Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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Guiding Newsletter

"Safety Soapbox" Archive - September 1997


Self arrest, Glacier Travel

The first safety comment has to do with snow conditions and self-arrest. When you need to self arrest it needs to be automatic, so Practice! On different slopes and in different conditions. If you are climbing and can go out a day early to set up a camp by a snowfield or glacier you can use the afternoon to practice. Or get together with some friends who climb and go on a practice session trip. When we go out to climb we rarely spend time practicing skills. (This applies to skiing and practicing avalanche beacon searches as well.) Be sure to consider the safety of your practice area. Evaluate the runout area, and beware that snow conditions can vary widely and change quickly with exposure to sun. Once the sun is off the practice slope it can become firm or even icy very quickly, requiring more of a safe runout zone. I personally know of one recent accident which resulted from not taking this into account.

The second safety message is about glacier travel. There is a write up in "Accidents in North American Mountaineering" of a crevasse fall in Alaska which is very instructive. There were only two people in the rope team. It's amazing we don't see more reports from two-person rope teams - perhaps there are a lot of lucky people out there! Be aware that a team of two on a glacier faces the potential for some serious problems. In this case there was a weight difference of 80 lb. and the guide could not hold the crevasse fall of his client. The client (who survived) landed at the bottom in water. Next the guide was unable to extract the victim, due to insufficient gear and/or knowledge. There are good reasons at times for teams of two. However, some advanced practice and/or training are in order. The person on the surface will need to place anchors while holding the weight of the partner on the rope. Then they will need to escape the belay, putting the weight onto the anchors. Finally, if extraction is required (i.e. the victim cannot climb out on the rope) it is likely to require an advanced system with higher mechanical advantage. If you are inclined to travel with only one partner on a glacier make sure that you learn and practice these skills. Take a course to learn the most current techniques and have a safe environment to practice in. Also be sure to carry enough hardware. Don't underestimate the additional risk involved - be prepared for it.

[ This glacier incident also raises the question of why Denali National Park issues permits to businesses based on business criteria and not to guides based on their qualifications, and through this process actively prohibits IFMGA guides from the mountain. They recently arrested, jailed and deported a fully certified IFMGA guide from Europe who was accompanying climbers from his country. Such guides are far less likely to have the kind of problem described above. And if they come across such a problem they can often help resolve it. Instead, the NPS seems to accept the need to send out a helicopter to hoist clients of their preferred businesses out of crevasses. ]


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