As Seen In: USA Today, Discovery Channel, US News & World Report

Hiking on Glaciers

Movement in mountainous terrain may require travel on glaciers. An understanding of glacier formation and characteristics is necessary to plan safe routes. A glacier is formed by the perennial accumulation of snow and other precipitation in a valley or draw. The accumulated snow eventually turns to ice due to metamorphosis. The "flow" or movement of glaciers is caused by gravity. There are a few different types of glaciers identifiable primarily by their location or activity.

  • Valley glacier—resides and flows in a valley.
  • Cirque glacier—forms and resides in a bowl.
  • Hanging glacier—these are a result of valley or cirque glaciers flowing and or deteriorating. As the movement continues, portions separate and are sometimes left hanging on mountains, ridgelines, or cliffs.
  • Piedmont glacier—formed by one or more valley glaciers; spreads out into a large area.
  • Retreation glacier—a deteriorating glacier; annual melt of entire glacier exceeds the flow of the ice.
  • Surging glacier—annual flow of the ice exceeds the melt; the movement is measurable over a period of time.
  • a. Characteristics and Definitions. This paragraph describes the common characteristics of glaciers, and defines common terminology used in reference to glaciers. (Figure 10-21 shows a cross section of a glacier, and Figure 10-22 depicts common glacier features.)

    Figure 10-21. Glacier cross section.

    Figure 10-21. Glacier cross section.

    Figure 10-22. Glacier features.

    Figure 10-22. Glacier features.

    (1) Firn is compacted granular snow that has been on the glacier at least one year. Firn is the building blocks of the ice that makes the glacier.

    (2) The accumulation zone is the area that remains snow-covered throughout the year because of year-round snowfall. The snowfall exceeds melt.

    (3) The ablation zone is the area where the snow melts off the ice in summer. Melt equals or exceeds snowfall.

    (4) The firn line separates the accumulation and ablation zones. As you approach this area, you may see "strips" of snow in the ice. Be cautious, as these could be snow bridges remaining over crevasses. Remember that snow bridges will be weakest lower on the glacier as you enter the accumulation zone. The firn line can change annually.

    (5) A bergschrund is a large crevasse at the head of a glacier caused by separation of active (flowing) and inactive (stationary) ice. These will usually be seen at the base of a major incline and can make an ascent on that area difficult.

    (6) A moat is a wall formed at the head (start) of the glacier. These are formed by heat reflected from valley wall.

    (7) A crevasse is a split or crack in the glacier surface. These are formed when the glacier moves over an irregularity in the bed surface.

    (8) A transverse crevasse forms perpendicular to the flow of a glacier. These are normally found where a glacier flows over a slope with a gradient change of 30 degrees or more.

    (9) Longitudinal crevasses form parallel to the flow of a glacier. These are normally found where a glacier widens.

    (10) Diagonal crevasses form at an angle to the flow of a glacier. These are normally found along the edges where a glacier makes a bend.

    (11) A snow bridge is a somewhat supportive structure of snow that covers a crevasse. Most of these are formed by the wind. The strength of a snow bridge depends on the snow itself.

    (12) Icefalls are a jumble of crisscross crevasses and large ice towers that are normally found where a glacier flows over a slope with a gradient change of 25 degrees or more.

    (13) Seracs are large pinnacles or columns of ice that are normally found in icefalls or on hanging glaciers.

    (14) Ice avalanches are falling chunks of ice normally occurring near icefalls or hanging glaciers.

    (15) The moraine is an accumulation of rock or debris on a glacier caused by rockfall or avalanche of valley walls.

    (16) The lateral moraine is formed on sides of glacier.

    (17) The medial moraine is in the middle of the glacier. This is also formed as two glaciers come together or as a glacier moves around a central peak.

    (18) The terminal moraine is at the base of a glacier and is formed as moraines meet at the snout or terminus of a glacier.

    (19) The ground moraine is the rocky debris extending out from the terminus of a glacier. This is formed by the scraping of earth as the glacier grew or surged and exposed as the glacier retreats.

    (20) A Nunatak is a rock projection protruding through the glacier as the glacier flows around it.

