, watch this one (it's in french but turn 'closed captions' on to get the translated subtitles):
Still not that keen on dry tooling?
There are many climbing styles around, and while dry tooling isn’t as popular, it’s a great way to stay fit and train for any alpine sports like ice and mixed climbing.
Trying new things is always good anyway and is an excellent way of getting out of your comfort zone.
Who knows, you might even enjoy it!