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Crevasse Danger vs Falling Danger


Original Post
James Gurian · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 0

I've often seen the advice something like "when climbing on steep snow, think carefully about whether a rope team could actually hold a fall if one member slips. If not, it may be safer to solo." I've also read "never travel unroped on a glacier". How are these reconciled? People routinely solo routes like the south side of Mt. Hood, the approach over the Stuart Glacier to the Upper North Ridge, or (http://www.stephabegg.com/home/tripreports/washington/northcascades/shuksan2) the North Face of Shuksan. 

Is this rooted in a judgment that terrain hard and steep enough to be worried about falling off the mountain usually won't have poorly bridged crevasses so that you need to also worry about falling into the mountain? Or is it more that when the risk of a fall becomes greater than the crevasse danger and its infeasible to pitch it out, soloing and risking a crevasse fall is still better than signing a suicide pact?

Nolan Fulton · · Montgomery,AL · Joined Sep 2016 · Points: 611

If a team of 3 or more . I would want to rope up. Unless the crevasses are small and clearly visible with navigation being easy. 

If on steep terrain and a huge possibility of crevasses with a team of two. I would use at least a 30m-40m rope with just a tiny bit of slack between the two. Add some stopper knots tied in intervals near the middle to add to friction if one climber were to fall..and have a good bit of coils tied off. 

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 14,522

Handling crevasse fall with a team of only two can get pretty tricky.

Most authorities recommend a party size of at least three, better four -- if there's significant risk of punching down into a hidden crevasse.


 Ken

FosterK · · Edmonton, AB · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 43

It doesn't seem like the last two posters have actually answered your question. The answer is that "never travel unroped on a glacier" is a great rule of thumb of for beginners, but immediately loses it's value once you gain some experience. 

The hazard is relative to snow coverage and bridge strength.It is not uncommon during ski mountaineering when snow packs are 3-5 m in depth on a glacier to go unroped. The same when a glacier is bare: why rope up when you can see all the holes? It is early winter, late spring/early summer, when roped travel is often mandatory (conditional on your local terrain). Once you discard the notion that you should "never travel unroped", it is easier to use the conditions, terrain, personal abilities, and equipment available to make a more appropriate decision.

Steep snow does not necessarily mean unroped: you can pitch it out, or simul-climb with intermediate protection. But roped up and unprotected travel should be carefully evaluated to determine if it's the appropriate choice.

Final caveat: always wear a harness on a glacier - if you do fall in unroped, it might be impossible to get you out if you weren't wearing a harness to start.

Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 337

For the specific example of Hood that you mentioned, there is literally only one crevasse on the south side, and it is pretty easy to walk around. Crevasse wise, a glacier like that is trivial enough to not worry about. However, keep in mind that people somewhat regularly die on Hood from unprotected falls. A rope with running belays on Hood makes sense depending on climber experience and conditions. After the 2017/18 deaths, I’d be taking a rope up even on the easiest of the routes on that mountain. I don’t care if people give me funny looks. 

For Shuksan’s North Face, no way in hell would I climb that unroped. I climbed it in summer 2017 and navigating around the summit pyramid from the top of the North Face put us on some crazy glacial terrain. There is a lot of steep terrain on that climb too, and having running belays was good for the head. 

I wouldn’t think of things as “crevasse danger vs falling danger”. I would consider it “crevasse & falling danger vs loss of efficiency”. I personally believe that a lightweight rope with running belays is the best of both worlds for a lot of the routes I climb. 

James Gurian · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 0

Thanks Chris and Foster. I guess I could rephrase my questions this way: you say the glacier on Hood is "trivial enough not to worry about." If you didn't know from experience or word of mouth that the crevasse hazard was low on that route, how do you make that call? Are there any general rules of thumb that are useful in assessing the danger of hidden crevasses as the angle steepens past where a rope team could reliably hold a fall but remains moderate enough that were it not for potential crevasse danger you would feel comfortable without a rope? Or as you suggest Chris, is it best to just simul-climb when in doubt?

Robert Hall · · North Conway, NH · Joined Aug 2013 · Points: 15,565

As "FosterK" states, there's two different issues here: 1) on high-angle snow, could the party actually stop a fall, or would one falling person (including the leader) pull the entire party down? (onto rocks, crevasse, bergshrund, or other bad place). Many factors go into answering this question, far too lengthy for this simple discussion. Get instruction and experience; books like "Mountaineering Freedom of the Hills" can help you understand what you have to learn to be able to answer the question. 