    (21) An ice mill is a hole in the glacier formed by swirling water on the surface. These can be large enough for a human to slip into.

    (22) Pressure ridges are wavelike ridges that form on glacier normally after a glacier has flowed over icefalls.

    (23) A glacier window is an opening at the snout of the glacier where water runs out of the glacier.

    b. Dangers and Obstacles. The principle dangers and obstacles to movement in glacial areas are crevasses, icefalls, and ice avalanches. Snow-covered crevasses make movement on a glacier extremely treacherous. In winter, when visibility is poor, the difficulty of recognizing them is increased. Toward the end of the summer, crevasses are widest and covered by the least snow. Crossing snow bridges constitutes the greatest potential danger in movement over glaciers in the summer. On the steep pitch of a glacier, ice flowing over irregularities and cliffs in the underlying valley floor cause the ice to break up into ice blocks and towers, criss-crossed with crevasses. This jumbled cliff of ice is known as an icefall. Icefalls present a major obstacle to safe movement of troops on glaciers.

    (1) Moving on glaciers brings about the hazard of falling into a crevasse. Although the crevasses are visible in the ablation zone in the summer (Figure 10-23), the accumulation zone will still have hidden crevasses. The risk of traveling in the accumulation zone can be managed to an acceptable level when ropes are used for connecting the team members (Figure 10-24). Crampons and an ice ax are all that is required to safely travel in the ablation zone in the summer.

    Figure 10-23. Ablation zone of glacier in summer.

    Figure 10-23. Ablation zone of glacier in summer.

    Figure 10-24. Rope teams moving in the accumulation zone of a glacier.

    Figure 10-24. Rope teams moving in the accumulation zone of a glacier.

    (2) When conditions warrant, three to four people will tie in to one rope at equal distances from each other. To locate the positions, if three people are on a team, double the rope and one ties into the middle and the other two at the ends. If four people are on a team, form a "z" with the rope and expand the "z" fully, keeping the end and the bight on each "side" of the "z" even. Tie in to the bights and the ends.

    (3) Connect to the rope with the appropriate method and attach the Prusik as required. The rope should be kept relatively tight either by Prusik belay or positioning of each person. If the team members need to assemble in one area, use the Prusik to belay each other in.

    (4) If a team member falls into a crevasse, the remaining members go into team arrest, assess the situation, and use the necessary technique to remove the person from the crevasse. The simplest and most common method for getting someone out of a crevasse is for the person to climb out while being belayed.

    (5) All items should be secured to either the climber or the rope/harness to prevent inadvertent release and loss of necessary items or equipment. Packs should be secured to the rope/harness with webbing or rope. If traveling with a sled in tow, secure it not only to a climber to pull it, but connect it to the rope with webbing or rope also.

    (6) If marking the route on the glacier is necessary for backtracking or to prevent disorientation in storms or flat-light conditions, use markers that will be noticeable against the white conditions. The first team member can place a new marker when the last team member reaches the previous marker.

    c. Roped Movement. The first rule for movement on glaciers is to rope up (Figure 10-25). A roped team of two, while ideal for rock climbing, is at a disadvantage on a snow-covered glacier. The best combination is a three-man rope team. Generally, the rope team members will move at the same time with the rope fully extended and reasonably tight between individuals, their security being the team arrest. If an individual should break through a snow bridge and fall into a crevasse, the other members immediately perform self-arrest, halting the fall. At points of obvious weakness in the snow bridges, the members may decide to belay each other across the crevasse using one of the established belay techniques.

    Figure 10-25. Preparations for roped movement.

    Figure 10-25. Preparations for roped movement.

    (1) Even with proper training in crevasse rescue techniques, the probability exists that an individual may remain suspended in a crevasse for a fairly lengthy amount of time while trying to get himself out or while awaiting help from his rope team members. Because of this, it is strongly recommended that all personnel wear a seat/chest combination harness, whether improvised or premanufactured.

    (2) Rope team members must be able to quickly remove the climbing rope from the harness(es) during a crevasse rescue. The standard practice for connecting to the rope for glacier travel is with a locking carabiner on a figure-eight loop to the harness. This allows quick detachment of the rope for rescue purposes. The appropriate standing part of the rope is then clipped to the chest harness carabiner.

