Pretty much every year people die or get seriously hurt when they climb steep snow slopes roped together without placing protection. One climber slips and drags their
partner off the mountain. The reaction from the climbing community is usually that “climbing roped together in such a manner is foolhardy and poor technique”. This may be true. But first, the commentators were not in the
climbers’ boots, and second, making the transition from roped glacier travel to climbing the steep snow slopes rising from the glacier is often complicated by the
nature of the terrain.
Personally, it took me a while to figure out what I should be doing, where and when. Essentially, what I am going to say is it does not come down to just knowing the
correct techniques, but being able to judge when to use each technique.
If everything was as straightforward as the manuals suggest
If everything was black and white, there would be glacier travel and mountain climbing, and never the two would meet. Glaciers would be flat, for a start.
And snowy, not icy. And any mountain slope steeper than 20-degrees would not dream of harbouring a crevasse.
Roped up for glacier travel.
We are taught in Ropes 101 that if you are walking on a glacier, you are roped together with your climbing partners (using an elaborate roping up technique that is
described in a hundred books and seen in the picture of the author on a not-so-pleasant winter’s day) and the rope is kept quite taut between each climber
(as you can see in the picture taken on the Fox Neve). Nice. If anyone falls into a crevasse, they will be held by the other climber/s. No one else gets dragged into
the crevasse because a lot of friction acts on the rope as it passes over the crevasse lip, and it is difficult to be dragged through snow anyway.
Glacier travel on the Fox Neve.
Once you are on the mountain (the non-flat thing), you will be either pitch climbing (making anchors, placing runners and belaying), or putting the rope in the pack
and climbing unroped (soloing) because you are comfortable enough to do so. Alternatively, you can simul-climb (see the funky diagram further below), which we will
look at in a moment.
However, what you should never do is climb with the rope still on and NOT place any protection – if one person slips then everyone is going for a ride.
But the reality is that climbers do this all the time. And that is because real mountains are complicated buggers.
The problems with real mountains are:
- Glaciers can be very steep. So if a climber falls on the slope, or into a crevasse, there is a chance they will drag the other climber down too. Navigating an
icefall (the equivalent of a rapid on a river) can involve more difficult climbing than the actual climb does.
- Glaciers can be icy. So even if the glacier is only moderately angled, a climber who falls into a hole can take their partner for the same ride. Obviously this
becomes more likely with steeper glaciers.
Snow slopes can have crevasses, even if they are not considered to be glaciers. A good example is the Linda Shelf on Aoraki-Mount Cook (see the picture). A number of
fatalities have occurred as parties of climbers roped together for glacier travel have slipped and fallen over the massive cliff below. Always, the media comments
from guides and local climbers are that they should not have been roped together. However, there are often crevasses or 'schrunds on the Linda Shelf, and even if
there weren't, having just come off the Linda Glacier, how would a climber know for certain that there were no more crevasses to negotiate?
The Linda Glacier Route on Aoraki
Mount Cook, with the Linda Shelf highlighted.
- Often it is not easy to place protection. Snow packs do not always take snow stakes, or if they do it may take ½ an hour to place one. Sometimes the snow is just
that crap. Some of the gun climbers do not take snowstakes because they think they will only need ice and rock protection for steep walls –
“I’m never going to fall on a snow slope” – but they can come unstuck on a steep glacier. Many climbers coming from overseas do not even know what snowstakes
- There is often easy terrain between sections of difficult climbing. It is quite common for experienced climbers not to take the rope off when climbing easy
sections without protection because they do not want to waste time. This is usually regarded as acceptable because the climbers have the experience to make such a
call – “I know neither I nor my partner will fall on such an easy slope” – and few if any accidents occur from this practice. However, it should be done
I am going to assume you know how to pitch climb (set up anchors, belay, place protection as runners) and glacier travel (coil rope around your chest, set up prussiks,
wave your feet around in deep holes). The other technique in your climbing arsenal is simul-climbing.
In principle, simul-climbing (see the diagram) is simple – easier and quicker than pitching. There are no anchors. Both climbers climb simultaneously with the
leader putting in protection and the second climber taking protection out, ideally always keeping at least a couple of pieces of protection between climbers.
Most references will say the technique is not as safe as pitching; that it should only be used on terrain that is not too steep or difficult and it is a good idea to
shorten the rope between climbers in a manner similar to glacier travel (coiling the rope around the chest). All of which is incredibly wrong and misinformed.
So here are the nuts and bolts on simul-climbing.
- Is simul-climbing less safe than pitching?
Simul-climbing is in fact safer than pitch climbing. The first reason is that the climbers are separated by all or at least most of the rope. With a lot of rope
"in action", there is a lot of stretch during a fall and this is good because the act of stretching absorbs energy. Hence the impact on the placed
protection is a lot less. If you have not read about fall factors then I suggest you do so. But briefly, when pitching, the leader is less safe when just starting
out on the pitch (less rope payed out for absorbing the shock) than when he or she is close to finishing the pitch (more rope payed out for absorbing the shock). So
simul-climbing effectively ensures there is always the ideal scenario of a lot of rope between climbers.
