In the last couple of weeks I've personally witnessed two ice leaders taking whippers onto screws. I've also spoken to a fellow guide who's coworker (also a guide) has taken four lead falls onto ice screws in his short career (about 5 years) as an ice leader. That's a lot of leader falls on screws in a very short time.
Prior to this season I've only personally known three people who have been caught by ice screws in a lead fall situation. Only three falls have been taken by friends in 12+ years of climbing. What's going on that has begun this alarming trend? I must be "old school". I learned, and still feel, that in an ice climbing environment the leader really shouldn't fall. I don't mind the occasional fall on a rock route in a safe spot; falling with numerous sharp objects adorning one's body just doesn't seem to make sense. Don't get the wrong idea about this; everyone falls sometimes. I've taken my fair share of leader falls on winter terrain, but always onto cams, nuts or bolts that I was absolutely certain were rock solid and in fairly steep terrain.
The two falls I witnessed deserve some explanation. One was a fall by an experienced leader. It was his first fall in more than a decade of leading ice, his tools were planted securely and remained in the ice but his feet inadvertently cut loose as he was reaching up to clip a bolt overhead. He lowered down and surrendered the rope to his partner who safely completed the climb.
The second fall, also unexpected, came as a climber was topping out on a steep pillar in the Hellhole. He continued to climb up despite the fact that he was too pumped to find good tool placements. Eventually one of his poor placements failed and he took the whip. He was startlingly cavalier about the whole affair, which has undeniably worked its way under my skin.
What's the takeaway in a situation like this? I feel like I'm left with more questions than answers. Is falling on screws acceptable? Should I climb with people that are that gung-ho about falling on ice screws? When is it okay for newer ice leaders to begin pushing their limits? Should I have approached the individual and said to him, in a diplomatic way, that it's just better to take a hang or be strong enough and composed enough to find solid tool placements? It seems unlikely that all screws will hold a fall, especially in the toprope mecca of the world, the Catskills, where the ice is hacked to death by unassuming beginner climbers. One thing I know for sure. This game is all about finding secure protection and being a solid climber. Getting hurt in a fall means game over and in dire situations means "life is over".
Next time you're out there above your gear and you think about moving off that crappy tool placement when there's plenty more ice below think again. Dig harder to find that secure tool placement. It's worth the few extra swings every time.