    (3) If a rope team consists of only two people, the rope should be divided into thirds, as for a four-person team. The team members tie into the middle positions on the rope, leaving a third of the rope between each team member and a third on each end of the rope. The remaining "thirds" of the rope should be coiled and either carried in the rucksack, attached to the rucksack, or carried over the head and shoulder. This gives each climber an additional length of rope that can be used for crevasse rescue, should one of the men fall through and require another rope. If necessary, this excess end rope can be used to connect to another rope team for safer travel.

    Note: The self-arrest technique used by one individual will work to halt the fall of his partner on a two-man rope team; however, the chance of it failing is much greater. Crevasse rescue procedures performed by a two-man rope team, by itself, may be extremely difficult. For safety reasons, movement over a snow-covered glacier by a single two-man team should be avoided wherever possible.

    d. Use of Prusik Knots. Prusik knots are attached to the climbing rope for all glacier travel. The Prusiks are used as a self-belay technique to maintain a tight rope between individuals, to anchor the climbing rope for crevasse rescue, and for self-rescue in a crevasse fall. The Prusik slings are made from the 7-millimeter by 6-foot and 7-millimeter by 12-foot ropes. The ends of the ropes are tied together, forming endless loops or slings, with double fisherman's knots. Form the Prusik knot on the rope in front of the climber. An overhand knot can be tied into the sling just below the Prusik to keep equal tension on all the Prusik wraps. Attach this sling to the locking carabiner at the tie in point on the harness.

    Note: An ascender can replace a Prusik sling in most situations. However, the weight of an ascender hanging on the rope during movement will become annoying, and it could be stepped on during movement and or climbing.

    e. Securing the Backpack/Rucksack. If an individual should fall into a crevasse, it is essential that he be able to rid himself of his backpack. The weight of the average pack will be enough to hinder the climber during crevasse rescue, or possibly force him into an upside down position while suspended in the crevasse. Before movement, the pack should be attached to the climbing rope with a sling rope or webbing and a carabiner. A fallen climber can immediately drop the pack without losing it. The drop cord length should be minimal to allow the fallen individual to reach the pack after releasing it, if warm clothing is needed. When hanging from the drop cord, the pack should be oriented just as when wearing it (ensure the cord pulls from the top of the pack).

    f. Routes. An individual operating in the mountains must appreciate certain limitations in glacier movement imposed by nature.

    (1) Additional obstacles in getting onto a glacier may be swift glacier streams, steep terminal or lateral moraines, and difficult mountain terrain bordering the glacier ice. The same obstacles may also have to be overcome in getting on and off a valley glacier at any place along its course.

    (2) Further considerations to movement on a glacier are steep sections, heavily crevassed portions, and icefalls, which may be major obstacles to progress. The use of current aerial photographs in conjunction with aerial reconnaissance is a valuable means of gathering advance information about a particular glacier. However, they only supplement, and do not take the place of, on-the-ground reconnaissance conducted from available vantage points.

    g. Crossing Crevasses. Open crevasses are obvious, and their presence is an inconvenience rather than a danger to movement. Narrow cracks can be jumped, provided the take off and landing spots are firm and offer good footing. Wider cracks will have to be circumvented unless a solid piece of ice joins into an ice bridge strong enough to support at least the weight of one member of the team. Such ice bridges are often formed in the lower portion of a crevasse, connecting both sides of it.

    (1) In the area of the firn line, the zone that divides seasonal melting from permanent falls of snow, large crevasses remain open, though their depths may be clogged with masses of snow. Narrow cracks may be covered. In this zone, the snow, which covers glacier ice, melts more rapidly than that which covers crevasses. The difference between glacier ice and narrow snow-covered cracks is immediately apparent; the covering snow is white, whereas the glacier ice is gray.