#2 is "Walking on a Glacier".  Yes, experience helps, you get to "learn the lay of the land", a "feel" for where and how large a crevasse might be; but until then roped up and ropes of 3 or more (better, of course, is 2 ropes of two). BUT, even then many experienced climbers will not cross a glacier unroped. (More on "experience" later) 

  Most climbers don't rope up on a "dry" glacier; 2 reasons: A) you can see the crevasses, and B) if you do fall in the odds of the other roped climbers actually stopping the fall are nil. (unless you're putting in ice screws and belaying, but they you're  really ice climbing, not glacier walking)

Going back to "Experience" - several very experienced climbers have fallen into cravasses. Some have walked away, some haven't. For one who did, read "Crystal Horizon" by Rheinhold Messner (I'd say he was experienced enough to be called "Experienced") For one who didn't get out (even though they were roped together), read chapter 1 of "Addicted to Danger" by Jim Wickwire, where he describes the crevasse fall that took the life of his partner and good friend Chris Kerrebrock. This is one of the saddest passages in the mountaineering literature.   

Kyle Tarry · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 226
Chris C. wrote:

However, keep in mind that people somewhat regularly die on Hood from unprotected falls. A rope with running belays on Hood makes sense depending on climber experience and conditions. After the 2017/18 deaths, I’d be taking a rope up even on the easiest of the routes on that mountain. I don’t care if people give me funny looks. 

It's hard, because it's both about the conditions relative to the norm on that route, but also relative to climbing conditions as a whole.

Conditions last weekend were much icier than they normally are on that route, which caught a lot of people off guard.  On the other hand, conditions weren't any harder than moderate snow/ice that regularly gets soloed by people on a route like the N. Ridge of Baker or Triple Couloirs.  I wouldn't make a decision of whether or not to rope up based on someone else's extenuating circumstances.  Realistically, I think that the more appropriate approach for Hood S. Side is to not bring a rope, and to be willing and able to bail if you get to the base of the route(s) and conditions aren't in your comfort range.  Due to the limited protection, high traffic, and fairly moderate climbing, having a rope doesn't necessarily ensure security.

Kyle Tarry · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 226
James Gurian wrote:

Thanks Chris and Foster. I guess I could rephrase my questions this way: you say the glacier on Hood is "trivial enough not to worry about." If you didn't know from experience or word of mouth that the crevasse hazard was low on that route, how do you make that call? Are there any general rules of thumb that are useful in assessing the danger of hidden crevasses as the angle steepens past where a rope team could reliably hold a fall but remains moderate enough that were it not for potential crevasse danger you would feel comfortable without a rope? Or as you suggest Chris, is it best to just simul-climb when in doubt?

The reality is that the south side route(s) on Hood are not really in crevassed glaciated terrain.  The major "crevasse" on the route is actually a bergschrund, which is in an obvious and well known location, and is easy to negotiate if you're up there in any reasonable conditions.  Depending on the route you take, you may never be exposed to it at all; for example, if you take a lower left-trending route to Old/Mazama chute, you never cross the schrund and the fall line is never above it.

Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 337
Kyle Tarry wrote:

It's hard, because it's both about the conditions relative to the norm on that route, but also relative to climbing conditions as a whole.

Conditions last weekend were much icier than they normally are on that route, which caught a lot of people off guard.  On the other hand, conditions weren't any harder than moderate snow/ice that regularly gets soloed by people on a route like the N. Ridge of Baker or Triple Couloirs.  I wouldn't make a decision of whether or not to rope up based on someone else's extenuating circumstances.  Realistically, I think that the more appropriate approach for Hood S. Side is to not bring a rope, and to be willing and able to bail if you get to the base of the route(s) and conditions aren't in your comfort range.  Due to the limited protection, high traffic, and fairly moderate climbing, having a rope doesn't necessarily ensure security.

I absolutely agree with you. Although I was not there last week, I was there almost exactly a year ago and helped 4 or 5 very scared people descend the Gates and upper Hogsback. I did have a picket, a couple screws, and a 30m rope. Even though I ended soloing down the route myself (didn’t want to leave my stuff behind), those people were glad as hell that I brought the pro.

If I lived in Portland and had easy access to the mountain, I would totally be more likely to bring less and turn around if the conditions required more. However, I’m making a 4 hour drive from Seattle and few extra lbs of gear isn’t going to slow me down either. (Heck, I’ll gain that weight in poutine if I go up to Vancouver, BC!) 

Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 337
James Gurian wrote:

Thanks Chris and Foster. I guess I could rephrase my questions this way: you say the glacier on Hood is "trivial enough not to worry about." If you didn't know from experience or word of mouth that the crevasse hazard was low on that route, how do you make that call? Are there any general rules of thumb that are useful in assessing the danger of hidden crevasses as the angle steepens past where a rope team could reliably hold a fall but remains moderate enough that were it not for potential crevasse danger you would feel comfortable without a rope? Or as you suggest Chris, is it best to just simul-climb when in doubt?

