Mixed climbing

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Mixed climbing is a climbing discipline used on routes that do have not enough ice to be pure ice climbs, but are also not dry enough to be pure rock climbs. To ascend the route, the mixed climber uses ice climbing tools (e.g. double ice tools and crampons), but to protect the route, they use traditional (e.g. nuts) or sport (e.g. bolts) rock climbing tools. Mixed climbing can vary from routes with sections of thick layers of ice and sections of bare rock to routes that are mainly bare rock but which is “iced-up” (i.e. covered in a thin layer of ice and/or snow).


While alpine climbing has used mixed climbing techniques for decades (most north-facing alpine routes are iced or snow-covered), the sport came to prominence with Jeff Lowe's ascent of the partially bolted Octopussy (WI6, M8 R) in 1994. Mixed climbing led to the sport of dry-tooling, which is mixed climbing on routes that are completely free of all ice or snow. At times, mixed climbing equipment has come under scrutiny from concerns that it was aid climbing (e.g. the lengths of tools used, and the use of heel spurs and of ice axe leashes).

Mixed climbing routes are graded for difficulty on an M-grade system, and the development of specialized mixed climbing techniques (e.g. stein pulls and figure-four moves), and equipment (e.g. fruit boots, heel spurs, and advanced ergo ice axes), led to dramatic increases in mixed climbing grade milestones, particularly from 1994 to 2003, and have been credited with pushing standards in the wider field of alpine climbing. Many modern mixed routes are bolted like sport climbing routes, but some routes require traditional climbing-type protection.


Team on Flauto Magico (130-metres, WI5+, M9, 4-pitches) in the Vallunga Valley, Dolomites, Italy Mixed Cimbing III.jpg
Team on Flauto Magico (130-metres, WI5+, M9, 4-pitches) in the Vallunga Valley, Dolomites, Italy

Mixed climbing involves using ice climbing equipment (e.g. double ice axes and crampons) on routes that are not sufficiently covered in ice to be pure ice climbs and have a WI-grade. Mixed climbing routes have significant elements that are pure rock, which in some cases may be completely dry (e.g. as found on some North American mixed climbing routes), but in many cases is covered in a thin layer of ice and snow (e.g. as found in Scottish mixed climbing), thus making pure rock or ice climbing techniques impossible. [1]

The mixed climber uses their ice axe and crampons to advance up the route by inserting them into small cracks and edges on the iced-up rock. They use the equipment of a traditional climbing rock climber for climbing protection, as there will be limited possibilities to use ice screws to protect the route. It has also become common to find single-pitch mixed climbs that are fully bolted in the manner of sport climbing routes. [2] Mixed climbing can also be done as free solo climbing, which is an even risker undertaking. [3]

Mixed climbing is closely related to alpine climbing, as many alpine climbing routes have large sections of iced and snow-covered rock that can neither be rock climbed (i.e. too slippery) nor climbed as a pure ice climb (i.e. not enough ice). Mixed climbing is also closely related to the sport of dry-tooling, which was developed by mixed climbers doing routes with no snow or ice, but still using the tools and techniques of mixed climbing; mixed climbs that have no ice are sometimes given a "D" prefix instead of an "M" prefix in their grade. [4]

There has been debate as to whether mixed climbing is akin to aid climbing (i.e. use of mechanical tools on rock), which has led to increased oversight on allowable tools (e.g. use of heel spurs, length of axes, and use of leashes for resting, etc.); and most ice climbing competitions no longer allow leashes and regulate the use of heel spurs (e.g. if allowed at all, they cannot be used for resting). [5]

Types of routes

Types of mixed climbing routes
Kristoffer Szilas climbing a mixed route graded M9.JPG
Silent Memories (WI6, M9), Italy.
AMPNW Canadian Rockies - February 2015 - 18.jpg
French Reality (WI6+, M7-), Canada.
Mixed climbing Grade M11 Montana.jpg
North West Passage (M11), Montana.
Banana Wall, Coire an Lochain, Cairngorms, Scotland.jpg
Banana Wall (XII/12), Scotland.

Mixed climbing routes can cover a broad range of types. Some mixed climbing routes are combinations of an ice climbing route (i.e. a large frozen icicle, frozen alpine couloirs, or frozen water cascade) and a dry-tooling routes (i.e. need to pass a rock overhang or rock roof to get to the frozen ice part); these routes have both a full mixed climbing grade (M-grade) and a full ice climbing grade (WI-grade). Examples of such routes are the American mixed climbing route, Octopussy (WI6, M8), Silent Memories (WI6, M9) in Italy, or French Reality (M7-, WI6+) in Canada. [4]

Other types of mixed climbing routes have no material 'ice climbing' sections per se (and thus have no substantive WI-grade). Such routes are effectively rock routes but where the rock is covered in a thin layer of ice and/or snow that makes normal rock climbing techniques impossible. Examples of such routes include many Scottish winter climbs, [2] such as Wailing Wall (Scottish mixed climbing grade XI, 9) or Banana Wall (Scottish mixed climbing grade XII, 12), [6] or North West Passage (M11) in Montana.