    (2) Usually the upper part of a glacier is permanently snow covered. The snow surface here will vary in consistency from dry powder to consolidated snow. Below this surface cover are found other snow layers that become more crystalline in texture with depth, and gradually turn into glacier ice. It is in this snow-covered upper part of a glacier that crevasses are most difficult to detect, for even wide crevasses may be completely concealed by snow bridges.

    h. Snow Bridges. Snow bridges are formed by windblown snow that builds a cornice over the empty interior of the crevasse. As the cornice grows from the windward side, a counter drift is formed on the leeward side. The growth of the leeward portion will be slower than that to the windward so that the juncture of the cornices occurs over the middle of the crevasse only when the contributing winds blow equally from each side. Bridges can also be formed without wind, especially during heavy falls of dry snow. Since cohesion of dry snow depends only on an interlocking of the branches of delicate crystals, such bridges are particularly dangerous during the winter. When warmer weather prevails the snow becomes settled and more compacted, and may form firmer bridges.

    (1) Once a crevasse has been completely bridged, its detection is difficult. Bridges are generally slightly concave because of the settling of the snow. This concavity is perceptible in sunshine, but difficult to detect in flat light. If the presence of hidden crevasses is suspected, the leader of a roped team must probe the snow in front of him with the shaft of his ice ax. As long as a firm foundation is encountered, the team may proceed, but should the shaft meet no opposition from an underlying layer of snow, a crevasse is probably present. In such a situation, the prober should probe closer to his position to make sure that he is not standing on the bridge itself. If he is, he should retreat gently from the bridge and determine the width and direction of the crevasse. He should then follow and probe the margin until a more resistant portion of the bridge is reached. When moving parallel to a crevasse, all members of the team should keep well back from the edge and follow parallel but offset courses.

    (2) A crevasse should be crossed at right angles to its length. When crossing a bridge that seems sufficiently strong enough to hold a member of the team, the team will generally move at the same time on a tight rope, with each individual prepared to go into self-arrest. If the stability of the snow bridge is under question, they should proceed as follows for a team of three glacier travelers:

    (a) The leader and second take up a position at least 10 feet back from the edge. The third goes into a self-belay behind the second and remains on a tight rope.

    (b) The second belays the leader across using one of the established belay techniques. The boot-ax belay should be used only if the snow is deep enough for the ax to be inserted up to the head and firm enough to support the possible load. A quick ice ax anchor should be placed for the other belays. Deadman or equalizing anchors should be used when necessary.

    (c) The leader should move forward, carefully probing the snow and evaluating the strength of the bridge, until he reaches firm snow on the far side of the crevasse. He then continues as far across as possible so number two will have room to get across without number one having to move.

    (d) The third assumes the middle person's belay position. The middle can be belayed across by both the first and last. Once the second is across, he assumes the belay position. Number one moves out on a tight rope and anchors in to a self-belay. Number two belays number three across.

    (3) In crossing crevasses, distribute the weight over as wide an area as possible. Do not stamp the snow. Many fragile bridges can be crossed by lying down and crawling to the other side. Skis or snowshoes help distribute the weight nicely.

    i. Arresting and Securing a Fallen Climber. The simplest and most common method for getting someone out of a crevasse is for the person to climb out while being belayed. Most crevasse falls will be no more than body height into the opening if the rope is kept snug between each person.

    (1) To provide a quick means of holding an unexpected breakthrough, the rope is always kept taut. When the leader unexpectedly breaks through, the second and third immediately go into a self-arrest position to arrest the fall. A fall through a snow bridge results either in the person becoming jammed in the surface hole, or in being suspended in the crevasse by the rope. If the leader has fallen only partially through the snow bridge, he is supported by the snow forming the bridge and should not thrash about as this will only enlarge the hole and result in deeper suspension. All movements should be slow and aimed at rolling out of the hole and distributing the weight over the remainder of the bridge. The rope should remain tight at all times and the team arrest positions adjusted to do so. It generally is safer to retain the rucksack, as its bulk often prevents a deeper fall. Should a team member other than the leader experience a partial fall, the rescue procedure will be same as for the leader, only complicated slightly by the position on the rope.

    (2) When the person falls into a crevasse, the length of the fall depends upon how quickly the fall is arrested and where in the bridge the break takes place. If the fall occurs close to the near edge of the crevasse, it usually can be checked before the climber has fallen more than 6 feet. However, if the person was almost across, the fall will cause the rope to cut through the bridge, and then even an instantaneous check by the other members will not prevent a deeper fall. The following scenario is an example of the sequence of events that take place after a fall by the leader in a three-person team. (This scenario is for a team of three, each person referred to by position; the leader is number 1.)

