Roped Climbing: Belaying On Snow

By Don Graydon.

Snow climbers choose from a range of techniques that provide belay protection to their ropemates. They sometimes give belays using established snow anchors, and sometimes they give quicker and less formal belays using the ice ax. No matter what the belaying technique, every snow belay should be as dynamic as possible to help limit the force on the anchor.
Quick Belays: The Boot-Ax Belay.

The Boot-Ax Belay (also called the New Zealand foot brake) is a fast and easy way to provide protection as a rope team moves up together. Its principal limitation is that it can't be expected to hold a high fall force.

  1. Stamp a firm platform in the snow, big enough for the ax and uphill boot.
  2. Jam the ice-ax shaft as deeply as possible into the snow at the rear of the platform, the shaft tilted slightly uphill against a possible fall. Have the pick perpendicular to the fall line, thus applying the broadest side of the shaft against the force of a fall.
  3. Stand below the ax, at approximately a right angle to the fall line and facing the side on which the climber's route lies.
  4. Plant your uphill boot into the snow against the downhill side of the shaft, bracing it against a downward pull.
  5. Plant the downhill boot in a firmly compacted step far enough below the other boot so that the downhill leg is straight, providing a stiff brace.
  6. Flip the rope around the ax. The final configuration will have the rope running from the direction of potential load, across the toe of the uphill boot, around the uphill side of the ax, and then back across the boot above the instep.
  7. Hold the rope with the downhill (braking) hand, applying extra friction by bringing the rope uphill behind the heel, forming an S bend. The braking hand must never leave the rope.
  8. Use the uphill hand for 2 jobs: to grasp the head of the ax to further brace the shaft and then, as the belayed climber moves upward, to take in rope.
Quick Belays: Carabiner/Ice-Ax Belay.

Carabiner/Ice-Ax Belay (also called the stomper belay): provides the same level of security as a boot-ax belay, with easier rope handling. One nice thing about the carabiner/ice-ax belay is that the force of a fall pulls the belayer more firmly into the stance.

  1. Plant the ax as deeply as possible, the pick perpendicular to the fall line.
  2. Attach a very short sling with a girth hitch to the ax shaft at snowline and clip on a carabiner.
  3. Stand at right angles to the fall line, facing the same side as the climber's route.
  4. Brace the ax with your uphill boot, standing atop the sling but leaving the carabiner exposed. (Keep crampons off the sling.) The rope runs from the potential direction of pull up through the carabiner and then around the back of your waist and into your uphill (braking) hand.
Anchored Belays.
  1. The Sitting Hip Belay: with an anchor, it is inherently dynamic and very secure on hard snow or deep, heavy, wet snow. The sitting belayer may face the prospect of a cold, wet assignment, and the belay can be difficult to work if the rope is frozen.
    • To set up the belay, stamp or chop a seat in the snow plus a platform to brace each boot against.
    • Put down a pack, ensolite pad, or other material as insulation from the snow, and then settle into a standard hip belay, with outstretched, stiffened legs.
  2. The Standing Hip Belay: easier to set up than a sitting hip belay, it needs only deep, secure slots for each boot. However, it is far less secure because the belayer tends to be toppled under the force of a fall. Standing hip belays must be backed up with an anchor.
    • For the most reliable standing hip belay, stand sideways, facing the same side as the climber's route. The downhill leg is straight, locked at the knee, and braced in a snow slot. The uphill leg is on a line with the downhill leg and the direction of a potential fall. The downhill hand should be the braking hand to allow best control for a gradual dynamic belay.
Mechanical belay devices can be used in snow belaying. They are easy to set up and operate even with wet or icy ropes. With a device, you can belay directly from the anchor rather than from your seat harness, permitting you to get into a drier, more comfortable position. Be aware that belay devices provide a less dynamic belay than a hip belay, increasing the peak force of a fall on questionable snow anchors.

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