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skuzie

How do people choose glaciers for unroped travel?

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Hey all,

I'm a newbie to glacier travel. I've taken the AAI/Institute AMTL1 course where we spent a week learning glacier travel and crevasse rescue. After our summit bid, I spent a couple hours with a guide doing a glacier tour where I was instructed on identifying snow bridges and crevasses. We were out early May, so a lot of the features were subtle. 

Last week I summitted Sahale Peak via the Sahale Glacier with a four person team so we could rope up for the glacier. The boot pack crossed two obvious snow bridges and one smaller one. In May, one of our guides fell into a crevasse up to his waist on the Easton Glacier when a snow bridge collapsed. From the top, that collapsing snow bridge didn't look much different from those on Sahale. On this website and in person I see a lot of people mentioning that they do that route without any rope. I'm wondering, how do you evaluate the conditions effectively to make that decision? There were definite and obvious snow bridges to cross, so why is unroped travel so common? What terrain features or other markers do teams use to determine that a glacier is safe to cross unroped?

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Experience and complacency. I didn’t rope up once on Denali, despite the obvious dangers. I told myself it was fine because I was on skis, and moving behind/through parties on snowshoes. It was fine, but I’d think twice about doing it again. 

 

There’s not really any hard and fast rule. I’ve run below seracs unroped but with a line pre rigged, so that when one of us punched through to the waist they could throw the line to the other as they ran past. Again, not really the best technique, worked out fine, allowed us to move really fast through the worst spot, but I wouldn’t really recommend it as an actual method. 

 

Get out out in the mountains, be cautious, and really think about what you’re doing as you gain more confidence. Certainly not every glacier travel scenario requires a rope, but where that line is drawn can change for everyone.

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Time of day matters.  A hour of sunlight can make all the difference in bridge strength.

if anyone has any confidence in ski unroped on a glacier, watch the first episode first season of “the horn”

https://www.netflix.com/title/80233842

 

in the episode, real life rescue of skier who falls in a crevasse in alps.   Really fucked up.

 

 

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Posted (edited)

I think I'm more conservative than most and generally stay away from un-roped travel on glaciers with two exceptions:

1) In late season, if all of last winter/spring snow is gone, the temperatures are back into freezing conditions, and no substantial new snow has fallen, I generally assume that the remaining ice and neve is solid. Crevasses are open and obvious, any snow bridges that are going to collapse have done so, and glacier travel then becomes a route finding problem. With a little experience you’ll be able to easily spot any patches of snow that are from the current season and whether what lies beneath it is suspect or not.

2) If I’m already familiar with a glacier, having previously explored it in the above conditions and feel confident I know where crevasses usually form on that particular glacier, AND I’m not traveling in an obvious location while crevasses are likely to form (i.e. convex flow), then I will sometimes travel un-roped across those regions. This is when you crank your crevasse radar up to high and use your spidey sense to look intently for those subtle hints (slightly sagging snow, etc.) that something might lie below. Obviously you are now assuming more risk than in instance #1 above. If I feel I have to probe to go forward, then I generally back off. That’s more risk than I’m willing to take.

Edited by pcg

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On 8/4/2018 at 8:22 AM, skuzie said:

On this website and in person I see a lot of people mentioning that they do that route without any rope. I'm wondering, how do you evaluate the conditions effectively to make that decision? There were definite and obvious snow bridges to cross, so why is unroped travel so common? What terrain features or other markers do teams use to determine that a glacier is safe to cross unroped?

If you can't answer this question, rope up until you can.

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Learn as much as you can about glaciers. They're fascinating, but they command respect. Do your homework, try to objectively evaluate conditions, discuss both with your partners, come to your own decisions and don't worry too much about what other people think. They weren't there.

Most importantly, don't let what other people do or don't do drive your decisions in the mountains. If you climb for any length of time you'll meet people with higher risk tolerance than you and others with lower risk tolerance. This is an important thing to discuss with potential partners. Just because some people got away with something doesn't mean you will, or that they will next time. That said, in the mountains speed is often closely linked to safety, so there are non-trivial trade-offs to make. If you rope up for everything you'll never get far. 

 

 

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ways back I read a book which I think was Jim Wickwires Addicted to danger.  There was as story about him roped up on a glacier in a two man team in alaska I believe.  His partner punches in and gets wedged in deep in the crevasse.  He goes into the agony of effort to get him out, being unable and having to watch him slowly die.