    (a) Once the fall has been halted by the team arrest, the entire load must be placed on number 2 to allow number 3 to move forward and anchor the rope. Number 3 slowly releases his portion of the load onto number 2, always being prepared to go back into self-arrest should number 2's position begin to fail.

    (b) Once number 2 is confident that he can hold the load, number 3 will proceed to number 2's position, using the Prusik as a self belay, to anchor the rope. In this way the rope remains reasonably tight between number 2 and number 3. Number 3 must always be prepared to go back into self-arrest should number 2's position begin to fail.

    (c) When number 3 reaches number 2's position he will establish a bombproof anchor 3 to 10 feet in front of number 2 (on the load side), depending on how close number 2 is to the lip of the crevasse. This could be either a deadman or a two-point equalized anchor, as a minimum.

    (d) Number 3 connects the rope to the anchor by tying a Prusik with his long Prusik sling onto the rope leading to number 1. An overhand knot should be tied into the long Prusik sling to shorten the distance to the anchor, and attached to the anchor with a carabiner. The Prusik knot is adjusted toward the load.

    (e) Number 2 can then release the load of number 1 onto the anchor. Number 2 remains connected to the anchor and monitors the anchor.

    (f) A fixed loop can be tied into the slack part of the rope, close to number 2, and attached to the anchor (to back up the Prusik knot).

    (g) Number 3 remains tied in, but continues forward using a short Prusik as a self-belay. He must now quickly check on the condition of number 1 and decide which rescue technique will be required to retrieve him.

    (3) These preliminary procedures must be performed before retrieving the fallen climber. If number 3 should fall through a crevasse, the procedure is the same except that number 1 assumes the role of number 3. Normally, if the middle person should fall through, number 1 would anchor the rope by himself. Number 3 would place the load on number 1's anchor, then anchor his rope and move forward with a Prusik self-belay to determine the condition of number 2.

    j. Crevasse Rescue Techniques. Snow bridges are usually strongest at the edge of the crevasse, and a fall is most likely to occur some distance away from the edge. In some situations, a crevasse fall will occur at the edge of the snow bridge, on the edge of the ice. If a fall occurs away from the edge, the rope usually cuts deeply into the snow, thus greatly increasing friction for those pulling from above. In order to reduce friction, place padding, such as an ice ax, ski, ski pole, or backpack/rucksack, under the rope and at right angles to the stress. Push the padding forward as far as possible toward the edge of the crevasse, thus relieving the strain on the snow. Ensure the padding is anchored from falling into the crevasse for safety of the fallen climber.

    (1) Use of Additional Rope Teams. Another rope team can move forward and assist in pulling the victim out of a crevasse. The assisting rope team should move to a point between the fallen climber and the remaining rope team members. The assisting team can attach to the arresting team's rope with a Prusik or ascender and both rope teams' members can all pull simultaneously. If necessary, a belay can be initiated by the fallen climber's team while the assisting team pulls. The arresting team member closest to the fallen climber should attach the long Prusik to themselves and the rope leading to the fallen climber, and the assisting team can attach their Prusik or ascender between this long Prusik and the arresting team member. As the assisting team pulls, the Prusik belay will be managed by the arresting team member at the long Prusik.

    Note: Safety in numbers is obvious for efficient crevasse rescue techniques. Additional rope teams have the necessary equipment to improve the main anchor or establish new ones and the strength to pull a person out even if he is deep in the crevasse. Strength of other rope teams should always be used before establishing more time-consuming and elaborate rescue techniques.

    (2) Fixed Rope. If the fallen climber is not injured, he may be able to climb out on a fixed rope. Number 1 clips number 3's rope to himself. He then climbs out using number 3's rope as a simple fixed line while number 2 takes up the slack in number 1's rope through the anchor Prusik for a belay.

