Alpine Skills

Glacial Travel: Part One, The Basics

Arc'teryx Academy Banner  © UKC Articles

In the run up to the 2016 Arc'teryx Alpine Academy in Chamonix, France, we have a series of articles on some key skills in Alpine climbing. Here Dave Searle gives his advice on roping-up for glacier travel.

Although beautiful and host to an array of adventures, like it or not glaciers are dangerous places and if you want to climb or ski in the alps or other greater ranges, chances are youll have to deal with them at some point. In this two-part article I hope to arm you with some basic skills and knowledge, making your travel on glaciers safer, easier and less foreboding! In this first part of the series we will look at the basics of glacier travel, the equipment you will need and how to travel on a glacier as a team of two. In the second instalment of this article series we will be looking at the techniques you will need to know for rescuing someone from a crevasse fall.

Students about to learn how to rope-up for glacier travel on the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy  © Arc'teryx
Students about to learn how to rope-up for glacier travel on the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy
© Arc'teryx

Glaciers can be categorised into Wet and Dry.

Dry glaciers arent dry in the conventional sense and are often running with water! They are called dry because they have no snow on them and you can see the bare glacial ice which is often blue or grey. Often they are lined with banks of moraines or even covered in rocks. The dangers associated with traveling on a dry glacier are minimal. You can generally see all the crevasses (holes in the glacier) and apart from them being a bit slippery in conventional shoes they pose little threat. Having said that if you fall into a hole you could find yourself in a sub-surface river so its best to avoid that by wearing a pair of crampons and avoiding any steep or exposed areas. Also, watch out for frozen puddles. You can punch through the surface and at best get a wet foot. At worst, you could punch through a second layer of ice and get sucked into the glacier by the water trapped between the two layers. Dry glaciers do however provide a great training venue for the techniques I will talk about later in the second part of the article series. Generally speaking, it is expectable to travel across a dry glacier un-roped.

Wet Glaciers (you guessed it!) are covered in snow either partially or completely. They provide the greatest threat to climbers and skiers. Crevasses are covered by snow during the winter and begin to thin during the spring. The snow bridges that are formed during the winter can span over a few metres and can be difficult to detect visually. You should always use a rope when travelling on foot on a wet glacier. The minimum number of people on the rope is obviously two but three or more is safer. More on this later.

Before we launch into the nitty gritty of how to use a rope to protect yourself and your partner let's iron out a few points that will make glacial travel safer.

Colder is better. Cold conditions mean the snow bridges are more likely to be frozen. Travelling in the morning is the safest time of the day because it has had a chance to freeze overnight, especially during the summer months.

If you can use skis, do! Although not practical in the summer, skis have the benefit of distributing your weight over a greater area than your foot alone. They can also span across hidden crevasses. Snow shoes also help to distribute your weight.
Spring is the safest time of the year to travel. During the winter there can be a lot of snow falling in the alps. This year there was a reported 7 metres of new snow on the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix. All that snow either goes in or over the crevasses making springtime the safest time of the year obviously until it gets warm!

3 climbers moving roped-up on a glacier  © UKC Articles
3 climbers moving roped-up on a glacier

Ski poles can be very useful. If you take the basket off a ski pole it makes a handy probe for checking the snow as you walk. If when you jab the snow hard it only punches in a few cms, then stops, then chances are its going to support your weight. If it keeps going, chances are you are on a snow bridge. Obviously it takes a long time to walk probing every step but if you suspect a crevasse, then having a good poke about can tell you a lot.

Check your camp spot! If you have to bivi on a glacier (not recommended) make sure you check the surrounding area for crevasses. Use that collapsible ski pole that youre now going to bring with you (or even better bring a proper snow probe) to probe the area. If you dont have either get your friend to belay you as you walk around in a spiral shape big enough to pitch a tent and go to the toilet knowing there arent any crevasses in the area.

