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mountainsandsound

big falls on steep snow, running belay

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A lot of climbing practices seem like they could be improved by empirical studies. Climbing steep snow is commonly done with one or two pickets between climbers. Some people probably do this without thinking about the strength of the anchor and just assume it will hold in cases where it probably won't. Or maybe they know all they've got is psychological pro. And I have heard other climbers reject running belays on steep snow outright. There are only a few studies out there on the strength of snow anchors, and from what I have read, if a picket is appropriately placed for the given snow conditions, it can be pretty strong (about 10kn for a vertical midclip, 6kn or a little more for a vertical top clip when optimally placed).

 

I think the climbing community could benefit from some practical, in situ tests simulating big falls on steep snow with only one picket in (since this would be the scenario for lots of people). Tie some dummies to a rope and let one fall, see what happens to the anchor and measure the force going onto it. I would think that the follower giving the running belay is going to take a substantial amount of the force generated by the fall and the force going onto the picket is going to be less than we would first imagine. Maybe even low enough for a single vertical top clip picket to hold.

 

Any search and rescue people, physics grad students, guides, etc... have the means to test something like this? The tests of snow anchors out there are informative, but I think something like this could have good real world application.

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Could be a hard experiment to control as friction plays such a huge role. Soft snow = more friction. Poky climber = more friction. Some self arresting = more friction. Then there are a lot of variables with regard to the placement. Rock is more amenable to these types of analyses, but knock yourself out and let us know what you learn!

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There's too many types of snow conditions to make an experiment like that work. In my experience, pickets only work in certain conditions.

 

Seems like, for the most part, pickets and ropes on steep snow are only good for protecting from crevasses and schrunds, because the climbing difficulty isn't very hard.

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There's too many types of snow conditions to make an experiment like that work.

 

I can see that argument. I think splitting the snow into the categories of knife-hardness, pencil-hardness, etc... might be the best bet for that.

 

From what I gather, if you are pounding a picket in and clipping to the top, it better be very solid neve and take a lot of swings from an hammer to get it in for it to be a worthwhile anchor. Not a whole lot of anecdotal evidence with this because, as you said, snow slopes are easy and there aren't too many people falling with a running belay on them.

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i've never really comprehended how the system would play out on very steep, hard snow. Say my partner weights 50#s more than me as well. They're leading going up a steep and there is only 1 picket in pace. Or consider two pickets placed. I guess it all depends on how much rope is out from the last picket to them, rope in total, etc, but would the elasticity in the system and their friction be plenty to prevent the 2nd person from getting yanked up to the first piece of pro and having it pop up? A vertically pounded picket is great when the forces are proper but anything else and they just go flying.

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No, that would probably not happen. Belaying a much heavier climber on rock rarely produces much of a belayer take off, and the fall factors there are much greater than on snow.

 

Pickets are good for pitches involving ice/rock/crevasse/otherwise sketchy sections when needed. Otherwise, climb either unroped or roped only for crevasse falls with a similarly competent partner.

 

Snow is a layered structure. Surface testing snow doesn't tell you much. You're really never going to know a picket's strength past passing a pull test in the field, although you probably can generalize a bit.

Edited by tvashtarkatena

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Surface testing snow doesn't tell you much.

 

I would think it could, but maybe only in frozen, fully metamorphasized, summer snow.

 

So do you guys just man up and solo the classic north face climbs with a second tool and and call it good? Are there sections where you would consider pitching it out with a full belay on snow slopes?

 

I read that New Zealand article and it got me to thinking. They seem to be pretty confident with the strength of anchors in the right conditions.

Edited by Nater

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You're right about late summer snow. That stuff will typically hold a bus, anyway, so a surface test would probably not tell you anything you wouldn't know already.

 

If you're not comfortable free soloing steep snow, by all means, pitch it out or do running belays. Either requires a lot more gear and time, however, which also figures into the safety equation, particularly if a sun warmed snowpack will increase rock or ice fall from above or potential snow bridge failure. Prevention of falls that aren't going to happen anyway can cost you in other ways.

 

Climbing unencumbered is more fluid, more fun, and keeps your warmer, in addition to being faster.

 

 

 

 

Edited by tvashtarkatena

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tvash has it right. Do a climb like the North Ridge of Baker to get more comfortable on steep snow. Or start slowly on a climb with a good runout in soft conditions and just learn to get more comfortable on snow. As always, practice self arrest technique and learn its limitations in hard, icy conditions.

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tvash has it right. Do a climb like the North Ridge of Baker to get more comfortable on steep snow. Or start slowly on a climb with a good runout in soft conditions and just learn to get more comfortable on snow. As always, practice self arrest technique and learn its limitations in hard, icy conditions.

 

+1 :tup:

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tvash has it right. Do a climb like the North Ridge of Baker to get more comfortable on steep snow. Or start slowly on a climb with a good runout in soft conditions and just learn to get more comfortable on snow. As always, practice self arrest technique and learn its limitations in hard, icy conditions.

 

With that note, what would be a good objective to start with as far as steep snow/alpine ice? N. ridge Baker, N. face Shuksan, N. face Buckner, N. face Maude, etc...? Buckner seems the mellowest. Steepest I've been on for extended periods is only about 40-45 degrees slope. Didn't freak me out too much.

