The dos and don’t of skiing glaciers

Travelling across a glacier is as thrilling as skiing gets, but it can also go incredibly wrong. Here’s how to minimise risks on the glacier

We’ve all been (or seen images of) skiers hooning through impressive seracs and hopping over jaw-dropping bergschrunds that could swallow buses. It’s as thrilling as skiing gets. Yet we’ve donned our harnesses and carried our ropes hoping to hell we never have to rely on them. Because when it goes wrong, it goes incredibly wrong incredibly quickly. So to help us find our way through the fuzzy logic of skiing glaciated terrain, here are some mistakes to learn from, and some tips to help minimise the risks and maximise the gains in glacial pow.

“MILLIMETRES FROM CERTAIN DEMISE”

It was still dark when Mike and I woke in the guide’s hut between Cervinia and Zermatt. We were fit, keen, and psyched to be combining two awesome objectives: an ascent of Pollux and a ski down the Schwarztor glacier. Unfortunately, I had neglected to inform the weather gods of our requirements. Skinning into the windy, misty dawn, it was clear this could get epic. But no-one ever climbed a mountain by staying in bed, so we pressed on…

As we entered the clouds, and I found myself on the back of a compass bearing, I thought ‘This is all getting a bit nuts’. Unable to see the ground, let alone any complex crevasses that lay ahead, my sphincter was puckering hard enough to sharpen a pencil. We decided to call it quits and head back to the piste.

Mind the gap: when it goes wrong on glaciated terrain, it goes incredibly wrong incredibly quickly

Mind the gap: when it goes wrong on glaciated terrain, it goes incredibly wrong incredibly quickly

Our plan B was to drop out of the clouds and find the entrance to the Theodul glacier. This glacial run, under the lines of the Klein Matterhorn lift, is a personal favourite. Where else can you ski such a wild glacier so close to a resort? Unfortunately, the obvious line proved elusive in the mist. A quick lap of the piste, and a single lift back up, confirmed our hunch: we would soon drop out of the cloud, a straightforward line through the slots was obvious, and there weren’t even any tracks. Triple winner!

The only unknown was the crucial entry, still swathed in mist. Having been here numerous times before, I knew where to duck under the ropes, and yet the ground rolled off in all directions. With Mike a suitable distance behind, I halted with that sick, pit of your stomach feeling that all was not well. The horrible convex bulge of glacier made me inexplicably nervous as hell. Turning to pole back up to Mike, my ski tips cut the last scrap of delicate snow bridge. In front of me, the void revealed the true horror. I’d stopped on the brink of an enormous crevasse, just millimetres from certain demise. It’s safe to say no-one has poled backwards, uphill, at c.4000m, faster than I did that day. Thankfully the cloud cleared to expose the true route, and a joyous descent was ours.

Major learning points? When you get jumpy about the situation, scratch that itch! Don’t rely on old memories when skiing through new crevasses, as things may well have changed dramatically. Don’t hesitate to head for non-glaciated areas in poor conditions either.

But this doesn’t only happen in poor weather, and local knowledge doesn’t make you immune. In fact, the Theodul glacier has changed immeasurably in the past few seasons, and even the locals were coming unstuck finding a route through this particular line of slots. Ralph Pickford came to ski with me in
Val Maira last winter, keen to explore the non-glaciated valley and recover his mojo. The previous season, Ralph had taken the very lob I had narrowly avoided – with a local guide and in perfect conditions. Here, Ralph tells his story…

“FALLING INTO DARKNESS”

“It was our warm-up ahead of a three-day ski tour in the Swiss Alps. The conditions were perfect: sunshine, little wind, and slopes still fresh with powder. A few turns in front of me, the guide had shouted for us to stop. He had seen an undulation in the snow that he didn’t like. But I was too close: as I came to a halt,
I broke through the thin layer of snow and fell headlong into the crevasse lurking beneath. It happened so fast. One moment I was gliding down the untracked slopes; the next, I was falling through the air into darkness.”

Ralph bounced off the icy walls before wedging tight in a sudden stop, as the crevasse narrowed. His helmet and rucksack jammed so tightly he could barely breathe, let alone extract himself. Thankfully, he could move an arm enough to clear his face of snow, peering up at his guide some 14 metres above.