Just because there is a track doesnt mean it is safe. The snow is constantly changing. You might be heavy enough to break the bridge that someone else just walked over. Dont go alone, ever.

Now thats out the way lets look at how to rope up for movement on a glacier. There are many variations to this system, but the most important thing to know when employing any technique is why we use it. There is no point doing something you have seen someone else do without knowing its limitations and whether or not it is good practice.

Practising Crevasse Rescue  © Jack Geldard
Practising Crevasse Rescue
© Jack Geldard

First up lets take a look at the equipment needed for travelling on a glacier as a pair.

Rope. 30 metres is the shortest length of rope you can get away with for two people but its likely youll have longer if you are going climbing. Why this length? You need a minimum of 15 metres between you and you both need to carry a reserve of rope to perform the rescue techniques we will talk about in Part 2. The rope should ideally be single rated and in good condition. A fully dry treated rope is also a good idea as it will spend some time being dragged through the snow.

Harness. Any climbing or mountaineering harness will do, check it fits you correctly and isnt too big.

Helmet: It's a good idea to wear one when travelling on a glacier in case you fall in.

Crampons. You should have them on at all times when on a glacier as they aid in arresting the other team member should they fall in a crevasse. Also, you might be able to climb out if you find yourself down a hole that has a mellow slope on one side.

Ice axe. A good quality mountaineering axe is best. Something that is good for making a T axe belay so the straighter the better. Something like the DMM Raptor, Petzl Glacier or Grivel Nepal S.A are good options. Know the limitations of making snow anchors with technical tools.

5-8 screw gate carabiners each. 5 is the bare minimum you can get away with and only with experience. 6 should be plenty but if in doubt bring more they are always useful when you need them. One of these could be a DMM Revolver.

Ice Screws. Each team member should carry at least one, preferably two screws each on their harnesses - preferably 16cm or longer. They can be used to build belays if you can get to some ice and it means you can make yourself safe if you are inside a crevasse.

Belay plate. Preferably with guide mode. Something like a DMM Pivot or Petzl Reverso.

120cm sewn slings, 2 per person. Useful for building belays and setting up rope climbing systems.

2 Prussic loops At least one conventional prussic and one other rope clamping device such as a Petzl Tibloc or Wild Country Ropeman should be carried per person as a minimum. Needed for climbing the rope or setting up hauling systems.

Pulley. Although optional it will make the hauling systems we will talk about in part two a lot easier! The Petzl Micro Traxion is a perfect addition to crevasse rescue equipment.

Glacier Travel Equipment  © Dave Searle Collection
Glacier Travel Equipment
© Dave Searle Collection

How to Rope up as a team of Two

Roping up as a team of two is relatively straightforward so no excuses for it taking too long! Youll see a lot of people not bothering in certain areas but dont fall into that heuristic trap; if its a wet glacier then put the rope on. This is one method and as I mentioned before there are many! The aim of roping up like this is so you can arrest the other person from falling further into a crevasse. The system needs to be easy and comfortable to wear for a long time.

Step 1. First find the middle of the rope. Starting from this central point each person needs to run out roughly 9-10 metres of rope and tie anther knot. A good way to measure 1 metre for me is from the centre on my chest to my fingertips. This 20m will be the rope that is between you whilst you are walking.

Step 2. Each person ties into their respective end with a re-threaded figure of 8 that is the same size as the belay loop on your harness. Do not use a bowline as they come undone when you walk. Take coils to the overhand knot that you just tied making sure they are not too tight or loose. From neck to hand placed by your belly button normally works well as a measurement of length. This rope is called the reserve. It is essential you have this rope accessible so you can build a belay and perform a rescue should someone fall into a hole. Some people shove this rope in their bag. This method is ok but it can make getting it out tricky if you are trying to hold someone on the rope.