While alpine climbers and Scottish winter climbers have used mixed climbing techniques for decades, mixed climbing as a standalone sport came to prominence in 1994 when American climber Jeff Lowe climbed the roof of Octopussy (WI6, M8) in Vail, Colorado, creating the world's first M8-graded mixed climb. [7] [8] In 2014, Rock & Ice credited Lowe's 1994 ascent with effectively inventing the sport of mixed climbing. [9] [10]

Lowe's ascent led to an increase in interest in mixed climbing, [7] and from 1994 to 2003 levels of difficulty rose sharply from M8 to M13, driven by mixed-climbing pioneers such as Stevie Haston in Europe (particularly in Val di Cogne), and Will Gadd in North America (particularly in the Fang Amphitheater in Vail, and in the Cineplex Cave in Alberta). [7] [5] In 2003, Italian climber Mauro Bole  [ de ] finding he was too short for the crux on The Game (M13) in Cineplex Cave, lengthened his tools and completed it. [5] This led to implications that mixed-climbing was akin to aid climbing. [5] A similar debate had been boiling over on 'heel spurs', which Gadd had stopped using (calling it "barebacking"), and writing a manifesto titled "Spurs are for Horses, and Tools Are For Your Hands", which stated "A route climbed by sitting on your tool, hooking a tool with your knees or spurs or even using spurs is an aid climb". [5]

Competition ice climbing also began to regulate the use of tools, including heel spurs, tool length, and tool leashes (which can be used for resting). [5] In 2012, mixed-climber Ryan Nelson wrote an article in Rock & Ice titled "Is mixed climbing still legitimate?". [5] Scottish mixed-climber Dave MacLeod told Nelson, "Modern-mixed is definitely approaching stagnation", and "Ditching heel spurs will no doubt give it another gasp of life, but it only puts it off a year or two. The reason is, of course, that [climbing] a full ropelength of horizontal roof on tiny hooks is relatively easy". [5]

While the evolution of grade milestones in mixed climbing has tapered since 2003, leading mixed climbers such as Raphel Slawinski have highlighted the positive effect of mixed climbing on overall standards in alpine climbing. [7] Other alpine climbers such as Steve House have cautioned that the reliance on fully bolted sport climbing routes for the highest M-grades, has not yet led to a discernable impact on general standards in alpine climbing. [11]


Using a stein pull Ice climbing Ecrins 2014.jpg
Using a stein pull
Using a figure-four move and wearing fruit boots Ice climbing Ecrins 2014 - 12056791655.jpg
Using a figure-four move and wearing fruit boots

As well as using standard techniques of ice climbing (e.g. front pointing) and of rock climbing (e.g. crack climbing, but with ice axes), mixed climbers have developed a range of techniques that are largely unique to their sport (and the derived sport of dry-tooling). These include: [1]

In addition, mixed climbers try to keep their elbows near their sides (i.e. to avoid draining energy in torque and stein pulls), [1] and are very careful in extracting wedged blades (i.e. which can ricochet back into the climber's face), and of gently balancing the front points of their crampons on thin holds. [1]


Climber wearing fruit boots while performing a figure-four move in the 2016 Ice Climbing World Cup 2016 UIAA Ice Climbing World Tour Cheongsong - 88.jpg
Climber wearing fruit boots while performing a figure-four move in the 2016 Ice Climbing World Cup
Advanced ergo ice axe. Materiel d'escalade - studio WMCH - pioche Petzel.jpg
Advanced ergo ice axe.

Mixed climbing started by using existing ice climbing equipment for upward momentum (e.g. double ice axes and crampons), and existing traditional rock climbing equipment (e.g. nuts, hexcentrics and cams) or sport climbing equipment (e.g. bolts and quickdraws) for climber protection. [4]

As the sport of developed, specialized equipment was created including: [1]



Graded mixed climbs
Fly in the wind.JPG
Kristoffer Szilas on Fly in the Wind (M10+), Italy
Mixed climbing Grade 8+ Montana.jpg
Gordon McArthur on Roman Candle (M8+), Montana
Ueli Steck Les Drus "North Couloir Direct" (VI, Al 6+, M8) 5 (cropped).png
Ueli Steck on North Couloir Direct (VI, Al6+, M8), Les Drus
Aaron Mulkey Devil's Doorbell Wyoming.png
Aaron Mulkey on Devil's Doorbell (M9), Cody.

