For ski touring, alpine climbing, and even some hiking and running tours, it’s fundamental to have a solid skill set for glacier travel. Glaciers are undoubtedly what make the Alps exceptionally beautiful.
Green, flower covered hillsides lead up to rocky, alpine terrain where glaciers flow. But for all their stunning beauty, they are equally as dangerous.
Glaciers present a number of hazards that require everyone who travels on them to be knowledgeable in managing. Regardless of how much experience people have climbing and ski touring, skills specific to glacier travel can only come with training and experience in glaciated terrain.
As an American who came to the Alps with extensive climbing and ski touring experience, I quickly realized that I was very much out of my element on glaciers. It only took one step, watching the snow drop away beneath my feet with a black hole staring back up at me, to realize it’s a deadly venue. When a few centimeters of snow is all that separates you from falling into a crevasse, you are either going to be lucky, or unlucky. No one is immune to hazards on a glacier, but with training and experience you can minimize the risk. And you must minimize this risk, for yourself and for the partners you go to the mountains with.
I’ve had many close calls, including near crevasse falls, getting caught in whiteouts, and working through complicated labyrinths of crevasses. For those that move through the Alps on a regular basis, and venture on to glaciers, it’s part of the experience. My own stories are classic.
Once, with a friend who had little to no glacier travel skills, we skied off a summit and on to a glacier. Our route required that we briefly climb the glacier, cross a shallow pass to our right, then ski down to our hut. From our high point, the route was clear,
We skied off the summit under a sunny sky, but once on the expanse of the glacier, things rapidly changed. A thick cloud developed and engulfed us. We could see nothing. While not a large glacier, it was, like glaciers tend to be, mostly featureless.
Our tools were a GPS (this was pre-Smartphones), a paper map, and Janine and I’s decent amount of experience and training. Time was short, we were out late and darkness was just over an hour away. We knew we didn’t have far to travel to reach our pass so we immediately went into navigation mode.
As soon as we whipped out the map, a gust of wind blasted us, splitting the map exactly on the spot we needed. Tattered and torn, the map was mostly useless. I had not placed waypoints in the GPS for this part of the tour, and there was no map in the GPS. We stared at a blank screen with our position clearly marked. Just like in reality.
A compass, our current altitude, and our memory of what elevation the pass should be was all we had to go on. We started moving. We started approaching dark forms and became hopeful we were alongside a wall. Instead of a wall, it was a serac zone and the depressions in the snow were clearly not the place to linger.
After some time poking around, we were becoming desperate to escape. Where was the pass? Suddenly, the clouds parted with just enough visibility to allow a sighting on the pass, directly in front of us. We took a bearing, the clouds closed, and we sped to our point. 30 minutes later we walked into the hut as dinner was being served.
We had some bad luck, some good luck, and made some mistakes. That experience may well have turned out very differently had we not gotten a glimpse of the landscape. We could have been stuck on the glacier, or fallen into a crevasse.
Situations like this are possible year round. On a glacier, winter storms and summer fog do the same thing, shut down visibility. We’ve had it happen more than once, and in more heavily crevassed areas which had us crawling forward, throwing coils of rope ahead to see if anything dropped away. We’ve also been trapped on the wrong side of massive bergschrunds and questioned which way to go as we entered crevassed zones with no clear passage.
KNOWLEDGE & SKILLS
Glacier travel requires knowledge, skills, and experience of the following:
- Weather events: Year round storms, cloud and fog.
- Crevasse and serac navigation
- Crevasse Rescue
- Hauling out an injured or unconscious person
- Establishing an anchor for self rescue
- Bergschrunds: Awareness and understanding
- Changing landscape: Due to rapidly shrinking glaciers, the Alps’ landscape is changing and leaving behind what can be difficult to navigate terrain.
- Always having, and knowing how to use, glacier navigation and rescue gear.
- Understanding and tuning into the conditions for the time of year: There are times and places where glacier travel is made either much easier or much more dangerous due to conditions.