Step 3. Tie off the coils. There are a few ways to do this, pictured below is one way that means you can take the coils off your shoulder should you need to take off or put on clothing. Whichever way you do it, ensure that they are tied off so they cannot tighten around your neck. Some people like to tie a clove hitch onto a carabiner clipped through the belay loop. This lowers where the pull will be on you if you have to hold a fall but if you end up in the crevasse you may end up going upside down if you have a big bag on. Thinking logically the 1st person is mostly likely to fall into a crevasse so make sure they have the load going to the coils which act as a sort of chest harness. The last person might want the clove hitch to lower the pull onto their harness making it less likely for them to get pulled head over heels.

Taking Coils #1
© Dave Searle Collection

Taking Coils #2
© Dave Searle Collection

Taking Coils #3
© Dave Searle Collection

Taking Coils #4
© Dave Searle Collection

Taking Coils #5
© Dave Searle Collection

Taking Coils The Full Set  © Dave Searle Collection
Taking Coils The Full Set
© Dave Searle Collection

Step 4. Tie several (3-4) overhand on the bight knots at every 3-4 metre intervals. These will give you extra friction on the sidewalls of the crevasses should someone fall in.

Step 5. Tie a French prussik onto the rope just in front of you. This is difficult to do if you are holding someones weight on the rope and you will need it to climb up the rope if you fall in or transfer the fallen climbers weight onto a belay. Clip this loosely onto your rope tie-in point.

Voila! You are nearly ready to go but before you set off here are some important points.

The rope should be taut between you at all times when on a glacier. This means that you wont get shock-loaded if someone falls into a crevasse. Keeping it taut, not tight so that you cant each walk freely, is tricky but you must make sure the person behind you doesnt catch up with you or the person in front doesnt stop without you noticing. Never, ever carry slack rope or coils in your hand. Carrying coils in the hand allows the person who has fallen to gather speed and create more of a shock load on you which will most likely pull you in after them. Also, if the rope is around your hand you will go in headfirst after them. Practice on flat ground with a game of tug of war trying to stop someone running away from you with the rope tight. Now let them have a few metres slack to get some speed up and notice the difference...youll want to keep it tight after that.

Be ready at all times to hold a fall. If you feel yourself going in, shout as loudly as possible to let your partner know. This gives your partner time to react. Holding someone who has fallen in is incredibly difficult and should not be underestimated. Dont let your guard down!

Have the most experienced or heaviest person at the back. The first person is the most likely to go into a hole so have the person who is most likely to hold a fall at the back.

Each team member needs to know how to rescue the other person. There is no point in carrying the reserve of rope and not knowing how to use it.

After four extremely successful editions, the popular alpine educational event Arc'teryx Alpine Academy is taking place in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc again. On June 16-19th, Arcteryx will unite alpine enthusiasts, mountain guides and professional athletes aiming to create a space where beginners and experts alike can gain alpine knowledge through top-notch clinics, experience sharing and respect for the alpine environment.

More info on

The four-day-event will start on Thursday with the big Mountain Clean-up. Participants can join certified mountains guides and over 20 international Arcteryx athletes to collect rubbish on the mountain. This initiative is a collaboration between the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy and the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc (CMB) with the goal to help keep our mountains pure.

The Mountain Clean-up is followed by three clinic days on the mountain and side program like seminars, movie night and academy dinner. All workshops are led by professional mountain guides from the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, the British Mountain Guides (BMG), Chamex Guides and Arcteryx Pro Athletes like Ines Papert, Luka Lindič, Stian Hagen and many more.

Nina Caprez will lead the advanced rock climbing course `7+ climbing` with the target to improve the sport climbing technique of her students. Another new clinic down in the valley of Chamonix is bouldering held by Mina-Leslie Wujastyk. She will help to improve climbing and movement skills by looking at various techniques and methods.

After adding alpine skiing in 2015 to the list of clinics, winter sport fans can now also go and improve their skills for splitboarding. Arcteryx athlete Jos Carron will lead this course and give experienced snowboarders insights into various techniques how to perform in steep skiing environments.

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