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I'd start shorter and more mellow, but I don't know where you're starting from, exactly.

 

Argonaut, Deception, Colchuck, Colonial, Chair Peak, even McClelland Butte right up the road - there are tons of shorter objectives to set out on.

 

Then I'd probably do Shuksan and Buckner from your list to start. N face of Shuksan doesn't involve a glacier approach, so that makes it a bit simpler.

 

 

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I don't know where you're starting from, exactly.

 

Mostly easier glacier routes. Coleman Deming route 3 times (close to my house), sulphide glacier on shuksan, Bolam glacier on Shasta, Silverstar, etc... lots of scrambling too. I'm at that point where I'm starting to get bored with standard routes.

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OK, that helps. Start off shorter and go bigger as needed would be my recommendation, FWIW. Climb up AND down stuff, too. Down climbing's just as important, and can be weirder for some folks. It pretty common to ascend a rock route and descend a snow couloir as a quickie way to get off the mountain.

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These days the only times I use running belays on snow slopes - typically with a picket in a vertical orientation - is to mitigate the consequences of someone pendulum-ing from a team-arrested slide, like into a crevasse, over an edge, etc.

 

On truly steep, hard snow - where neither climber has a snowball's chance in hell to actually hold an arrest if their partner falls - it calls for pitching it out with deadman-ed pickets or agreeing to simul-solo.

 

Most instances that pickets have failed - in my opinion - are the result of poor judgement of the snow and under-reliance on good technique.

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I once climbed on snow where I thought pickets would hold. That was on Mt. Cook in New Zealand where the snow was hard, frozen, compacted, and of even density for at least the depth of a picket. It took a bunch of hammer blows to set one and they were difficult to remove. In summer snow around here I have used them, buried deadman style, for belay anchors. In winter snow I have generally had no faith whatsoever. I agree with the comments here but there can be situations where a picket might be OK but don't fall on snow anchors!

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It should be noted that most all steep snow routes generally follow shallow gullies allowing the placement of rock pro. The reason one wishes to do so should be obvious to even the novice...

 

Climbing steep snow is not hard. Descending steep snow/ice is harder. Learn abalakov anchors. Learn correct self arrest with axe/pons technique. The rule of thumb about not using Pons is for the novice only and applied to generally places where from experience one know they can stop by using axe only. On the other hand with Experience, note the big ol' "E" word there again, with experience, one quickly will understand that to stop a slip/fall one has to do so in the first 5 feet on steep terrain and most certainly WILL include the use of crampon points.

 

Practice, practice falling/slipping at first without a pack or crampons, then with pack and no pons on and finally, with crampons on. If you have access to an old junk rope, tie a junk old, Kelty aluminum frame pack to the end and fill it with 150lbs of rocks. At a very shallow angled slope, push down hill and practice stopping it, go to steeper slopes ONLY as you get comfortable doing so. SO many people NEVER practice this. It is COMPLETELY different than stopping your own fall. In this instance you most certainly DO use your feet/crampons along with your upper torso ice axe combo as power to stop said fall is produced by churning your legs as if you were running up hill.

 

In short, on snow, you are soloing. Mentality must be of a kind. The rope is there for as others have said Crevasse problems, rock fall knocked unconscious problems, and pendulum issues, and as I brought up first and formost, nearly all steep snow/ice routes will be next to or on rock allowing the placement of more reliable pro.

 

Enjoy

 

PRACTICE falling!

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one quickly will understand that to stop a slip/fall one has to do so in the first 5 feet on steep terrain and most certainly WILL include the use of crampon points.

 

Have contemplated that before. Better to break your ankle than to break your body 1000 feet down slope.

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From reports and photos of people here and elsewhere, I see climbers go out of their way to put protection in rock, perhaps because it is stronger, faster, and easier to place.

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I spent 20 minutes pulling a single picket from between Windy Pass and 14k on descent. The worst part was the picket really wasn't needed and a fairly decent waste of time. Not to mention, spending 6 hrs to get to 14k from 11k and then descending back to the bend near Windy Pass meant the damn thing was so frozen in that I had to beat on the thing to get it out. I wanted to ice axe my leader after that. I got over it, and we still had fun, but I was cussing pretty hard.

 

I'm at that point where... do I absolutely need it for this section or am I confident in my team's ability to travel on this terrain? It does come down to risk management. Sometimes managing the risk is to move quickly through it opposed to planting something that takes time and slows the entire team.

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Sounds like the snow set up on you pretty well Cale, which can make for much stronger placements (and harder to remove) than you would get with a running belay. Definitely calls for cursing sometimes.

 

Anyone wondering these things ought to go find a nice snow slope with a clean runout and place some gear, set yourself up with a big loop of slack, then run downhill and jump. It's a fun little exercise to add in to crevasse rescue practice or to play around on some day when the weather has turned your climbing plans around. I'm always surprised what holds and what doesn't (and my own inability to predict). Better yet have a buddy place a picket or fluke, trade, and make it a game.

 

I've also had fun setting this up next to a plowed parking lot and jumping over the lip to yank on gear (sort of like a crevasse fall).

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Good call Olympic Mtn Boy. One of the things we do in our club is team arrest practice in Silver Peak Bowl. We set up running belays, let a team traverse and then at one end of the rope we pull them off. We haven't done it just on pickets... half the time they pop.

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