Dry Tooling

Chilling Out: Guide to Dry Tooling on Ice and Mixed Climbs

What is Dry Tooling?

Dry tooling is a term that is unheard of by many. This style of climbing involves using ice axes and crampons to climb rocks not fully covered in ice and snow. In recent years, there has also been a rise in dry tooling competitions, where athletes use their axes to climb manufactured climbing walls. You may wonder why climbers would opt for axes over their hands for dry rock. The answer is multifaceted. Some pursue dry tooling as an end of its own, having developed a passion for the movement and process of moving up rock with axes. For others, it is just practical. Often it is used to access ice routes that begin with rock pitches. Freezing temperatures may not allow the conditions needed for bare hands on the rock.

Dry tooling is also used on mixed climbs where the climber will switch between sections of rock and ice throughout the route. In this article, you will learn all about dry tooling from the equipment you need to how to get started on the cliffs.

What Equipment Do You Need?

Dry tooling outdoors requires all the same equipment as more standard climbing styles. You will still need a harness, a rope, trad gear, grigri belay device etc. If you are already set with this gear, the main things you will need to purchase to get started are ice axes and crampons. Here are some good options to get you going.

Petzl Ice Climbing Tool Axe

Petzl - Quark Technical Mountaineering & Ice Climbing Tool
  • Versatile ice axe for technical mountaineering and ice climbing
  • Ultralight weight and easily switchable between rock and ice modes
  • Efficient placement on any type of ice
  • Modular construction with bent shaft for greater efficiency

This PETZL ice axe will be your best friend on the rock and ice. It is ultralight and can be quickly switched between rock and ice modes with the turn of an allen key. The bent shaft is also ideal for dry tooling, as it has multiple grip positions which is critical for the climbing technique.

PETZL Unisex Dart Crampon

PETZL Unisex Dart Crampon
  • Stable support on any type of ice
  • Point configuration allows for more precise, efficient placements
  • ANTISNOW system limits snow buildup in any snow conditions
  • Length of front points can be adjusted with one screw

It is hard to go wrong with equipment from Petzl and the Dart Crampons are no exception. Easily adjustable and designed with four modular front points, they are excellent on rock, ice, and snow.

Ethics of Dry Tooling

Dry tooling leaves permanent scars on rock, so it is important to pursue it responsibly. Ice axes and crampons are sharp metal, so it is no surprise that repeated use will slowly chip away at the rock. Never dry tool on routes that are established specifically for rock climbing. Walking up to your local sport crag with a pair of axes is a definite no-go. But don’t worry, there are still many options for where you can dry tool responsibly. The first and most obvious place that is acceptable is dry tool crags. There are many crags that are developed specifically for dry tooling. Mixed routes are also fine choices for dry tooling. If it freezes over and is ice climbed in the winter, dry tool away any season of the year. Do some research before going out and find a local spot to use your axes ethically.

Dry Tooling Technique

Dry tooling technique can be challenging to get started with. If you are used to having your hands directly on the holds it can feel strange to suddenly have over a foot of separation between you and the rock. Not to mention you cannot directly feel and assess the holds you are trusting your weight to. However, if you get over this learning curve it can be extremely rewarding. Here are several technique guidelines to get you started.

90 Degree Rule

This tip concerns how your axe should be oriented in relation to the holds. When free climbing it is easy to find the best angle to grab the hold. When using axes, a bit more logic needs to come into play. The shaft of your ice axe should be oriented at a 90-degree angle to the hold you are placing it on. Look at the angle of the hold and adjust your axe position accordingly. For example, if you are using a completely flat edge on vertical terrain, the shaft of your axe should be in line with the cliff.

Leading Hand, Following Hand

When moving up the wall you will be continually switching between a leading hand and a following hand. Your grip on the axe will change accordingly. As your leading hand reaches, you should be holding the axe in the bottom grip position on the shaft. This will allow you to make bigger moves, thus increasing your efficiency. Conversely, your following hand should be in the higher grip position. This will bring you closer to the wall and give you more stability.

Switching Positions

In order to shift between the reaching and following positions you will need to temporarily match hands on one axe and release the other. There are two main ways to do this. One is hooking the axe over your shoulder. This works fine but creates the risk of dropping your axe. The other is to simply give the axe a solid chomp and hold it in your mouth while you change grip positions– One more reason to keep your gear clean!

Move with Grace

Just as with free climbing, it is important for efficiency to move gracefully up the rock. Avoid slamming your axes into the holds and instead place them gently and thoughtfully. Not only will this give you better placements, but it will also avoid damage to the holds. Choose control over speed and do your best to keep your movements smooth and static. Dynamic movement also has its place but requires a bit more finesse, as it poses a greater risk of popping off the wall.


With more dry tooling crags being developed globally and dry tooling competitions on the rise, it is clear this is a discipline of climbing that is here to stay. Although it is still more of a niche style of climbing it is slowly but surely making its way into the mainstream. Starting in a gym that offers dry tooling routes can be a great way to get your foot in the door, however, there is nothing quite like doing it in the great outdoors. So grab your rope and axes and get started dry tooling today!

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