Even when they did everything right (roping up) they partner still died in that ice hole.  That was a gripping story and always stuck with me in regards to glacier travel.  Don't take them lightly!  Do everything right ALL the time.  Never let your guard down.  Just because you have a rope does not mean safety is ensured.   Being unroped and punching through means near certain getting wedged and the long painful lonely death.

great book.

https://books.google.com/books/about/Addicted_to_Danger.html?id=eKGZ6saSAJMC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

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I fell into a crevasse unroped on the Kahiltna this spring. When I went to AK in 2011 and 2012 I was unwilling to travel unroped except for while skiing downhill, but apparently a handful of years of nothing going wrong on little Cascadian glaciers upped my complacency level. The day I fell in one in April started with a short downhill ski that we did unroped, and at the bottom of the hill the glacier seemed so smooth and covered that I figured it would be fine to not tie in. The deep early season snowpack, sub freezing temps, the fact that we were only going a couple of miles, and general laziness factored in. We had our system dialed and roping up would have taken less than 5 minutes.

We skied for an hour or so, and eventually got to a place where it looked like the glacier was starting to get more complicated. There was an obviously bridged crevasse running parallel to us to our left, and we could see more ahead. We were maybe a quarter mile from where I wanted to camp. I was tired of dragging my heavy-ass sled and just wanted to get there. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! I was actually frustrated that these fucking crevasses were trying to make me late to dinner. My girlfriend, Lyndsey, suggested roping up, and then I took two more steps and was suddenly falling. It must have only taken a second or two before I hit the bottom 30 feet down, but I had plenty of time to think things over as I fell. My first thought was that a hollow pocket in the snow was settling and I would only fall a foot or two, and then I realized that it was a crevasse but that the rope would stop me, and then I remembered that I wasn't roped up and knew that I was going to die because I had been dumb. The slo-mo memory locked in my brain is of my gloved hands out in front of me with snow falling next to them and everything gradually getting dark.

Obviously I didn't die (or maybe I did in some dimension? Things got pretty weird in my brain for a few days there), but even though the crevasse pinched off after 30 feet things could have been different. Somehow I landed on my feet. Just last night I got lost in thinking about it (again), and I realized that if I had landed on my side, I might not have been able to get up if I was really lodged in there. A lot of crevasse victims die because they're wedged between the ice, and just get more stuck as the ice around them melts and they slip down slowly and die of hypothermia. Or more of the snow bridging the crack could have fallen and buried me or knocked me out as Lyndsey worked to get me a rope. Or the 80+ pound sled that was somehow wedged above me could have fallen on me and broken my neck.

As it was, I landed on my feet, stood there confused for a minute all wedged in and barely able to move, placed the screw that was on my harness for just this occasion, and by the time I started to try to size things up Lyndsey was yelling down to see if I was alive. She had a solid anchor built in no time, and lowered a rope (we both had one). Very long story short, she hauled my sled out with a 3:1 as I struggled to get my pack, skis, poles, and self out with the other end of the rope. I didn't lose or break any gear, and my only injury was a nasty bruise on my arm.

As soon as I realized that I was probably going to live (when I clipped my micro-traxion into the rope) I started to feel the shame of having made such a big mistake. At that moment part of me wanted to keep it a secret, but I also recognized that sharing the story might save a life someday. I plan on doing a full write-up on this whole thing when I have time. I will continue to ski on some Cascadian glaciers unroped, but will start taking the bigger ones more seriously. Roping up is not that hard or time consuming if you've got a system down, but people need to practice this stuff and actually carry what you need to save your buddy. Having a screw on my harness was huge, as was having gloves, a hat, and warm jacket within reach. It was eye opening to learn how physically hard it is to ascend a rope with a heavy pack while a little hypothermic and jammed in what is basically an icy squeeze chimney. 

Now, back to the original question: how do you decide when it's safe to travel on glaciers unroped. Generally I avoid crossing snow bridges or messing around with sketchy moats unroped. When I was younger my ambition and ego had me breaking that rule from time to time. Chances are that bridge won't break under your weight, but that's a pretty high stakes game to play. Spending a lot of time on a lot of Cascadian glaciers in all seasons has given me the experience to make a reasonable assessment of where crevasses might be lurking based on the terrain. Glaciers in the Cascades tend to be safest in the spring, when the seasonal snowpack is deep, and in the late summer (on the smaller glaciers anyway) when you can see and avoid the holes. The bridge I stepped through in Alaska was only about 6 inches thick, and from the surface I couldn't differentiate between it and the wind carved snow around it. But the continental snowpack of the central Alaska Range is different than our snowpack; our bridges tend to be thicker. If you do go alone, think about what you might need to save yourself. Crampons and tools are ideal, but not always realistic. Ice screws to aid out with? Some combination? Whatever floats your boat. I guess the moral of the story is that the older I get the less I think I know.

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6 hours ago, Dannible said:

Generally I avoid crossing snow bridges or messing around with sketchy moats unroped

Thanks for this honest tale @Dannible.  I've had a couple close calls myself and now subscribe closely to the advice you give above.  For others, they didn't get the second chances we have now. Please don't roll the dice if you are a newer/younger/bold climber.  It doesn't take that long to put a rope on.

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