Ski Mountaineering Essentials: Glacier Travel Tips
The difference between backcountry skiing/splitboarding and ski/splitboard mountaineering is somewhat ambiguous. Navigating glacial terrain, however, is one activity that sets them apart, and which requires a new level of technical knowledge beyond your usual backcountry skill set.
Last year, I took an introductory ski and splitboard mountaineering course through the SheJumps non-profit organization. My instructors, Diny Harrison (the first North American female guide to be certified by the IFMGA) and Kate Devine (a recently certified ACMG ski guide), imparted valuable glacier travel tips for aspiring ski mountaineers, the essence of which is captured below.
As in ‘regular’ backcountry touring, you should be aware of your partners’ risk tolerance and make sure you’re all on the same page before you even get to the trailhead. Understanding and respecting your group’s tolerance limits will make decisions easier when no one is feeling pressured to go above their threshold.
As you travel up, down, over, or across a glacier, identify the terrain features in the area and talk about them among your group. Discuss what they are, if they’re a hazard, and whether or not they should be avoided. Terrain is predictable, and recognizing patterns in your environment will help you distinguish safe routes from hazardous routes.
The Path of Least Resistance
There are already plenty of obstacles and hazards in your way, so why make it any harder? When you’re setting a skin track, “Follow the contours of the slope,” says Harrison. It may be a longer route versus going straight up, but it’s often more efficient and less tiring in the long run. Your whole party will thank you.
When to Rope Up
First of all, before you even reach rope-worthy terrain, you should already be in your harness. In fact, it’s good practice to wear your harness all the time when you’re anywhere near a glacier field, says Harrison. Double-check your harness. According to Harrison, “You want it high and tight” around your waist before slinging any rope through the belay loop.
In flat light, everything starts to look like a crevasse and becomes a potential terrain hazard, so “as soon as the visibility is poor, use a rope,” says Harrison. Snow stability and good weather are factors that let you go without a rope in glacier terrain, “but ask yourself, ‘Why NOT use the rope?’” says Devine. “You had better be damn sure that no one’s falling in if you’re not wearing a rope.”
When you do rope up, give yourself 40-50 feet of distance between you and your partner. You’ll only be hiking as fast as your slowest member, so manage any slack by slowing down the pace. At its lowest point, the rope should be just a few inches above the snow, and should avoid contact with the metal edges on your skis/splitboard.
Watch for Snow Bridges
Snow bridges are arguably the biggest hazard of glacier travel. These deceptive strips of snow mask what’s really underneath them: an empty, cavernous crevasse. While passable under the right conditions, the strength of a snow bridge depends on the snow’s stability. You may be able to spot trouble spots from a distance, marked by saggy depressions in the snow. But don’t rely on visual assumptions, especially in low visibility. If you’re reached a crevasse, have your lead roper use his/her avalanche probe to gauge the depth and firmness of the snow and determine if it’s safe to cross. “I’ve never used my probe in an avalanche, but I use it all the time on a glacier,” says Devine.
Knots to Know
The Prusik is a versatile and self-tightening/”directional” knot that can be used for ascending a rope, rigging an emergency Z-pulley system, or as a backup brake when rappelling/belaying. Think of it as a Chinese finger trap: when tied and weighted to a fixed rope, the Prusik knot locks in place to prevent an object (like you) from sliding down. When unweighted, it slides easily up the fixed rope, allowing you to pull yourself out of a crevasse or manage rope slack. However, don’t rely on a single Prusik as your only brake, as it has the potential to slip if the rope is icy. Because Prusiks are often used in pairs, it’s wise to carry a few 6 or 7mm accessory cords, roughly three feet long.
The handy Munter Hitch is a bi-directional knot (meaning it’s reversible and works in either direction) and is most often used when belaying and rappelling. In glacier travel, the Munter Hitch is also used with a Z-pulley system, when the belayer needs to transfer a load to an anchor. Once you’ve tied the hitch to your carabiner, give each rope strand a tug to make sure it’s running smoothly through the ‘biner in both directions. Because it’s largely responsible for belaying essential gear (you!), use the Munter Hitch ONLY in conjunction with a locking, pear-shaped carabiner so the rope doesn’t accidentally hop the gate. Also, as a good habit, it’s wise to tie off the end of the rope with a stopper knot to prevent you from rappelling off the rope entirely.
In glacier travel, you’ll rely on the Clove Hitch most often when you’re roping up to your touring partners or when building an anchor. Much like the Munter Hitch, the Clove Hitch is used for precious loads, so use a locking, pear-shaped carabiner every time. Once it’s knotted, give the Clove a tug at both ends to ensure it’s pulled tight, which helps prevent the hitch from slipping.
Double Fisherman’s Knot
The Double Fisherman’s is one of many knots that tie the ends of a rope together. Use it on a single rope to form a loop or sling, or use it on two ropes to join the lengths. It’s the preferred knot when you’re linking two ropes of varying diameter, as its configuration is secure and reliable. That said, once the knot is loaded, it’s difficult to untie it, so it’s not ideal for quick roping situations.