Discovering dry tooling, climbing’s most obscure subdiscipline

Once reserved for winter, mixed climbing — a combination of rock and ice climbing — has evolved to completely dry climbing in summer, or dry tooling. The discipline was born from routes that were a combination of bare rock ascended to reach a hanging icefall, but it’s now a genre unto itself, complete with specialized gear.

It’s a Saturday in August in the Rigid Designator Amphitheater, above Vail, Colorado. While the nearby crags — namely Rifle, one of America’s most famous sport climbing areas — are packed with muscular men and women lining up for their turn on a thuggish, delicate route, we have the walls mostly to ourselves.

The reason for the solitude is that the Designator Amphitheater is most often used for ice climbing, but during summer, the ice typically has all melted out. In the peak of winter, this area draws visitors from all over for the world, as it’s home to some of the coolest icefalls in the country.

David Roetzel working out the moves on Saphira (M15-), the hardest mixed route in North America. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Van Leuven

But the Amphitheater is also a heavily bolted area and contains the most difficult mixed route in the country, Saphira, rated M15- (approximately 5.13+ on the Yosemite Decimal System; the “M” is for “mixed”). Dry tooling is rated on a D series, and it’s what David Roetzel, Beth Goralski and I were doing that day.

Roetzel worked out the moves on Saphira while Goralski climbed routes in the M10 (5.12) range. Dressed in board shorts instead of insulated winter gear, we were using ice axes and crampons over bare rock for upward progress.

The tools of the trade. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Van Leuven

The trouble (and excitement) with dry tooling is that due to the amplified force of sharp ice picks levering off fragile edges, rock can unexpectedly snap. Other times tools skate, sending the climber flying through the air. It feels like scary sport climbing.

Sometimes…

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