I would just recommend bringing a 30m rope, a picket, and a couple screws. Especially if it is your first time. Use them if the situation deems necessary, and keep them in the pack if things feel solid. 

Ideally that amount of protection will not slow you down. Climbers who can’t carry that and move quickly probably shouldn’t be on a mountain like that anyways. 

Kyle Tarry · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 226
Chris C. wrote:

I would just recommend bringing a 30m rope, a picket, and a couple screws. Especially if it is your first time. Use them if the situation deems necessary, and keep them in the pack if things feel solid. 

Ideally that amount of protection will not slow you down. Climbers who can’t carry that and move quickly probably shouldn’t be on a mountain like that anyways. 

I guess we'll agree to disagree on this.  I don't know how protecting like that could possibly not slow you down.  If you're going to protect the route from the 'schrund to the top of the gates or one of the chutes, you have at the very least several hundred meters of climbing to protect.  Good ice for screws is unlikely to find, and a climber less experienced may not be able to tell unattached blue rime ice from solid safe ice.  If you only have 1 picket, and 30m of rope, you're going to end up doing a bunch of short pitches, or short simul pitches, which surely will add a ton of time, all of which is spent below huge rime feathers and loose rock.

The only reasonable way to protect that route (in my opinion) is with a full length rope and a bunch of pickets.  A 60m rope with 2 pickets per rope length plus a couple of tool or picket belays to reclaim gear would work and be safe, but it's neither fast nor light.

James Gurian · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 0
Chris C. wrote:

I would just recommend bringing a 30m rope, a picket, and a couple screws. Especially if it is your first time. Use them if the situation deems necessary, and keep them in the pack if things feel solid. 

Ideally that amount of protection will not slow you down. Climbers who can’t carry that and move quickly probably shouldn’t be on a mountain like that anyways. 

Yeah, that seems like good advice. But it's only good advice because we already know the risk of falling into a crevasse is very low on that route, right? If you're on a route like that and don't have knowledge going in about how heavily crevassed it is, how do you make that decision? Or do you just do your research carefully and do things like look at satellite images once the glacier has opened up? 

Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 337
Kyle Tarry wrote:

I guess we'll agree to disagree on this.  I don't know how protecting like that could possibly not slow you down.  If you're going to protect the route from the 'schrund to the top of the gates or one of the chutes, you have at the very least several hundred meters of climbing to protect.  Good ice for screws is unlikely to find, and a climber less experienced may not be able to tell unattached blue rime ice from solid safe ice.  If you only have 1 picket, and 30m of rope, you're going to end up doing a bunch of short pitches, or short simul pitches, which surely will add a ton of time, all of which is spent below huge rime feathers and loose rock.

The only reasonable way to protect that route (in my opinion) is with a full length rope and a bunch of pickets.  A 60m rope with 2 pickets per rope length plus a couple of tool or picket belays to reclaim gear would work and be safe, but it's neither fast nor light.

Oh, I was totally not suggesting pitching or fixing the route. That would be crazy. I am only suggesting to bring the gear to make it available, specifically for descent.

For the record, the only pitches I’ve ever done on Hood were on the Reid Headwall. 

Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 337
James Gurian wrote:

Yeah, that seems like good advice. But it's only good advice because we already know the risk of falling into a crevasse is very low on that route, right? If you're on a route like that and don't have knowledge going in about how heavily crevassed it is, how do you make that decision? Or do you just do your research carefully and do things like look at satellite images once the glacier has opened up? 

Generally you can get an idea of what the route tends to be like from trip reports.  I like to read as much as I can. If I ONLY read hardcore people's blogs (like Steph Abegg), I know I will be lead to believe that routes are easier than I may find them.  For example, Steph Abegg completed the North Face of Shuksan in a single day with some snafus when they began.  I cannot fathom how fast she moved.  I did it in 3 days, I could have made it in 2, but there is absolutely no way I would have made it in 1.  Mark and Janelle Smiley climbed the Cassin Ridge in like 2 days.  

For gear, just bring what you think would be reasonable.  For most snowy routes that means a rope and a little bit of snow/ice pro.  

t.farrell · · New York, NY · Joined Aug 2016 · Points: 60

I don’t have a lot of experience on glaciated peaks, but any time I’ve been on one (6-7 times), there’s a noticeable difference between where the crevasse danger vs fall danger begins. ie, the terrain in which crevasses occur aren’t on slopes greater than 30 degrees. That’s just my experience but usually once you’re past the shrund or onto more vertical terrain it’s pretty rare to encounter crevasses.


