top of page
  • nzalpineteam

Mixed Climbing, Dry Tooling, Winter Alpinism and a few disgruntled Queenstown locals

Updated: Jan 5

Firstly for those who are wondering just what is mixed climbing, dry tooling or for that matter ice and snow climbing is here is a short run down.

In winter, on a mountain or at an alpine crag a climber usually has several climbing styles they can choose depending on the terrain in front of them. At a very basic level we have walking or climbing on snow. This can quickly get quite steep and tricky, therefore ice axes and crampons are required. New Zealand due to its regular temperature variation often produces some excellent frozen snow climbing. On a good day you might be lucky enough to find a frozen waterfall. Climbing up a frozen waterfall with crampons and ice axes is simply ice climbing. Mixed climbing can and usually does involve a range of climbing mediums from snow, ice, rock to frozen turf. All mixed climbs involve a degree of dry tooling hence their mixed nature. Dry tooling is the specific climbing term used to describe climbing over rock with crampons and ice axe. A pitch of mixed climbing that is completely free of snow or ice would be called a dry pitch.

In summer climbers find the cliff faces free of snow and ice and ascend their alpine objectives in rock shoes or climbing boots. In winter when temperatures are to cold for rock climbing they switch to ice axes and crampons. This practice is nothing new and has been going on in NZ for well over 100 years. Sounds simple right? Climbers in NZ have been taking part in basic mixed climbs since the first ascent of the NW Ridge of Aspiring or the first time someone scratched their crampons up the summit rocks at Cook. Any time you find yourself scratching your crampons on some rock as you walk up a valley or ascent an alpine face your essentially taking part in some form of mixed climbing.

Interestingly in Queenstown home of the Remarkables one of the countries finest mixed climbing venues (and one of the best mixed climbing locations I have found anywhere in the world), a small group of locals have their noses out of joint due to all the naughty mixed climbers, who seem to be having far to much fun there in the winter months. As such the local club the Queenstown Climbing Club (QCC) wrote a letter to FMC suggesting that they would like to put forward a policy for mixed climbing in the region. FMC rightly pointed out that the NZ Alpine Club was a more suitable organisation to ask for an opinion on the matter and a brief debate ensued on the Alpine Clubs FB page. The following information relates to a submission to both the NZ Alpine Club and the QCC. Why this QCC letter to FMC is important is that FMC also stated in their reply “we did not realise the extent of the problem down there”! What problem I would say!! So now we have to go over the clear and simple points to remind the QCC and some of its members exactly why its fine to climb in winter on rock with crampons and ice axes on. I would urge everyone with an opinion on this matter to send a submission to the QCC and NZAC. Their details are at the bottom of this article.

What is all the fuss in Queenstown about? Here are a couple objections to climbers ascending rock faces with their crampons and ice axes that I have come across.

The primary objection is visual damage. Face climbing with crampons and ice axes leaves small scratches on the rock. It can also break off fragile holds making it harder for a rock climber in summer to ascent the face. I have been approached on three occasions by local climbers with this concern. The most vocal I will just call Local Sport Climber. Local Sport Climber was furious that Jono Clarke, Steve Fortune and myself had been working up a large overhanging wall trying to make the first ascent of a climb we have called The Fly. He insisted he was saving that for himself to try the following summer. By climbing it first in winter, we would somehow damage the crack making it no longer possible for him to climb. Strange as the part he was talking about was a 15m long crack. Local Sport Climber also noted he was mostly a sport climber and thought that mixed climbers should only climb on choss or bad rock that was not suitable for any of his own summer sport climbing objectives.

The secondary objection I have encountered in Queenstown came from an even smaller selection of local climbers and some of the local guiding faternity. Their objections were based around the number of people who seem to now be enjoying the winter climbing on the Remarkables. They would often voice concerns such as “those out of town guys will climb all OUR new routes”. A few of these climbers seem to have jumped on the anti dry tooling band wagon. From a local guiding company and this was one of my favourites, lets just call him Local Guide, “so many climbers on the mountain will interfere with my clients wildneress experience”! Local Guide was very un happy with events such as the Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival and the climbers it encouraged onto the Remarkables. He wrote a lovely letter to the local DOC office asking us to be banned from the mountain. Fortunately DOC reminded him that the Remarkables is public land and as the tax paying public we have just as much right to be there as his fee paying clients. He too seems to be another strong voice in the current and I would say limited local concern with winter mixed climbing.

So to that end the QCC has organised a face to face debate for October. Here are some interesting points to ponder that I will be raising at the debate.

It is my firm opinion that winter mixed climbing & winter dry tooling has NO more impact on the environment than any other form of climbing in NZ. With the exception of onsight solo new routes and onsight ground up traditional climbing. All other forms of climbing sport, bouldering etc usually require a large amount of cleaning, rock removal, track cutting, bolting and chalk. All of these actions have a visual impact and an impact on the environment.

