Leading ice and placing screws is a unique challenge that persists as a barrier for many climbers looking to go from crag to frozen waterfall. At first I thought it was a joke. Would someone really use a cordless drill to place ice screws? But my curiosity got the best of me. Having placed ice screws for 17 years, using Fast Ice was a wild experience, drastically changing the way I approached leading ice.
Here’s our full review after extensively testing this potentially game changing product.
Fast Ice uses a 12-volt cordless impact driver from Makita. The drill fits securely into a holster that is secured around your body and is held in place and removed one handed with a nifty, patent-pending Plate. The first challenge in using the Fast Ice system is figuring out how to subtly move the drill’s attachment to the Plate. It doesn’t take long but practice is needed. Wearing the holster felt awkward at first but like wearing a gear sling for trad climbing it’s something you get accustomed to quickly, benefiting from a contoured shoulder pad and straps that wrap around your body for a snug fit. Initially I was worried that the holster would move while climbing but those worries proved to be false.
Using the Fast Ice system requires putting Adapters on each screw, currently only available for Black Diamond and Petzl screws. These Adapters, retailing for $19.95 each, are held on to the top tube of each ice screw with a small set screw and allow ice to exit the screw tube when being placed. They also don’t interfere with screws being placed by hand or prevent the speed knobs from being used. The Adapters are hexagon shaped and feature small dimples on each side that secure to small ball bearings on the drill chuck.
Once you’re racked up, you can set out on a different ice leading experience. To place a screw with Fast Ice, you remove the screw and place the screw, one-handed, via the Adapter on to the chuck while the drill is holstered. This was the trickiest part of learning how to use the Fast Ice system. It takes some practice on the ground or on low angled ice at the bottom of a climb. I spent about half an hour at home on a small home ice climb in my front yard, practicing this maneuver. Other testers and I found that it didn’t take long to master this but it maybe the crux of using Fast Ice and over the course of testing I dropped a couple of screws while completing this maneuver.
Once the screw is secured, unholster the drill and place the screw. Here’s where Fast Ice really shines. Typically, you are limited to placing ice screws in a rather small area in front of your hips, generally from mid-thigh to mid-torso. While it’s possible to stray from that with traditional screws, it’s difficult to place them over your head or far off to the side and you risk falling by levering out on your tool placement. With Fast Ice, you can zip in the screw wherever you can reach. During testing I regularly placed screws far off to the side or over my head at the very limit of my reach with as much ease as if they were at my waist level.
During one experience, I was climbing a difficult and thin section of a WI5+ climb where the top of the climb separated from the wall. Normally this would involve running it out a bit above the last good screw you can place, traversing up and right before you can gain good ice again. With Fast Ice, I was able to reach far up and right and place a screw with an outstretched arm. The screw was actually so far above me that I couldn’t clip a quickdraw to it. I had to climb a couple of moves after placing it before I could clip it. Then, every time you make a placement like that and clip it, you are effectively on toprope for a few moves, creating a greater sense of security while in difficult terrain.
Another advantage of Fast Ice is it allows you to take screws out as easily as you place them. An oft-lamented issue with traditional screws is the energy it takes to place them and the question of what do you do when you hit a big air pocket, thus limiting a screw’s effective strength. Do you take it out, burning more energy? Or, do you climb past and hope to get a better screw in soon after, risking a fall onto a screw you know is less ideal? With Fast Ice, if you hit an air pocket you can feel it and you can quickly back out the screw and try placing it elsewhere. The energy it takes to do so is minimal compared to the traditional method.
Therein lies the appeal and advantage to Fast Ice, energy savings. While the weight of Fast Ice is somewhat noticeable (3 lbs for drill, battery and holster) it saves a considerable amount of energy when placing screws because of the ease at which it places screws. It is comparable to the benefit of cams vs. stoppers in trad climbing. Cams are heavier but the ease with which they are placed causes the vast majority of climbers to carry them on climbs from local cragging to distant alpine objectives. I found that Fast Ice’s weight is favorably offset by the overall efficiency it offers when placing screws.
