In the mountains, if you don’t know a deadman, you could be one.
Snow anchors are an essential skill for any budding mountaineer, and the deadman is the bread and butter. Whether you’re roped up and traveling on a glacier, climbing a peak, or caught cliffed-out in the backcountry, a snow anchor can be the difference between a seriously bad day and a seriously good story. Think you already know everything about snow anchors? Stick around. It never hurts to go over the basics.
Almost laughably simple, the deadman is a versatile and, when done right, incredibly secure snow anchor. Classically done with a picket or snow fluke, a dead man can provide reliable protection with anything from an ice axe to a crampon. (It should be noted, however, that sharp-edged objects like the latter are not ideal for use in snow anchors, as they can potentially cut a weighted sling. Also, leaving a crampon behind could put you in a deadly spot down the road, as they’re pretty much essential to navigating steep alpine terrain.) Stories of odd-object deadman anchors abound in the mountaineering community, with tales of lighters and even Clif Bars being successfully used to rappel people out of gnarly terrain—but here’s to hoping you never have to rap off of something that sketchy.
It all starts with a T-shaped trench, dug deep—two feet at least, more if you’re in low-moisture powder—with the long part of the T facing the direction you want to rappel. You’ll likely want to rush this part, especially if it’s a real-world emergency situation, but fight the urge. The cleaner the walls, the deeper the trench, the stronger the anchor. Once dug, girth-hitch or clove-hitch a sling to your anchor object (if you’re out of pickets, a stuff sack packed with snow is favored by many mountaineers), run your mountaineering rope through the sling, and place your anchor in the top of the T with the sling stretched out the bottom of the trench.
With the picket in place, the T-shaped trench is then filled back in with snow.
Now comes the most important part. Starting from the back of the trench, firmly stomp the snow down into the top of the T, pushing in the direction of the rope. Pack the snow good and hard until you have a large block of flat, well-compacted snow all around the anchor. Then give it a couple more stomps just for good measure. You’ve just created a deadman. But you’re not done yet.
Before you use any deadman, you’ll want to test it. Stand away from the edge or clip into a backup, and then clip into the rope and lean back. Pull with all your might. If you can, have your friends clip in and pull, too. Still not budging? Good job—though you should always treat a deadman (or any other snow anchor) as suspect until thoroughly proven. It’s your life, or your buddy’s, on the line, so half-measures are not an option. In fact, if you’re at all unsure about the strength of your deadman, whether because of the snow quality or the improvised nature of the anchoring device, you can always create a second deadman to serve as backup to the first. This is common practice for more advanced snow anchors such as snow bollards, which use the snow itself as the anchoring body.
Like beacon use, anchor building is an art worth practicing. You want it to be second nature, so that when you’re building protection after your climbing partner just fell into a crevasse, you won’t be thinking about how deep to dig, you’ll be thinking about the kind of beer you’re going to drink together afterwards. I’d recommend something strong and dark. Like an anchor.