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Navigation methods and gear

Cody Cousins

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Hello everyone,


Forgive me if there are current threads on this but my search didn't yield anything for me. I am very new to glacier travel. I recently climbed Mt. Baker with someone who knew what they were doing via the Coleman-Deming route. From base camp we weren't able to see much of the route during the day. so my question is:

How do people typically navigate on these glacier routes? If you can't see the route before you climb, it is dark, and/or if you get stuck in cloudy or whiteout conditions? Do people usually use just a map, compass, altimeter, GPS, all?


In hindsight, I wish I had payed attention a little more. I've read the Freedom of the Hills chapter and there seems to be a lot of different options but I am more interested in how people do it personally and what is most efficient. No matter what, I plan to have a map and compass and know how to use them.



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Map and compass/GPS are considered to be essential for back country travel. An altimeter is very handy as well. In a white out on a glacier a GPS with a track laid is very helpful. Also, many climbers use wands to mark the route of ascent on large glaciers and then collect them on the descent. Generally at night there is enough star or moon light reflected from the glacier to get a good idea of where to go and headlamps to see features immediately in front of you.

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Although I hate to say it....Gaia. It has completely changed how I navigate in the hills. But knowing map/compass/altimeter techniques is a good fall back.


Most importantly though I think is knowing where the route is supposed to go on the map and how to translate contours to a mental image of what you should be looking for. That and paying attention on the way up so you can remember key turns on the descent. This mental map sense is remarkably accurate once you dial it in.


Traveling in a whiteout on a glacier though is a whole different story. Unless you have a good track and wands to follow you'll want to have a GPS/smartphone app to help you (and spare batteries!).

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Ditto on Gaia, but I'm not ashamed to admit my zeal for it.


But I'd add another layer: study beforehand. Zoom in and out on google earth from different angles. Study the topo. Read TRs and note potential navigation problem spots. Recent photos can be particularly helpful to show crevasse orientation and length, sections of nasty brush to avoid at all cost, old growth trees to aim for, etc.


You can take some of these photos and/or satellite images and load them on your phone to help when you're out in the field. This only works if you've studied the terrain beforehand as noted above. The result might be, "Oh, this is the big boulder at the bottom of the talus field, we should keep going to the trees on the other side...". "Ah, here is the first small creek, we need to keep going to the third one". "The trail should be on the far side of this meadow".


Good luck. Practice in low consequence situations (e.g. foggy non technical terrain versus glacier in an approaching storm). Have fun.

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I try not to go out in really bad weather, but I if I know the clouds will be coming and going, I will sometimes bring wands so I can find my way back down.


For going up I use a map, compass, and altimeter. I'll mark waypoints on the map and write down what the bearing is. I use my altimeter to let me know when I reach a new waypoint on a line. It's not perfect, but it always works out.

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