On top of that, you may find yourself stopping less to place screws as I did. Normally, I would place screws at my waist and within a couple of moves I’m already above my last screw and starting to feel the exposure. With Fast Ice, you can place the screw at the limit of your reach and make several moves before feeling that same exposure. Hence, on lower angled ice that I regularly lead, I found myself placing 10-20% fewer screws, meaning maybe 1 or 2 screws less on a 100 foot pitch. On steeper ice I found it less noticeable but often more secure because of the fact I could place a high screw and then essentially “rest mentally” while being below a screw.
Is it faster, as the name implies? Maybe, but maybe not. We did a number of screw races and tests where we placed ice screws with Fast Ice and by hand in similar ice and stances. We found that if you’re reasonably proficient with placing ice screws and ice conditions are favorable then Fast Ice is no faster. But, if you have a bad placement that you have to back out and then move, Fast Ice can beat the process hands down. Plus, if ice conditions are making screw placements difficult because threads are having a hard time catching, such as in really cold, brittle ice, then Fast Ice can be faster. More importantly, it may be the long haul where Fast Ice is faster where if you consider the average time for a few screws it is relatively even but with that time spread out over 100 screws the time savings can become noticeable.
Fast Ice may have a ton of advantages but new ice climbers shouldn’t just rush out and drop the coin on it. You still have to know how to place screws by hand in case of a dead battery or other issue with the system. In a variety of conditions from wet to unbearably cold I never had an issue with connecting screws and getting Fast Ice to work. But, it could happen.
The life of batteries can also be a concern and limit the appeal of Fast Ice. Fast ice claims that climbers have reported getting 12 to 25 holes on a battery and that batteries can be conditioned, as described in directions, to improve their performance. In testing I easily got 20 screws or more on a battery and had a hard time running a battery dead. I purposely would use a battery all day in the cold and then not recharge it for the next and would still have plenty of battery juice left. Fast Ice comes with an extra battery but you wouldn’t want to run out of battery power while on lead so having batteries prepared becomes another part of your ice climbing day.
Many people have wondered about fractured ice or stripping screw threads weakening screw placements with Fast Ice. It is, after all, an impact driver with some power. During development, Fast Ice says they placed hundreds of screws, often in blocks of purchased ice so they could see through it, to see if this was an issue. They claim that it wasn’t any more of a concern over the fracturing or stripped threads you might get in certain ice or conditions with hand placed screws. I also found this to be the case after using Fast Ice for 20 days and on about 40 leads. I purposely tried to overdrive screws to see if I could get fracturing or stripping of threads would happen but wasn’t able to. I did this repeatedly on my front yard ice but also out on natural ice, placing screw after screw and using the drill to drive the screw through irregularities of ice and deeper into the ice.
Therein lies one of the advantages of Fast Ice and where it can speed things up. Normally when placing screws by hand it can take time and energy to clear through bumps and bulges of ice to try to get the screw to sit flush. With Fast Ice the drill will drive the hanger of the screw past those bulges with relative ease. But, because it’s an impact driver it limits how much torque it is putting on the screw so while it makes it easier to get the hanger past pieces of surface ice, it didn’t try to drive the screw so hard that it stripped the threads.
The sound produced by Fast Ice may be the biggest concern for the system. It is after all, an impact driver, and it makes noticeable sound. Seeing some of the vitriol and hatred shared online about the spread of drones in climbing areas I can see Fast Ice’s noise being the source of similar anger. In an area like the Ouray Ice Park, where it’s already far removed from a wilderness setting and is as urban as ice climbing can get, maybe it’s not an issue. Or, here in western Colorado it’s rare for me to see other climbers on a typical day so it’s probably not a concern. But heading up to a popular ice climbing area like Lincoln Falls in Colorado may not be the place for it. More importantly, in wilderness areas and national parks Fast Ice wold presumably be illegal considering the prohibition on motorized equipment such as power drills for bolting.
In the end Fast Ice proved it to be an innovative and valuable tool for placing ice screws on lead. While it may have its limitations and may not be a tool appropriate for all, it should prove a welcome addition to many ice climber’s setup.