Belay stations in snow

Building a belay station in snow is always somewhat of a pain in the neck. The same rule applies here as we stated with building intermediate protection in snow: you can’t expect much of loose frozen water. And if there is even the slightest chance of an alternative, any rock within reach, it is better to build your belay station there. If this can’t be done, for example, if you find yourself in a large snow field, you simply have no other option then to take it upon yourself to carry out the challenging work of building a belay station in the snow. Do not underestimate this situation. Most people give in to the need for speed; in soft snow anchor points are relatively quick to place, and the belay station can be built rather easily. Except that they neglect to devote time to something which they do not encounter in other terrain: the need to firm up the substance in which they have placed the anchor points. An inseparable part of building a belay station in the snow is the necessity to thicken the snow and tam down the anchor point embedded in it. And this requires time and work. The situations which can be encountered when belaying with a rope in snow can be divided into the following categories:

  • Belaying a leader without intermediate protection
  • Belaying a second
  • Belaying a leader with intermediate protection
  • Connecting with rope during a simultaneous ascent on a slope

Belaying a leader without intermediate protection

If the leader is not building intermediate protection, any potential fall will of course have him sliding downward along the now first to the level of the belay station and the belayer, then gradually below her. The belay station will thereby be loaded only in a downward direction. A very good method of belaying for this situation is the “S” pattern of leading the rope over the instep of the shoe and through a carabiner fastened to the ice axe, which is embedded in the snow and stamped in place by the foot wound with the rope. The trick behind this belay method is that the rope wound around the instep of the foot pushes the foot downward, thereby enhancing the pressure on the ice axe in the snow. The carabiner simply holds the rope in this “S” position so as to generate the maximum of friction against the shoe, so that the rope can be led upward where it can be comfortably held in the hand. While the carabiner does exert an upward force on the ice axe, as if to pull it out of the ground, but the force of the foot pressed by the rope acts against this. The entire system is thereby kept in balance and holds firmly, even in relatively soft snow. At the same time the rope can be paid out very easily and quickly, so if the belayer spots the leader falling in time, she can have time to pull in some of the rope quickly and thereby shorten the fall.

The belayer must have built a self-belay, either using a separate ice axe embedded (or buried) in the snow, or using a somewhat longer sling and either fastening it to the ice axe on which she is standing. But she will need to watch out to make sure that the self-belaying sling doesn’t get in the way and doesn’t come into contact with the belay rope.

"S" belay method in snow.

“S” belay method in snow.

As with any belay operation in the snow, it is necessary even with this method to belay dynamically; that is, to put slack in the rope. At the same time a great deal of friction will occur between the rope and the instep of the shoe. This isn’t much of a problem for plastic shoes, nor leather, but shoelaces made of artificial fibre, for example, or other elements on the shoe made of artificial fibre (for example, the rugged textiles made of artificial fibre called cordura) can melt.

This method can also be applied in such a way that the rope passes not over the instep but the thigh of the bent leg (otherwise everything else remains the same), but here pants are exposed to a significant risk of melting, as the overwhelming majority are produced using artificial fibres and are also thin, which means that the friction of the rope can burn through them in an instant. Therefore this method of dynamic belaying is not recommended.

Belaying a second

In harder snow it is possible to build a belay station made of two crossed ice axes, or to use other firm snow anchors. More on snow anchors can be found in the section Protection in snow.

More in e-book.

Title Part 5Mountaineering Methodology – Part 5 – Snow and Ice

ISBN 978-80-87715-11-6

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

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

Title Part 5 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 5 – Snow and Ice

ISBN 978-80-87715-16-1

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play