The second reason is that the more rope there is between the climbers, the more pieces of protection there will be in the system.
- What rope length is appropriate?
Based on what was explained above, it is best to have the rope fully uncoiled and 50 (or 60) metres of rope between the two climbers. Obviously, they have to keep
placing protection at regular intervals. It is not great having only one or two pieces between climbers who are 50 metres apart because they will go for a long fall
before their protection catches them. Let’s say they place protection every 10–15 metres. That means they will have two pieces of protection between them if
they are 30 metres apart and perhaps four pieces if 50 metres apart.
In practical terms it may be useful to shorten the rope. Perhaps the route winds considerably or traverses a ridge, or communication is difficult. Perhaps the climbers
are on a glacier and wish to place runners as they negotiate a tricky section of ice fall without wanting to uncoil the rope.
- So why pitch climb at all?
Generally, as the terrain gets very steep, the climbers want good rope management from their partner and do not want to be pulled off their feet by sudden movements or
have to hang around while their partner makes a move.
The Ramp on Mount Aspiring.
Your four options are to be in glacier travel mode, to pitch climb, to simul-climb, or take the rope off and solo climb (e.g., the climber in the picture of Mount
Aspiring’s infamous Ramp has started pitching although the protection is out of shot). This all comes down to “judgement”. But “judgement” can be a pretty meaningless,
not to mention unhelpful, word. So I prefer to say it comes down to realising one thing: that the mountains are not straightforward and you should therefore EXPECT
that difficulties will arise and you will have to change between different modes of travel.
- Steep or icy glaciers
Many glaciers require some climbing to negotiate. Therefore, mentally treat it as actual climbing. This means either setting anchors and pitching through difficult
sections, however brief and time consuming it may be, or setting runners as you go and simul-climb. If you are only negotiating a small section of difficulty and
needing to place only one or two pieces of protection, then you may decide not to uncoil the rope between you. Otherwise, for long sections of travel, you may wish to
use the full length of the rope and more protection (this often has inherent safety in that both climbers are unlikely to fall down the same crevasse if 50 metres
You may have to climb like this for a long time. For instance, three of us once climbed De La Beche Ridge in autumn, traversing steep bare-ice glaciers on the side of
the ridge. We felt we had to keep the rope on since there were crevasses with bridges across them, but a slip by one climber would have sent all of us skating into
oblivion, or at least the nearest hole. We just relied on nobody slipping. In retrospect, we could have done one of two things: 1) placed runners between each climber
and simul-climbed or 2) taken the rope off and used it only as we approached each bridge, setting an anchor and belaying each other across. Both options would have
taken a long time. But that is the moral to the story. Sometimes you just have to accept the climb will take twice as long as expected.
Also, when on a glacier, be aware of whether a crevasse fall will drag both climbers into the crevasse, especially a fall by the downhill climber. Any glacier that
has a significant gradient to it is likely to require the placement of a few runners now and then, if not an anchor and belay. Expect it, look out for it and take the
time to do it. All this means keeping your climbing hardware (protection, slings, carabiners) at hand (which you should be doing anyway in case you need to pull your
partner out of a crevasse).
- Crevassed snow slopes
In practical terms, there is no difference between a steep glacier and a snow slope with occasional crevasses, and often the two will merge. Having negotiated the
glacier approach, two climbers may look at the mountain slope ahead and note that it is not particularly steep snow climbing (they would be happy to solo climb),
but owing to a few crevasses they decide to keep the rope on in case the leader falls down one of the holes. The problem is that the climbers are now in the classic
“if one person slips, both are going for a ride” scenario (or if the second climber falls into a crevasse then he or she may pull the leader down too).
Silberhorn from the Balfour.
Therefore, the climbers must consider pitching or simul-climbing the slope, even though they think the slope is well within their abilities. This approach can be seen
in the picture of a climb we did of Silberhorn from the Balfour Glacier, with the leader having just crossed a crevasse.
On these types of slopes, it is likely the only useful protection will be snowstakes, which is why it is a good reason to carry four stakes in the party.
- Steep slopes with no crevasses
This should be a no-brainer. If the slopes are well within your abilities and you do not feel you need protection, then take the rope off. Otherwise, pitch or simul-climb. In the picture of climbers approaching the summit of Aoraki Mount Cook, the rope has been put in the pack, which is good practice. If a climber has made an error in judgement and slips (the error in judgement being he or she should have asked for a rope and protection because the climbing was difficult), then others will not be dragged down also.
Unroped climbers approaching
the summit of Aoraki Mount Cook.
- Steep slopes with crevasses and no protection
The most likely scenario is that the climbers are not carrying snowstakes, which is something they hopefully won't do again. But if you find yourself in this
situation, it is perhaps best to 1) solo sections with no obvious crevasses, 2) use bucket seats, a buried pack or axes in a T-slot when belaying the lower climber across slots, and 3) have the belayer (whether the upper or lower climber) not tied into the rope when belaying their partner across slots.
If you think you may need to untie and re-tie from the rope several times, keeping one person tied into the rope and having the rest of the rope easily accessible (in the top of the pack or trailing on the snow) when soloing sections is a good approach.