Even with that said, I’ve been told that part of the ACMG exam is leading at least two up followers up steep snow (while short roped) and having the followers take turns pitching off. Not sure how much truth there is to that though. I never liked the idea of simulclimbing/short rope until I actually got out and realized there are some situations where it’s advantageous. 


As for soloing, I think it’s just a comfort level/route frequency thing. I’d be pretty comfortable soloing if I were following a conga line/clear path. I would not attempt to break a trail through uncharted glacies solo. 


Also, don’t fall is the #1 thing that I’ve heard. (Fall prevention should take priority over fall recovery like self arrest, etc.)


FosterK · · Edmonton, AB · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 43
James Gurian wrote:

Thanks Chris and Foster. I guess I could rephrase my questions this way: you say the glacier on Hood is "trivial enough not to worry about." If you didn't know from experience or word of mouth that the crevasse hazard was low on that route, how do you make that call? Are there any general rules of thumb that are useful in assessing the danger of hidden crevasses as the angle steepens past where a rope team could reliably hold a fall but remains moderate enough that were it not for potential crevasse danger you would feel comfortable without a rope? Or as you suggest Chris, is it best to just simul-climb when in doubt?

I can't comment on Mt. Hood, and did not speak specifically about it: it's not my local terrain. It would be rare to be completely ignorant of the crevasse hazard of the route. You should have developed sufficient resources - fellow climbers and local rangers, weather forecasts, past snowfall, recent trip report, historical aerial photographs of the glacier, and topographic maps - to make that call yourself (or as part of your rope team) prior to the start of your climb. Reading a glacier to avoid crevasse hazards is a fundamental mountaineering skill that only comes with experience and mentorship: go get it. I would hazard that there is a very narrow range of terrain and conditions that will have crevasses, but not visible, and just steep enough that you would be able to catch a fall.

t.farrell wrote:

Even with that said, I’ve been told that part of the ACMG exam is leading at least two up followers up steep snow (while short roped) and having the followers take turns pitching off. Not sure how much truth there is to that though. I never liked the idea of simulclimbing/short rope until I actually got out and realized there are some situations where it’s advantageous. 

There's a narrow range of conditions and terrain where short-roping (which is not simul-climbing or a running belay) is appropriate, and truly steep snow (>40 degrees) is not in that range. 

Allen Sanderson · · Oootah · Joined Jul 2007 · Points: 1,187
James Gurian wrote:

I've often seen the advice something like "when climbing on steep snow, think carefully about whether a rope team could actually hold a fall if one member slips. If not, it may be safer to solo." I've also read "never travel unroped on a glacier". How are these reconciled?

You are obfuscating the two ideas. The "never travel unroped on a glacier" mantra is because of the chance of falling into a crevasse. Crevasses are objective danger (hidden or not). Falling into a crevasse is basically a straight down fall with potentially a serious landing for that person. Being roped up will significantly reduce the seriousness of the fall. The team size issue a side when traveling on a glacier the slope steepness is not such an issue that lacking protection and if a person falls into a crack the other(s) will likely be able to arrest the fall. I.e. it is not often the case that a crevasse fall will pull the other team member(s) into the crevasse. Thus being roped up sans protection a crevasse fall will likely affect a single person, not everyone.

The mantra "when climbing on steep snow, think carefully about whether a rope team could actually hold a fall if one member slips. If not, it may be safer to solo." is that once the slope steepens, especially if the snow is firm (i.e. nevé) that a team roped together dictates that protection should be placed. Sans protection if one person falls, the other(s) may not be able to arrest and all will get pulled down. I.e. there are many cases of one climber falling on a steep slope and pulling the other(s) down with them. Thus being roped up sans protection a fall will likely affect everyone, not just a single person.

See the difference??

Here are some examples. The recent accident on Hood. The climber who died took a very long fall on nevé, he died while his partners lived. Had they been roped up and lacking protection (pickets) they all would have gone for the big ride. I have seen that on Hood. I passed three climbers and as I looked backed I saw all three went tumbling down the Hogsback. They were fortunate (and incompetent), in that the snow was not nevé, the bergshrud was not open, and they did not go far before the slope flatten out. The infamous 1981 accident on Mt. Hood's Copper Spur is another good example. One rope team fell and slid into two other rope teams. They all went down to the Elliot Glacier with the majority dying. Another example, on Elliot Glacier we were traveling on a steeper part of the glacier that was icy. I was in the middle of three. There was a screw in between me and the leader when the third fell. He pulled me just right and I was able to arrest his fall. The leader felt nothing but had I not arrested the fall it probably would have pulled him off and we would then be relying on the screw. 



Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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