Glacier kit? Check…

Glacier kit? Check…

The helicopter arrived and the team quickly lowered a rescuer into the slot. Thankfully he was able to get close enough to clip Ralph’s harness and secure him, before cutting his pack and helmet free – and so the delicate winching began. By the time Ralph arrived in the sunshine, 80 minutes later, he was soaking wet and dangerously cold. Remarkably, after a quick transfer to hospital, Ralph got away with relatively minor soft tissue injuries – and a healthy respect of glaciers.

Major learning points? Respect every glacier and give each other plenty of space when finding a route. Not only does this sort of thing happen to the locals, it happens in perfect visibility. Worse still, it happens regularly on some of the most classic and well-frequented glacier runs of the Alps. Here, Lew Hardy tells us how a perfect day in the paradise of the Vallée Blanche can become hell in an instant…

“I WASN’T GOING TO GO EASILY”

On 21 March, after a dry winter and a couple of recent dumps of snow, the Vallée Blanche was open at last. Giving the fresh snow another day to settle, Lew and his ski buddy Gandhi headed over for the Combe de la Vierge, a lesser-known variation of the VB. Lew later questioned the lack of tracks on the way in, but they had a great ski. They dodged a couple of slots, before Lew got “a bit excited” and made a few turns too many. By going too low, Lew had dropped below the traverse line, and side-stepping back up was not appealing in all that fresh snow.

A retired guide, Lew wonders if his younger self would have listened to the doubts, and stepped back up. Instead
they pressed on. Skiing through a faint bowl, Lew had spotted the huge slot way out to the side, but tracing the line across the slope there was no sign of any weakness, or any evidence of a crevasse on the surface at all. He dropped in and, as he ran out of momentum, shuffled the last few feet. WHOOMPH. The snow bridge collapsed.

The 20-metre lob took forever. Lew cursed his new pin bindings for turning him upside down. He recalls the pain in his knee joint as he twisted into the inevitable acceleration. Sliding into the void head first, he starting to fight. “I wasn’t going to go easily,” he recalls, explaining how he fought to right himself, fending the sides of the crevasse with his arms.

Glacial pow calls for respect. And lots of it

Glacial pow calls for respect. And lots of it

Lew was horizontal by the time he slammed into the floor of ice. “If I had just fallen, I would have been dead,” he says.
Like hitting concrete from 20 metres, as Lew came to he realised he was badly hurt and in big trouble. Battered and bleeding,
he called up to Gandhi to call the rescue.

Despite the perfect conditions, it took over two hours to get to Lew. The rescue guide sorted him out, dressed his wounds as well as his freezing body, and put his crampons on his feet. But mostly Lew remembers the urgency. He recalls the change
in tone as his guide urged him to focus: “Come on now Lew – he thinks you’re going to die.”

Lew’s core temperature was so low that when he was finally lifted out of the hole he passed out with relief. In all, it took four hours from falling into the crevasse to reaching the hospital, as if the traumatic injuries of impact weren’t enough.

Major learning points? A consistent message through all these stories is that we must always listen to those doubts
– even if it does involve extra work and time. Otherwise we simply reinforce our experience that pushing on always works out: until the day it doesn’t!

Should we carry more clothing? If it’s in your pack, it is not on your body when you dob in, so there is a limit. Usual best practice – good gloves, enough clothes to see you comfortably down the arête; and a spare layer are adequate, plus crampons, and Lew wouldn’t take more, even now.

DOS & DON’TS OF GLACIal skiing

Don’t blindly follow other people’s tracks. Everyone who ever skied straight into a crevasse left a fantastic set of tracks.

Do use a rope, but only to get out of trouble. This only works if you put the rope on sooner rather than later.

Do choose your team carefully – a well-rehearsed team can find the way through complex crevasses; the rest ski in your tracks.

Do be properly equipped and prepared for the worst. Make sure your harness is outside your clothes and always accessible. Have the right kit, and know how to use it.

Do practice every scenario and detail of crevasse rescue: how are you gonna clip your skis and poles? What are you going to do with your pack? Spinning around above the mother void is no place to be working this out!

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