Im going to leave the objections of people like local guide and the locals who just want to see less people on their mountain to one side. They are simply outlined to give people some idea of the kind of person who is up in arms about the current state of climbing on the Remarkables.

I’m also going to set aside the debate over dry tooling on the lower walls at Wye Creek, say the Main Wall or Jardiens Boulder Field, Hospital Flat in Wanaka etc. I don’t really think anyone seriously considers that as fair game for winter dry tool climbing, or a summer practice venue. This is really the only area where I think we as a group of climbers have any hope of getting a universal agreement on.

I’m also going to make the assumption that crags that have been specifically developed for dry tool climbing training, such as Satan’s Grotto in Christchurch, The Pink Palace in Queenstown and Wanakas new dry tool venues are considered appropriate use of the rather poor pieces of rock they are located on.

The visual impact of Dry Tool climbing VS Sport climbing, Track Cutting, Chalked up Overhangs, Brushed Clean Rock Faces and Cleaning of Loose Rock.

As climbers almost all of our actions have a visual impact on the environment.

The vast majority of winter mixed and dry tool climbs currently established on the Remarkables follow naturally protected lines. Unless you are right up on the rock face i.e. within 1m of the wall and are specifically looking for the marks you are unlikely to spot any marks from crampons or axes on the rock. Even then you are unlikely to pick them out due to the range of colours running through your average piece of Schist. This is particularly true for any crack climb where the ice axe or crampon is inside the crack. Contrast this to the visual impact of a bolted sport climb. At what distance can you spot the nice new line of bolts? Contrast this to a track cut through the native bush on the way to the next new summer crag. Contrast this to a line of chalked holds and tick marks running up an overhanging wall. Those marks are clearly visible and will remain safely sheltered from any cleansing rain or snow. Contrast the visual impact of some pick scratches to the usual amount of moss and loss rock removal that goes into creating your average kiwi rock climb. I can say with absolute certainty that winter climbing is no better or worse when it comes to visual impact than any other form of climbing we as a community partake in.

I found it very interesting that the two strongest objectors (who made their objections known to me) to climbers like myself doing pure dry tooling routes in winter on a mountain were both people who are fully in support of bolted sport climbs on the mountain. These two climbers didn’t seem to think the visual impact of a bolted sport climb really counted. Funnily enough both of them had done winter mixed climbs on the mountain. One no doubt didn’t think his scratching of crampons counted as it was only on rock he didn’t consider good enough for a hard summer project. The other insisted that somehow his own first ascents many that involved extensive dry tool climbing were somehow different. I could not really see how? Scratching one piece of rock is exactly the same as scratching another.

In my opinion if you are in support of bolted sport climbs, mixed lines of any level on the mountain, walking in your crampons over some rocks, or for that matter any of the hundreds of developed sport and trad climbs that required cleaning, loss rock removal and track cutting for them to be climbable then you have no business objecting to a few scratch marks made by winter alpinists. Winter mixed and dry tool climbing has not greater impact that your average sport climb at a road side crag.

How many climbers who object to dry tooling on the mountain have made written submissions regarding say the actual Telecom Tower that sites up on the remarkables ridge line? Ski field chair lift? I would be surprised if any had. The visual impact of these items along towers over a few small scratch marks on the mountain.

In winter should any parts of the mountain be left alone?

Not if we want the sport of alpinism in NZ to grow. Sure some argue that only the easy ice covered ground should be climbed. Others say why not like Scotland and only climb it if its white. I do not buy that argument. NZ has its own long established mountaineering ethics and history. What is happening now is just a continuation of what our older generations have done in the past. The first winter ascents of our steepest rock faces were coveted affairs. What is the difference on the Remarkables. Imagine the discussion on the NF of Hicks or Shelia Face of Cook during the first winter ascent. Oh sorry Bill we should turn around now our crampons might scratch up the rock…………………. Yeah Right! The climbing of the steepest summer lines in winter is part of our mountaineering heritage. From Mt Cook, the Darrans to the Remarkables it is what we did and still do as mountaineers.

Here are two photos of the same climb, Force It, M4, Telecom Tower, Two Pitches. One from Monday during the week prior to the Ice and Mixed Festival, One from Sunday the day before the first photo. Both in my opinion are in fair mixed climbing conditions i.e. it was mid winter! Both days involved great rime ice. However on the first day the lower half of the route was completely dry. I can also say that because it was dry it was easier to find the holds and therefore resulted in less scratch marks on the rock. That night we had a small snow storm covering the walls with some rime. Was the second days ascent more legit? I do not feel that it was. Just different conditions. Still mid winter. Still far to cold too be climbing it bare handed in rock shoes.