The grading of mixed routes approximates the ice climbing WI-system up to grade M6, but they then diverge as mixed routes become very overhanging and eventually turn into roofs (ice is not normally overhanging). [14] [15] M-grades do not take into account the "danger" of the route (i.e. how good is the protection in the event of a fall), but focus on the technical and physical challenge of the route, and is thus more akin to the French and US sport climbing grades, although as with the US system, the "R/X" suffix is used for danger. [14] [15]

Some M-graded climbs are given an alternative D-grade prefix where there is no ice on the route, and it is effectively dry-tooling (e.g. the Swiss climb Iron Man is quoted as being M14+ but also D14+). [14] [15] [16]

The following M-grades and descriptions are provided by the American Alpine Club (republished in 2013) who note: "These [mixed climbing] routes require considerable dry tooling (modern ice tools used on bare rock) and are climbed in crampons; actual ice is optional but some ice is usually involved": [17] [18]

In his 1996 book, Ice World, Jeff Lowe ranked his new M-grades to the level of physical exertion needed on a free rock climb; Lowe estimated that M8 was equivalent to 5.12 (American YDS). [19] Other authors have tried to align M-grades with rock climbing grades, [20] and now equate M8 to 5.10/5.11, however, there is some variation and no consensus that such comparisons are valid. [19]

Scottish winter grades

Jeff Mercier [fr] on The Secret (Grade VIII, 9), Scotland Jeff Mercier on The Secret.jpg
Jeff Mercier  [ fr ] on The Secret (Grade VIII, 9), Scotland

Mixed climbing in Scotland is known as Scottish winter climbing and uses a dual-grading system with a Roman numeral to denote the overall difficulty of the route (e.g. technical challenge, length, and the level of boldness, physicality, and stamina required). [15] A second Arabic number clarifies the technical difficulty of the hardest move on the route. [15] A climb graded VI, 6 means the technical difficulty of the hardest move is standard for the overall grade, whereas a climb graded VI, 8 denotes the hardest move is above the overall grade. [15]

This dual-grade is used as Scottish winter climbs use traditional climbing protection, placing greater strains on the climber. [15] British mixed-climber Ian Parnell wrote in his guide to Scottish winter climbing that Scottish grades are almost two levels above M-grades, and thus a Scottish VIII, 8 is similar to an M6; but that an onsight of a Scottish VIII, 8 using traditional climbing protection, is similar in difficulty to a bolted sport climbing M8. [15]

The American Alpine Club (republished in 2013) listed the following description of Scottish winter grades: [17] [18]

Evolution of grade milestones

The following mixed climbs are particularly notable in the evolution of mixed climbing grade milestones and mixed climbing standards. [21] [7]

Anna Torretta [it] on completing X-Files (background), 2021 X-files.jpg
Anna Torretta  [ it ] on completing X-Files (background), 2021

Female grade milestones

Many leading female mixed climbers are competition ice climbers from the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup tour, however, despite their smaller grouping, on occasions, female mixed climbers have set grade milestones that closely matched the highest male grades at the time: [30]

Free solo

A number of mixed climbers have set new grade milestones in a free solo climbing style (i.e. no protection such as ice screws or bolts):

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension, such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grade (climbing)</span> Degree of difficulty of a climbing route

Many climbing routes have a grade that reflects the technical difficulty—and in some cases the risks and commitment level—of the route. The first ascensionist can suggest a grade, but it will be amended to reflect the consensus view of subsequent ascents. While many countries with a strong tradition of climbing developed grading systems, a small number of grading systems have become internationally dominant for each type of climbing, which has contributed to the standardization of grades worldwide. Over the years, grades have consistently risen in all forms of climbing, helped by improvements in climbing technique and equipment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing route</span> Path to scale a mountain, rock, or ice wall

A climbing route is a path by which a climber reaches the top of a mountain, or rock/ice-covered obstacle. The details of a climbing route are recorded in a climbing guidebook and/or in an online climbing route database, and will include elements such as the type of climbing route, the difficulty grade of the route–and beta on its crux(es)–and any risk or commitment grade, the length and number of pitches of the route, and the climbing equipment needed to complete the route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

In mountaineering and climbing, a first ascent, is the first successful documented climb to the top of a mountain or the top of a particular climbing route. Early 20th-century mountaineers and climbers focused on reaching the tops of iconic mountains and climbing routes by whatever means possible, often using considerable amounts of aid climbing, and/or with large expedition style support teams that laid "siege" to the climb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ice climbing</span> Type of climbing with ice tools

