Protection in snow

Belaying in snow is objectively worse than belaying in rock. This is due to the instability of the snow mass. In short, you can’t expect too much from loose, frozen water. It therefore follows that if your protection chain is located in snow, you should avoid any falls, particularly harder ones. If there are rocks or cliffs protruding from snow somewhere close to your path that provide options for safe belaying, it’s better to make your belay stations there. The snowy terrain is, with only partial exceptions, always inclined. It’s surface also tends to be for the most part relatively even. This enables the falling climber to brake against the fall with her ice axe. If the terrain allows it, the rule is as follows – brake, brake, brake… The reason is so that the catching impact transmitted to the belay station at the moment of catching will be as small as possible. At the same time the belayer must belay dynamically by allowing a lot of slack in the belay device. Understandably in soft, collapsible snow your fall will be slower (but watch out for avalanche!) and in hard firn the fall is fast, and significantly so, approaching the speed of a free fall.

Protection points in snow (snow anchors)

There aren’t many protection devices that can be used in snow. A belayer can use axes (pick axe + ice axe) to create belay stations, and then there are only the various types of snow anchors, whether a “deadman” snow flukes or snow pickets, although the latter are better suited to hard firn snow. The effectiveness of these protection methods is better the deeper they are buried in the snow, where the layers of snow are more compressed, thicker. Protection in snow is therefore associated with digging, where you have to enhance the strength of the snow with an appropriately deep hole, and install the protection device inside, then cover it up with snow and tamp it down. Logically, it is also the case that the softer the snow, the better it is to use longer ice axes (70 cm or more), while somewhat shorter ones can be used for harder snow.

Profile of a buried deadman in the snow.

Profile of a buried deadman in the snow.

The snow fluke (“deadman”) is a frequently used and practical protection device. Especially because it can be used in soft snow as well. The fluke is placed in the snow in such a way that it forms a 40° angle with the snow surface and it must be buried under at least a half meter layer of snow. It is good to tamp down the snow above the anchor so that it becomes more compressed. The steel wire leading from the anchor must be a bit longer (approx. 1 m) so that it protrudes from the snow significantly lower than where the anchor is embedded in the snow. As a result, the fluke will be pulled in a manner compatible with the incline of the slope when loaded, and thereby against the stronger layer of snow. Certain snow flukes have thin side plates along the vertical edges, like wings. These side plates serve to increase the stability of the anchor to the sides, to keep the fluke from slicing its way out of the snow. People might often instinctively place the anchor with these side plates facing the other way (downward), but this is incorrect. The side plates must be facing upward, against the slope; or to put it better in the opposite direction of the anticipated direction of loading. The reason is that, if the anchor begins to wiggle to the side when loaded, and starts cutting its way through, the narrow side plate (wings) will resist this manoeuvre – they will hold the anchor in the proper position. A well placed “deadman” can actually embed itself deeper in the snow when loaded, and such a manner of belaying then becomes quite solid indeed.

Schematic of a buried deadman, with proper placement of the side wings below, for better stabilising of the deadman in the snow mass.

Schematic of a buried deadman, with proper placement of the side wings below, for better stabilising of the deadman in the snow mass.

Video: Belaying with a deadman in hard snow. In hard snow, a deadman can be placed at a shorter depth. You can pound it into the snow with your ice axe. It is important to create groove for the steel wire n such a way that pulling on the wire under any loading might not pull the anchor surface against the layer of snow. Hard snow is understood to mean the kind into which crampons can dig but not shoes. In such snow a well placed deadman holds firm.

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