The White Issue. As many of you know ice doesn’t really form on the steepest walls, Rime does not either. Therefore you cant simply say just climb it if its white as the inside of a deep chimney is never white, an overhang wont have ice and often the best, safest, clean rock is back to being clean about an hour after the sun hits it. I personally won’t be leaving the best bits of rock alone in winter just because one day a sport climber might come along and wish to bolt and chalk it up first.

All mixed routes involve a degree of dry tooling. Therefore who will decide which is in and what is out. As quite frankly all hard mixed routes lets say above M6 level basically involve exclusively doing the hard moves on rock. So whats it going to be as a group will you try to support only easy mixed routes, or only mixed routes after a snow storm when the rock has some rime (ironically climbing then causes more scratches due to searching for holds) or some other form of equally hard to regulate or inconsistent policy.

The Wye Creek Issue

Below Single Cone sits the premier ice climbing crag in NZ. The Wye Creek ice climbing area has also for quite some time held a wide range of bolted mixed climbs. I did not hear much concern about these. A couple of the guys who seem to be dead against dry tool climbing on the steep rock faces above the crag have no problems with the visual impact created by the mixed climbs at Wye Creek. This brings me to one of my major concerns with people trying to form and regulate winter climbing activities.

Take Local Sport Climbers stance. He’s a strong guy. Based on his concerns we could simply not climb on any clean vertical or overhanging rock faces. However this policy of do not winter climb on the good rock doesn’t work so well when you extend it to the easier climbs of the area. For example the Grand Traverse. One of the best easy climbs in the region on excellent alpine rock. The GT gets done in winter, summer and often with crampons on. I have never heard anyone say there should be no crampons on for a winter or icy ascent of the GT. So if we apply someones logic like climber M’s to the mountain all ascents on good rock would be out. No more winter ascents on the GT then. You can’t just apply it to the hard routes that he might consider worthy of rock climbing. Any effective policy must be equally transferrable to Mt Cook, Aspiring, Ruapehu, the Darrans etc.

This debate did not originate from a concern of the majority of active winter climbers

One interesting thing with the current debate in Queenstown is that the majority of climbers who participate in winter alpinism seem to have no problems with the status quo. Like a group of trampers trying to form regulations and apply them to the local bouldering scene, I dont see any major ground swell in the winter climbing community for this debate. I feel that if the majority of people active in the winter climbing community support winter mixed climbing on the mountain. Is there any need for a debate at all?

Why did QCC even write to FMC before having their debate.

I believe in first writing to FMC before the QCC had their debate they have put the cart before the horse. These discussions should be played out inside the community who is active in the activity. The original letter gave the impression that there is a problem in the area, it also gave the impression they speak for the local climbing community. Well surprise surprise not all Queenstown climbers belong to the QCC that also goes for those who recreate in the area form Wanaka, Duniden, Auckland, Christchurch etc The vast majority of us don’t belong or have any interest in what the QCC has to say. Thankfully rightly so the FMC responded that the actual opinion they will take notice of comes from the Alpine club with a much more diverse membership. Lets hope they continue that stance and can enjoy the benefits of a more diverse informed debate. Surely they should have held their debate first, then decided if there was actually anything to alert FMC or DOC to in the first place.

The impact of the seasons on an alpine rock face

An avalanche, rock fall, daily freeze thaw cycle etc on a mountain creates more damage than a few scratches of an ice axe or crampon. Crampons and axes definitely create less long term damage than the average climber cleaning, cutting trail, removing loss rock etc etc to any one of the hundreds of sport routes in the region. I feel if the QCC wants to be thought of as a serious entity and actually have a real debate on the impact of us as climbers then they should first tackle some of the practices they the current members seem so happy to support. A real debate on dry tooling would be much more interesting for example if the club had a do not bolt policy on the mountain policy. In my opinion that would have put a quick stop to the sport climbers objections as there would be no bolted routes for them to clip up there to begin with. It would also give some weight to the visual impact argument.


Winter mixed climbing, dry tooling, making the first winter ascent of a summer route while climbing on a mountain all have a long and varied history in NZ. As a community we have developed our own unique approach to our mountains and enviroment. The impact of mixed or dry tool climbing is limited and minor when stacked up with all the other impacts we as climbers create. Aside from the areas that have broad community support such as no dry tool climbing at a local boulder field or sport climbing non alpine crag, the arguments of visual impact and potential broken rock climbing holds do not have enough strength to limit the terrain available to a winter climber. The alpine environment is diverse and constantly changing. Our impact on it today is minor when you consider what mother nature can unleash in a single storm. Any attempts to regulate an alpine activity that can not be consistently applied to all areas of the country and do not have the support of those participating in the activity are pointless and destined to simply waste the time and energy of those who try to enforce them.

If you feel as strongly about this issue as I do please send a submission to both the NZAC and QCC. The QCC email is Attn Guillaume Charton. Submissions to QCC close 30th September.

86 views0 comments



Subscribe to our blog

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page