While watching this video recently, I was struck both by the mechanism of the fall, which resembles a rag doll falling down a laundry heap, as well as by the failure of a piece of equipment which has recently regained popularity and widespread use among ice and alpine climbers. I’m referring of course to ice tool umbilicals.
The umbilical is an old idea which briefly fell out of style with the advent of the wrist loop for vertical ice climbing. Old umbilicals would prevent dropping axes, but leashes offered a much more efficient resting position while climbing. Recently, as tools have developed steeper picks and larger pinky-hooks, umbilicals have regained popularity as a means of climbing longer and more committing routes without the risk of dropping a tool. Though they create slightly more hassle and clutter, they are a clear choice compared to carrying a third tool.
But drop-protection is not the only way that they’re used. There is an implicit understanding among climbers who use umbilicals that they function as a sort of moving belay. Or at least, we would hope so. As the video shows at 00:45, the leader’s umbilical fails under the sudden load of his weight. This illustrates a fundamental deficiency in the design of ice umbilicals which should be fixed.
There are three leashes in widespread use in the US today, from Black Diamond, Blue Ice, and Grivel. All of these manufacturers publicly disavow their leashes for hanging or fall-protection. Their leashes are rated to loads of 2kN, 5kN, and 200 kg (!) respectively. In addition to these paltry loads, black diamond and Grivel use puny carabiners for attachment which are unrated, or in Grivel’s case, rated to “750kg and must never be used instead of normal carabiners when climbing or belaying”.
There are two main arguments against building full strength leashes:
First, an ice tool is a relatively insecure point of anchoring, compared to a deliberately placed ice screw or intentionally constructed belay. Thinking of a leash as a point of protection may create a false sense of security.
Second, even short falls in static systems can generate large forces, much as one would do falling onto a belay using a daisy chain. These forces can be high enough to injure a climber if his anchor holds.
The attached video, however, provides some evidence against these objections. First, in both falls shown, the leader’s tool or tools remain placed in the ice, including the tool which was initially attached to the first leader’s leash. It is a mantra among ice climbers that each tool should be a good placement and an effective self-belay. In this instance, the leash failed before the tool broke free.
Additionally, regarding the second objection that such falls generate dangerous forces, this video shows that that may apply to vertical ice, but doesn’t apply to falls on WI4 or less than vertical alpine ice. These falls are rag-dolling, bouncing affairs which are further cushioned by the stretch of the umbilical leash.
The obvious shortcomings in umbilical design are likely in place out concern for liability, which is unfortunate. As our sports grow more mainstream, and an industry develops around them, our culture of accepting personal risk and responsibility will inevitably erode. But as always, the few companies which build functional tools for core users will ignore that trend, and ice climbing will be the better for it.
Here’s how I would design a set of umbilicals from scratch:
The ideal umbilical will be constructed out of a semi-dynamic nylon and won’t have carabiners used for attachment but will instead connect through the full-strength loops in tools which are becoming more common by the use of a simple girth hitch. Per preference, if it does include a swivel to prevent tangles, this will be rated to the excess of the strength of the webbing. Ideally, the stretch of the umbilical would become much stiffer at the outer limit of its range to distribute the force of a fall over time. (Similar to what Mammut did with their dynamic cordalette 7mm cord.) It should not be challenging to produce a leash which is rated to 22kN. Nor should it be challenging to provide intermediate points of attachment for attaching oneself to an anchor, or for use as a cow’s tail while repelling.
Perfection has never been the standard for innovation in climbing gear. I suspect that once one company has the courage to make such changes, all will soon follow because a full-strength leash is what climbers are looking for. Always, we want redundancy in our systems, and those who choose to rely on only leashes will have to understand their limitations, but they’ll be better than what we have today: elastic webbing belts with trivial attachments. You might as well grab that little carabiner off your sunscreen bottle. Yeah, the one that says ‘not for climbing use’. That should be fine, right?
Thanks to Alex Ragus, admiral of mechanistic recollections, for input on this article.
Note: Climbing is a dangerous sport which even when practiced safely can result in serious injury, disability, or death. Seek professional instruction and supervision before traveling independently in the mountains. Any information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for concrete experience and informed judgment obtained under the guidance of a professional instructor or guide. I am not a professional; use this information at your own risk.