Is it the best option to bring up your second before attempting a cornice? I ask because by the time I reached the one on Right twin I was a fair way above my last bit of gear and even further above a suitable belay, bringing up my partner at this point wuld have entailed building a snow belay (in soft snow) but could have saved a long fall (assuming belay held).
My issue was that although someone else had already cut a slot in the cornice and there was a reasonable platform to stand on, the remaining cornice was still overhanging. My head and shoulders were level with the top but the snow was sun softened, even plunging my axes 3/4 of a shaft in they still rotated out and the cornice was undercut so no where for my feet. Felt slightly stupid looking out over the sun lit top at the ski lift but unable to move that last 1.5 meters.
Having read the Ben thread I feel looking back it would have been better to invest some time in further digging rather than the eventual wiggle/bellyflop/dirty my pants that I achieved. It make my palms sweaty reading of the amount of falls they took attempting the cornice - my last bit of gear (a good nut) wa at least 15 meters below.
For this reason alone would it be worth the weight to carry a snow shovel?
Yes. At least, it would be my normal course of action if I had any concern about a cornice.
I'd also then generally body belay the leader (redirected via a krab on my belay loop) so I could give a good dynamic belay in the event that they did fall from the cornice.
You do want to stand to one side as you do this in case more snow collapses than expected.
Digging like this in old cornices/getting down to older ones that have been subject to freeze thaw cycles often reveals a layer of ice good enough for a screw or two too. I've seen this on Ben Nevis and Aonach Mor each several times.
A 'real' adze helps. I've traded my Quarks for a student's old Vertige's on the last pitch of a route before to give me a decent digging tool.
In response to the original question - take as long as you like to cut/enlarge a slot or tunnel the cornice. Not sure about taking a shovel, but i do frequently take a deadman for such an eventuality. Gives you the option of either a runner or a better belay beneath the cornice.
And i'd second having straightish tools and a decent adze - you can reverse the axe and place the adze in the plateau for a better hold in soft snow.
I save the hassle and still just climb on Vertiges the entire time ;-)
It's hard to give a definitive answer as the cornice, snow and ice condition vary enormously!
The one thing I've learnt is never pass the last good rock or ice runner as you head up to that easy looking cornice, the cornice will be a lot bigger and nastier once you are under it.
Over the years I've spent a lot of time climbing through cornices while teaching on courses, snowholing, when hillwalking and climbing.
It doesn't matter what the grade of the route is, often the most dangerous and insecure part of the climb is the corniced exit.
You are just as likely to die on a Grade 1 as you are on a Grade 5 though it may be easier to back off a grade 1 and you are less likely to try to solo it!
I've actually learned a lot when large cornices have collapsed when tunnelling through them or when using my whole body and arms plunged up to my arm pits into soft or sugary snow to escape. What I've learned is that I'm unlikely to live for very long if I continue the cornice lottery on actual climbs!
Most of this was learned in sheltered hollows, though one or two near misses were on actual climbs! The sheltered hollows were safer than the climbs but there is still serious potential for getting buried or crushed under collapsing snow if you get it wrong and worth having friends with shovels and probes nearby.
In general it's always worth making sure the exit slot is diagonal, stepped and not overhung. This can normally be cut with an ice axe. A shovel won't work on hard snow and is overkill on soft powder as you can use your whole body to dig.
However despite all of the above, the golden rule is, make sure you get a really good dynamic belay and that your partner gets to climb the cornice ;-)
...me thinking you liked digging cornices so you could get that gnarly iced up beard look for Facebook photos... ;-)
"What, I'd only gone 15m? Could have sworn it was more like 40..."
Right Twin was one of my early climbs, and was nearly my last! -
My more experienced partner was happy to push on for the cornice, despite heavy powder and no gear whatsoever. I was at the last belay, with a couple of equalised axes, a Rock 7, and an in-situ peg, so a pretty good anchor.
He pressed on up, with me whimpering that I thought we should back off, as the snow was loose as heck, and we had already backed off Temperance Union Blues. Thing was, I think that made us more keen to finish something, you know how it is!?
Anyway, he was at the foot of the cornice, and I think a good 40m above me. He shouted that he was going to 'go for it', and started to climb/wade/swim.
The last vision I recall was him star shaped, actually fully 'on' the cornice, which I would guess was at least vertical, and then he and a considerable amount of snow just peeled off.
I just thought 'shit, we've had it', as he crashed and tumbled downwards, full rag-doll mode, along with his mini avalanche. I just held on to the dead rope for grim death, cothered into the slope and waited to be catapulted into space.
The noise was immense as the snow crashed over me, (my partner passing to my right) but the odd thing I remember was a sudden silence, and me thinking 'bloody hell, we've made it!'. Oh no, he had simply fallen past me, and was still falling. In that microsecond of thought, I realised what was happening just as he stopped.
Whack! I was off the stance, the rope tight over my thigh, pressing me against the wall, but the gear had held.
At that moment, some skiers who had watched him fall shouted down 'Are you OK, do you need help?', and I replied, 'Nah, we're fine' - God only knows why!!!?
After a minute or so, my partner, who unknown to me (as he was out of sight over an ice bulge) had been unconscious and inverted, came round, and started to right himself. This made the rope jolt disconcertingly, and I shouted for him to stay still, or at least try and take some weight off the rope. He replied very groggily that he had broke his leg, so I then shouted back up that we could use some help, thank you very much.
So cut to the end - Staying at the more secure belay definitely saved us that day. Admittedly, I think with more experience, he could maybe have made a better job of the exit, (it was shallower further right, but more exposed, and was indeed the way I climbed out, top-roped by the Ski Patrol boys).
My partner lost all his confidence, and has never climbed again. He blamed himself for putting us both in danger. I am more reflective. It was a hard lesson well-learned, and I think even today I am learning that a little time investment in improving gear or your safety margin is always time well-spent.
Assuming your last belay is good, I'm not sure there's much advantage in getting another belay in just below the cornice. If there's good gear just before the cornice then better to use it as a runner than belay from it and risk a factor 2 fall onto it. If there isn't good gear just below the cornice then better a nasty long fall for the leader than for them to come off and take the second with them!
Bury it as an axe runner before the cornice, climb out, your second then picks it up before doing the cornice for himself.
Not sure if this has ever been done, but can't see why not.
JohnnyW glass you both got off ok - making my palms sweaty here. Time to start looking for a dead man.
That does sound like a very good idea! Will try and keep in mind for that sort of situation.
'I must admit to a feeling of helplessness as standing on my ice axe driven horizontally into the snow, my hands scrabbled for purchase on the frozen surface of the level ground at the top of the cornice, while the yawning chasm of the north face below my feet beckoned.' Something like that anyway, from the days of step-cutting with one axe!
If you have enough rope to top out from your last good (rock or ice) belay, always top out. A long lead fall is a much less serious proposition than a factor 2 fall onto a snow belay, which has a high chance of killing both of you.
I did give out to him for not using his dead man to protect the cornice as he had two unsuccessful attempts prior to it collapsing. This was at the hospital and the nurse wasn't very happy about this and asked me to leave :o)
I second the bomber belay and get as good a gear in as possible even if the ground looks easy.
What you need is a grappling hook. Lob it over the cornice for the perfect runner. Sorted.
Only problem is, it seems to have used up a months supply of manliness. Only just staying to get it back.
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