Rappelling on ice

The absolute most simple thing to do is to rappel from a screw placed in the ice. Since the hole of an ice screw is not often designed for threading rope, it is necessary to add a carabiner with locking gate, through which the rappelling rope is threaded. If you have any doubts about the strength of the ice screw’s anchoring, we recommend driving two screws into the ice and joining them with a sling and a floating carabiner. In a similar way as with firn snow it is possible to chop an ice bollard, or artificially created ice horn, out of the ice at an appropriate spot. You can then wind your rope around it, leaving two strands of rope you can rappel down in the usual manner. Unlike a snow bollard, the ice bollard can be smaller, perhaps 20-30 cm if the ice is hard water ice. Be careful, however, of any cracks in the ice that occur when you chop it out, or your ice bollard might break off! You should also bear in mind that ice is hard and slippery when compared to firn snow, and could result in the rope slipping off altogether if it has an inappropriate shape.

Sometimes an ice tunnel is formed in an ice wall, usually when a large icicle grows so far down that it merges with the ice underneath it (a sort of a variant on a stalactite). If such an ice tunnel is sufficiently solid, a column at least 15-20 cm wide, and the entire formation is made of translucent water ice, and the column is well joined with the ice mass both above and below, then it can make for a solid and welcome rappelling station.

What is somewhat difficult is to rappel from an ice screw and then remove the screw using the rope. This is almost like a magic trick. A long screw is driven into the ice, but in such a way that about 4-5 cm of it is left sticking out of the ice. A sling is tied to the hole of the screw, which is then wound counter clockwise around the protruding section of the screw shank. The end of the sling is then joined to the rope using a prusik hitch. After rappelling, you pull on the strand of rope with the prusik hitch tied to it. By pulling on this strand of rope, the sling wound around the shank begins to unwind the screw, causing the screw to unscrew from the ice until everything (sling and screw) falls down to you.

Removable rappelling station made of a screw in the ice.

Removable rappelling station made of a screw in the ice.

Conditions necessary for unscrewing the ice screw: 1. the protruding part of the screw shank must be smooth, with the sharp threads of the screw embedded in the ice, at least at first; 2. the screw must be embedded perpendicular to the future direction of pulling on the rope; 3. the screw may not be too tightly driven into the ice, nor can it be frozen to the ice. And yet it also cannot be too loosely placed, so that it doesn’t work its way out of the ice while rappelling. In short, it has to hold firm, but at the same time must be able to be unscrewed without too much resistance; 4. the length of the sling must be long enough that the number of windings will be enough to completely unscrew the entire ice screw. This method requires experience, and must be well practiced. To execute this form of rappelling for the first time in your life somewhere in a difficult ice wall is insane. If the screw cannot be unscrewed, you’ll find yourself in a trap, where the rope cannot be pulled down, and since you can never be certain how much the screw has come out, you can’t even ascend up and fix it because the screw could come all the way out during your ascent and you could fall. In closing, one last warning: to apply this method you must have sufficient experience and practice!

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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).

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

ISBN 978-80-87715-16-1

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play