How to Rope Up for a Glacier Travel?

If you want to know how to rope up for glacier travel, here is a really great video that explains basic principles and what to do with the rest of the rope, and some questions and answers that you might find useful. So keep going.

How to Rope Up for a Glacier Travel top picture.

The person in the video is American Mountain Guides Association Instructor Team member Jeff Ward. He explains details and I am truly impressed with its presentation. This is why I have decided to share it here. So have a look:

Observe what he says about the factors that determine the spacing between the people on the rope.
  • The type of glacier is one factor. This is related to potential size of bridges that you can expect. The bigger the glacier the bigger bridges, so you make a larger spacing.
  • The number of people on the rope. What he says is the more people, the closer you can be together. But here there is a danger of being too close. You will see more about this below.

He suggests 7 armlengths between participants. If I understand correctly, this would give around 10 meters or so. My understanding is that this should be a minimal distance even with more people on the rope.

Now, I would also ask you to see this video, it shows a few people descending and roped together. They demonstrate what happens when the first on the rope suddenly falls into a crevasse:

This is a demonstration and no doubt they were all ready for what was going to happen. As you realize, there are four people on the rope, and it is not clear to me if the fifth person is keeping the end of the rope or if they have any extra security added. But three of them where completely out of balance.

The content of these videos may be helped with the following list of real questions of real people, and my answers. I am hopeful they will be useful to you:

What is a glacier crossing?

A glacier crossing is an action of safe travelling across a larger glaciated area to avoid falling into a crevasse or sliding down on steep glacier sections.

Why do you rope up for glacier travel?

There are two major reasons:

  • If you are on a steep section, this is an extra protection in case you lose balance and fall. Your partners might prevent this if they are watching your steps.
  • This is important when crossing bridges that form over crevasses as the one shown below.
Crossing a snow bridge.
Crossing a snow bridge.

How do you find snow bridges?

In some situations you can clearly see them as in the pictures above, and this is the best possible scenario. In other situations you can get some clue about their presence because of difference in the snow level across a glacier.

The picture below is from my solo climb of Breithorn (4164 m) in Swiss Alpes, you can see numerous crevasses on the bottom and they are filled with snow that creates bridges. You never know if they are safe or not.

Crevasses on Breithorn in Swiss Alps.
Crevasses on Breithorn in Swiss Alps.

But the problem is with those snow bridges that you cannot see. This is why going solo on glaciers is not the wisest thing to do. See this beautiful slope from my solo tour (yes, this proves that I was not so wise) of Bishorn (4153 m).

Glacier slope on Bishorn.
Glacier slope on Bishorn.

Later I found a video on YouTube showing a rescue action of a mountaineer who disappeared in an invisible crevasse in this same area. It was embedded on my site, but later I realized it was removed from YouTube, no idea why, so cannot show it now.

What is a snow crevasse?

If you go to Wikipedia you will find this term well-defined. In general, this is a crack or fracture in a glacier that is created because of the movement of a glacier and shear stresses that develop due to this. Due to this movement, the face of the glacier breaks.

Crevasses can be filled with snow in the early season, as you can see in the picture below from my tour to Barrhorn. You can see them clearly from this perspective, but when you on the glacier, they may be hidden by the snow and you may not realize you are on such a potentially dangerous point.

Crevasses partly filled with snow on Barrhorn, Swiss Alps.
Crevasses partly filled with snow on Barrhorn, Swiss Alps.

Can you fall through a glacier?

The answer is yes, absolutely so. You will see more about this in the paragraphs below.

How deep can a crevasse be?

In some cases crevasses can be tens of meters deep. From what I have found on Britannica, the largest crevasses can be up to 20 m wide, and 45 m deep. They can be hundreds of meters long.

So they may represent huge obstacles in glacier crossings. This is why you may see in many places in glaciated mountains that they put ladders across such obstacles, more below.

How do you cross a crevasse?

Over many small crevasses you will simply step and pass. In other situations you will look for a snow bridge and pray that it is safe to step on.

As mentioned above, in extreme cases, you will need a ladder to place across such a gap in the ice. Otherwise, you will have to make a loop and try to avoid the crevasse completely. In this video you can see how things may go wrong on a ladder passage:

What do you need for glacier travel?

Here is what you need:

  • The most important is to have partners. How many? Think about 4-5 or so.
  • A harness.
  • An ice axe. For simple glacier crossing you can use one with a straight shaft. I have one of this type from Petzl.
  • A dynamic rope. The length and thickness will depends on the number of users.
  • Crampons. It is best to go for hybrid type that will fit a variety of mountaineering boots. But for simple glacier walks you may be fine even with a strap-on type. I myself have been using Petzl hybrid crampons for many years already.
  • Boots. It is best to have boots with stiff soles appropriate for crampons. I use La Sportiva insulated boots and also Scarpa boots.
  • You might want to have a helmet as well. There may not be rock falling around, but you may be falling in a crevasse, this is why. I use a helmet from Petzl. Once you buy such an item, it is unlikely you will need another one in your lifetime.

Everything else is up to you. This should include crevasse rescue items, and some extra essential items will be probably carried by the guide if you have one.

How do I choose an Alpine rope? What kind of rope do you use for glaciers?

It is best to use the so-called dynamic ropes for a glacier travel. They are design to stretch a bit and this will lessen the impact on the person who falls into a crevasse.

How long of a rope do you need for glacier travel?

You have already seen about this in the previous paragraphs. This should depend on the number of users. So it should not be shorter that 30 meters. It is best not to compromise safety with respect to weight.

More useful tips for glacier travel

  • When you are in front of a crevasse, if possible make sure that you get across it in the shortest possible way.
  • If this is about descending, you would not want to have heavy participants on the front, you have seen in the video above how it looks. So heavier people should be on the back, this will increase chances that you can keep he person on the front that drops into a hole. But make sure also that the front person knows how to navigate in such an environment.
  • Less experienced people should be in the middle on the rope.

Instead of summary, what is the ideal number of rope team members for climbing a glacier?

I remember a video that I saw long ago, the person was a mountain guide, one of those who do not smile much, and he said something like this: Two people may be OK, three is much better, going solo is not an option.

From what I have found around, most people claim that three to five people should be optimum. But from what I see in the video above, and what I wouldn’t ever want to experience in my life, is that three people on such a rope would have no chance at all.

As you clearly see in the video, the glacier slope is very mild, yet three of them were completely out of balance although they were prepared.

What do you think? Let us know, there is a comment box below. You might want also to read my another text about hiking in Dolomites in Italy. Thank you for reading.

Me on Jalovec.Hi, I am Jovo, the founder of this OutdoorsFAQs site and several other outdoor sites. I have been mountaineering for almost 40 years already, and I have created this site to use as a reference for various questions that I receive in my sites. Being a theoretical physicist by profession, I tend to base my answers on facts and on my own personal experience.

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