    (3) Prusik Ascending Technique. There may be times when the remaining members of a rope team can render little assistance to the person in the crevasse. If poor snow conditions make it impossible to construct a strong anchor, the rope team members on top may have to remain in self-arrest. Other times, it may just be easier for the fallen climber to perform a self-rescue. (Figure 10-26 shows the proper rope configuration.) The technique is performed as follows:

    (a) The fallen climber removes his pack and lets it hang below from the drop cord.

    (b) The individual slides their short Prusik up the climbing rope as far as possible.

    (c) The long Prusik is attached to the rope just below the short Prusik. The double fisherman's knot is spread apart to create a loop large enough for one or both feet. The fallen climber inserts his foot/feet into the loop formed allowing the knot to cinch itself down.

    (d) The individual stands in the foot loop, or "stirrup," of the long sling.

    (e) With his weight removed from the short Prusik, it is slid up the rope as far as it will go. The individual then hangs from the short Prusik while he moves the long Prusik up underneath the short Prusik again.

    (f) The procedure is repeated, alternately moving the Prusiks up the rope, to ascend the rope. Once the crevasse lip is reached, the individual can simply grasp the rope and pull himself over the edge and out of the hole.

    (g) Besides being one of the simplest rope ascending techniques, the short Prusik acts as a self-belay and allows the climber to take as long a rest as he wants when sitting in the harness. The rope should be detached from the chest harness carabiner to make the movements less cumbersome. However, it is sometimes desirable to keep the chest harness connected to the rope for additional support. In this case the Prusik knots must be "on top" of the chest harness carabiner so they can be easily slid up the rope without interference from the carabiner. The long Prusik sling can be routed through the chest harness carabiner for additional support when standing up in the stirrup.

    Figure 10-26. Prusik ascending technique.

    Figure 10-26. Prusik ascending technique.

    (4) Z-Pulley Hauling System. If a fallen climber is injured or unconscious, he will not be able to offer any assistance in the rescue. If additional rope teams are not immediately available, a simple raising system can be rigged to haul the victim out of the crevasse. The Z-pulley hauling system is one of the simplest methods and the one most commonly used in crevasse rescue (Figure 10-27). The basic Z rig is a "3-to-1" system, providing mechanical advantage to reduce the workload on the individuals operating the haul line. In theory, it would only take about 33 pounds of pull on the haul rope to raise a 100-pound load with this system. In actual field use, some of this mechanical advantage is lost to friction as the rope bends sharply around carabiners and over the crevasse lip. The use of mechanical rescue pulleys can help reduce this friction in the system. The following describes rigging of the system. (This scenario is for a team of three, each person referred to by position; the leader is number 1.)

    (a) After the rope team members have arrested and secured number 1 to the anchor, and they have decided to install the Z rig, number 2 will attach himself to the anchor without using the rope and clear the connecting knot used. Number 3 remains connected to the rope.

    (b) The slack rope exiting the anchor Prusik is clipped into a separate carabiner attached to the anchor. A pulley can be used here if available.

    (c) Number 3 will use number 2's short Prusik to rig the haul Prusik. He moves toward the crevasse lip (still on his own self-belay) and ties number 2's short Prusik onto number 1's rope (load rope) as close to the edge as possible.

    (d) Another carabiner (and pulley if available) is clipped into the loop of the haul Prusik and the rope between number 3's belay Prusik and the anchor is clipped (or attached through the pulley). Number 3's rope becomes the haul rope.

    (e) Number 3 then moves towards the anchor and number 2. Number 2 could help pull if necessary but first would connect to the haul rope with a Prusik just as number 3. If the haul Prusik reaches the anchor before the victim reaches the top, the load is simply placed back on the anchor Prusik and number 3 moves the haul Prusik back toward the edge. The system is now ready for another haul.


    The force applied to the fallen climber through use of the Z-pulley system can be enough to destroy the harness-to-rope connection or injure the fallen climber if excess force is applied to the pulling rope.


  • The Z-pulley adds more load on the anchor due to the mechanical advantage. The anchor should be monitored for the duration of the rescue.
  • With the "3-to-1" system, the load (fallen climber) will be raised 1 foot for every 3 feet of rope taken up during the haul.
  • Figure 10-27. Z-pulley hauling system.

    Figure 10-27. Z-pulley hauling system.

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