Advancing on a glacier

Movement on a glacier is not usually physically arduous in comparison to other mountaineering terrain; it mostly consists of normal walking. But as far as objective danger is concerned, movement on a glacier is one of the worst. With a bit of exaggeration, it can be compared to Russian Roulette. When moving along a glacier it is necessary to use protection, as there is significant risk of a fall into a crevasse hidden under snow drifts. Do not underestimate it! There have already been a few solo-walkers of glaciers in this world, and they have never been here for long. For protection on a glacier, a simple mountaineering rope at least 50 m long is used (preferably 60 m). It is still within the boundaries of load-bearing capacity to use one strand of a half rope, as on one hand there is not so much risk of loading the rope across the sharp edge of a cliff while on a glacier, and on the other there are no falls that occur with a great deal of impact strength. If the conditions on a glacier are very bad, nothing but crevasses and snow bridges, or if a new snow has fallen and is hiding a multitude of crevasses, it is critical that you belay from a safe stance. The belayer firmly anchors an ice axe into a verified, firm spot, and from here she belays the first climber, who will then build another safe stance in the designated direction of march, and will take in the rope for the second from here.

On easier sections of a glacier, belaying takes place at the same time as the march. Two climbers are connected by rope in such a way that they have minimally 12 m of the centre segment of rope between them, while each of the climbers has a tail end of the rope about 19 m long (when using a rope with a minimum length of 50 m) coiled and fastened ideally to his backpack. These tail ends of the rope are important for rescue and extraction of a fallen climber from a crevasse. The lengths of the rope segments cited are important in order for the rope’s length to suffice for rescue operations.

To better understand this, it is necessary to browse the section Rescue, where the methods of retrieving a fallen climber from a crevasse are displayed. Since 50 – 12 = 38, and 38 / 2 = 19, and assuming that the belayer caught the fall before going through half of the segment of rope between them across the edge of a crevasse (that is, the fallen climber is hanging at most 6 m under the edge of the crevasse), then that 19 m folded in half (that is, 19 / 2 = 8.5 m) should be enough to pull out the fallen climber. If the belayer has stopped the fall only after going through half of the rope segment between them over the edge of the crevasse (which means that the belayer is close to or right at the very edge of the crevasse), then we can congratulate her, but her situation is quite precarious and she will have to use another, less comfortable method of retrieval from the crevasse. If braking knots on the rope (more on this below) will prevent her from extracting her teammate, the rescuer may use the part of the rope which she has coiled in her backpack.

When belaying during a simultaneous advance it is an absolute necessity that the rope team mutually coordinate their progress; the ones in the rear should not hurry too much, so that the rope does not go slack. This is important so that the rope can immediately come into play during a fall by one of the climbers. If the rope were too slack on the ground (actually lying and trailing in loops on the ground behind a person walking) then upon falling the affected climber would first free fall, by which he would gain speed, and then would experience a sharper impact.

What kind of harness to use?

What kind of mountaineering harness should be used during a simultaneous march of people tied in on a glacier, that is the question…. If we consider the situation that a two-member team joined by rope conducting a simultaneous march is proceeding along the glacier and one of them falls through into a glacial crevasse and the other belays him, then it would be ideal if the person who has fallen into the crevasse has a combined harness, and the belayer above has only a seat harness. This depends on where the rope is tied in to the harness in relation to the centre of balance of the human body. In a combined harness the point of tying in is above the centre of balance of the body, that is, the person is held in a free hang in the crevasse in an upright position. On the contrary, the belayer above on the glacier is in an unusual situation, a loaded rope is pulling her diagonally downward toward the surface of the glacier. A lone seat harness is curiously an advantage, as the point of tying in is under the centre of balance of the body and is better during a diagonal downward pull. The belayer can maintain her balance better and can wedge herself against the pull of the rope. And that is the case even after she has been pulled off her feet and dragged along the glacier. She will automatically end up with her legs facing the direction of pull of the rope, and in this position she can rely much better on her ice axe and stop the drag.

Direction of pull of the rope toward the centre of balance of the person while advancing on a glacier. - Left: When using a combined harness the tie-in point is above the centre of balance of the body, and there is risk of being pulled off balance. - Right: When using a seat harness the point of tying in is under the centre of balance and a person thereby can better resist the pull of the rope with his legs.

Direction of pull of the rope toward the centre of balance of the person while advancing on a glacier. – Left: When using a combined harness the tie-in point is above the centre of balance of the body, and there is risk of being pulled off balance. – Right: When using a seat harness the point of tying in is under the centre of balance and a person thereby can better resist the pull of the rope with his legs.

What is nevertheless an unsolvable problem is to specify which of these two will fall into the crevasse. Any member of a rope team at any time may fall through into a glacial crevasse. One way or another we always end up in the unsolvable situation of weighing various pros and cons when contemplating this topic. One segment of the mountaineering public is of the opinion that a seat harness is definitely a better solution in the situation when we have a heavy backpack. Of course, there are not unworthy arguments against using a seat harness by itself – when using a seat harness by itself, the spine can be damaged, and when tumbling with your head down your skull can strike the icy face of the crevasse. Afterward, the climber will hang upside down unconscious. What’s more, when hanging upside down there is a risk of your backpack sliding off and getting its chest strap caught around your neck and head. If we have our ice axe fastened to the hand by its lanyard, then we will suffer an injury to the wrist.

This issue is not clearly defined and it falls to personal decision as to who will prefer what kind of seat harness.

We can at least conclude with this recommendation:

  • seat harness – if we do not have a backpack or it is light, and from the character of the glacier it is clear that no larger falls are expected, and during Alpine touring, when we have skis on our legs and we can brake only with the edges of the skis
  • combined harness – if we have a very heavy backpack, or no backpack, when it is clear that any fall will be larger in size; it is recommended that you improve this setup using a Jolly fall absorber (see further on in the text).

More in e-book.

Title Part 4Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains

ISBN 978-80-87715-10-9

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

For example U.S. store – link

Another countries – look on the page Download

See layout.

Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).

Title Part 4 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains

ISBN 978-80-87715-15-4

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play.