Monday, 25 April 2011

SOLO GLACIER CROSSING.(Risk reduction and self-rescue.)

Only once did i fall into a crevasse! It was on the Trift-Gletscher in 2003 high in the Berner Oberland.I never saw it coming,and fell into a hole up to my chest.I casually grumbled my way out then looked down into a blue/black abyss hundreds of feet deep.It was a wake-up call i have never forgotten,and it scared the crap out of me!
There,s loads of great crevasse rescue techniques on the internet for climbers,but if your alone and unprepared your a meat popsicle! The odds of an off-route solo-alpinist surviving crevasse falls are pretty slim,but can be massively increased by good planning,preparation,and a little ingenuity!?
But first,a quick word on Alpine Butterfly Knots for glacier crossings.As we know they can be a powerful,effective brake on Wet-Glacier falls.And allso a great aid for getting out quick if you havent broken anything vital,or are still conscious enough to use them?!
What the books "dont tell you",is how far apart the knots should be so you can reach them,whilst hanging over a bloody great drop into a giant icebox!?

Here is my simple formula(that all can use).Take the ropes-end to the centre of your chest and hold the rope at arms length.Start your first knot where the hand meets the wrist,then continue the process along the rope.Alpine-Butterflys are the preffered choice,but Overhands will suffice if your hands are too cold to tie the former.(Note:both of these knots can roll-out if not tied firmly.Make the loop at least"one hand span".)
Useing this formula,one can easily reach up to each succesive loop,to clip in an Etrier or Sling,even when your full body weight is suspended on the rope.If your rope is shoulder-coiled Alpine Style,make sure a Prusik is holding the "live" rope to your belay-loop.Or your coil may hinder arm movement and end up around your shoulders.
It doesnt nescessarily follow that every crevasse one may fall into is a bottomless-pit.Though it is very wise to plan as though it will be,and equip yourself accordingly before glacier crossings.(more on this later.)

The Swiss Alpine Club statistics on these falls suggest a mean average of 5 to 10metres for about 75% recorded.Not that this is of much help if your in the last 25% of course!? Furthermore the injury statistics are high and tend towards Arm and Upper-Body trauma,not encouraging stats for "Self Rescue"!It is not surprising therefore that the majourity of deaths occur through Hypothermia,even after rapid rescue.Even if you survive a solo crevasse fall fit and uninjured,the very shape of a crevasse can exclude any chance of Self-Rescue.(Read Joe Simpson-"Touching The Void",pages-95 to 100.In fact read the whole book!)

Heading for Jungfrau over "Jungfraufirn" a well trodden glacier region.

There are two types of glacier:Wet(snow covered) and Dry(Ice surfaced).Its the former thats the most hazardous as the snow cover obscures crevasses,on the dry they are more visible.Its a good idea even when climbing solo,to hitch onto a party or another soloist to make a crossing safer(no prizes for being stupid!),but this isnt allways possible.Or you can just follow a defined glacier path,there are many in the alps well marked with Marker-poles and Stakes.

SOLOIST RISK REDUCTION MEASURES:- If i have no other allternative than to effect a crossing alone i take the following measures. i first leave a Route-Plan and all nescessary documentation(As in Route Plans Blog & Solo Docs).I then rig two lightweight Etrier attached by slings to my harness,and stuff then down my jacket so i can reach them quickly.I place my Pack inside its own Drybag(heavy duty Liner) and tie it to the end of my climbing rope along which i have tied Alpine Butterfly Knots.The other end is figure-eight rewoven to my alpine harness.My helmet is allso worn!

My Tech-Axes are leashed to my Harness and holstered within easy reach,as are my Ice-Screws and Warthogs.I allways carry one Walking-Pole to use as a probe for unstable areas.
The Sack at the ropes-end acts as a counterweight(an artificial second)stretching out the knotted rope and making me 20kilos+ lighter for the crossing.If i should take a fall its weight "will not" arrest me,but may slow my fall and give the knots some friction to bite into the ice,perhaps bringing me to a halt.In any event,the system must slow my fall thus reducing the very real chance of fractures or other impact trauma!If the sack remains on the glacier surface and is not pulled into the crevasse,its bright yellow colour is highly visible to anyone in the area.On my 50metre rope i would have to fall at least 40metres before the sack is pulled down with me.
If the knots arrest my fall they might give me time to ice-screw my Etrier into the crevasse walls to anchor myself(though i could not trust them to hold an ascent attempt alone!)and then try to get out using my axes.

YES I KNOW!!! All this is one hell of a lot of "ifs and maybe,s",and the chances of it all working are very slim!? But its better than dying alone and broken,and being spat out 200years later at the end of the glacier like some i have heard of!? In mountaineering you cannot stop the inevitable,but you can be responsible and plan for the worst!

I am sorry that i dont have any pictures of my system in action on glaciers.I have never seen the need to photograph it!? In "Part-Two" of this blog i will put up some pics of the whole thing done on "Chalk",here in the UK.

Good climbing,