Ice climbing is a climbing discipline that involves ascending routes consisting of frozen water. To ascend the route, the ice climber uses specialist equipment, particularly double ice axes and rigid crampons. To protect the route, the ice climber uses steel ice screws that require skill to employ safely and rely on the ice holding firm in any fall. Ice climbing routes can vary significantly by type, and include seasonally frozen waterfalls, high permanently frozen alpine couloirs, and large hanging icicles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dry-tooling</span> Form of mixed climbing on bare rock

Dry-tooling is a form of mixed climbing that is performed on bare, ice-free, and snow-free, routes. As with mixed climbing, the climber uses ice axes and crampons to ascend the route, but uses only rock climbing equipment for protection; many modern dry-tooling routes are now fully bolted like sport climbing routes. Indoor ice climbing competitions are held on non-ice surfaces and are effectively dry-tooling events.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Aid climbing is a form of rock climbing that uses mechanical devices and equipment, such as aiders, for upward momentum. Aid climbing is different than free climbing, which only uses mechanical equipment for protection, but not to assist in upward momentum. "Aid climbing" sometimes involves hammering in pitons and bolts, into which aiders are clipped, but there is also "clean aid climbing" which avoids hammering, using only removable placements.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Top rope climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Top rope climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber is securely attached to a climbing rope that runs through a fixed anchor at the top of the climbing route, and back down to the belayer at the base of the climb. A climber who falls will just hang from the rope at the point of the fall, and can then either resume their climb or have the belayer lower them down in a controlled manner to the base of the climb. Climbers on indoor climbing walls can use mechanical auto belay devices to top rope alone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yvon Chouinard</span> American mountain climber (born 1938)

Yvon Chouinard is an American rock climber, environmentalist, philanthropist, and outdoor industry businessman. His company, Patagonia, is known for its commitment to protecting the environment. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2023.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free solo climbing</span> Form of climbing without protection

Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of rock climbing where the climbers climb solo without ropes or other protective equipment, using only their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and, unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can be fatal. Though many climbers have free soloed climbing grades they are very comfortable on, only a tiny group free solo regularly, and at grades closer to the limit of their abilities.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Deep-water soloing</span> Free solo rock-climbing over water

Deep-water soloing (DWS), also known as psicobloc, is a form of free solo climbing where any fall should result in the climber landing safely into deep water below the route. DWS is therefore considered safer than normal free solo climbing, however, DWS brings several unique additional risks including trauma from uncontrolled high-speed water entry, injury from hitting hazards above and below the water while falling, and drowning in rough or tidal seas, and is thus considered riskier than normal bouldering.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of rock climbing</span> Key chronological milestones

In the history of rock climbing, the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the late-1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dave MacLeod</span> Scottish rock climber

Dave MacLeod is a Scottish rock climber, ice climber, mixed climber, and climbing author. MacLeod was the second-ever person free solo a 8b+ (5.14a) graded route, and for climbing one of the hardest traditional climbing routes in the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ice tool</span> Specialised modern ice axe

An ice tool is a specialized elaboration of the modern ice axe, used in ice climbing, mostly for the more difficult configurations. Ice tools are used two to a person for the duration of a pitch, and thus in some circumstances such as top-rope-anchored climbs, a pair may be shared among two or more people, where only one of them at a time is climbing. In contrast a classical "ice axe" is used one to a person for the hours or days a party is traveling across snow or glacier. In communities where it is common to refer to an "ice tool" simply as an "ice axe", classic "ice axes" are often referred to as "traveling axes", "walking axes", or "general mountaineering axes" to distinguish them from "tools".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Topo (climbing)</span> Graphical representation of a climbing route

In climbing, a topo is a graphical representation of a climbing route. Topos range from a photograph of the climb on which the line of the route is overlaid, to a detailed diagram of the key features and challenges of the climb.

Michael Fowler is a British rock climber, ice climber, mountaineer and climbing author. He is internationally noted for his alpine climbing and was awarded the Piolet d'Or three times, with Paul Ramsden, in 2003, 2013, and 2016, for alpine-style first ascents of faces in the Himalayas. Fowler was one of the first British rock climbers to free an E6-graded traditional rock climbing route, and the first ice climber to free a consensus grade VI mixed Scottish winter route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alpine climbing</span> Type of mountaineering

Alpine climbing is a type of mountaineering that involves using any of a broad range of advanced climbing skills, including rock climbing, ice climbing, and/or mixed climbing, to summit typically large routes in an alpine environment. While alpine climbing began in the European Alps, it is used to refer to climbing in any remote mountainous area, including in the Himalayas and in Patagonia. The derived term alpine style refers to the fashion of alpine climbing to be in small lightly-equipped teams who carry all of their own equipment, and do all of the climbing.

Sarah Hueniken is a Canadian Alpine Guide and professional ice climber.


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Further reading