Roped Climbing: Team Protection

By Don Graydon.

If your party decides it would be safer overall to rope up, there are several different ways to match the type of rope protection to the conditions of the climb and the strengths of the climbers.
1. Team Arrest (Roped but Unbelayed):Depends on each climber to stop a personal fall and on the rest of the rope team to provide backup in case the attempt fails. Everyone involved uses self-belay or self-arrest. Relying on team arrest as the ultimate team security makes sense only in selected situations, such as on a low- or moderate-angle glacier or on a moderate snow slope where a less skilled climber could be saved from a dangerous slide by the more proficient members of the rope team.

Increase the odds that team arrest will work on a snow slope by trying the following procedures:

  • Carry a few feet of rope coiled in your hand if there are any climbers below you. If a climber falls, drop the loose rope and it will give you an extra instant to get the ax into self-belay position and to brace yourself.
  • Put the weakest climber on the downhill end of the rope.
  • Climb on a shortened rope. This technique is most applicable to a 2-person rope team. You will reduce the sliding distance and the tug from the fall if one partner falls while above the other.
  • Climb in separate parallel tracks. This is also most applicable to a 2-person rope team. The climbers will be abreast of each other, separated by the rope. A falling climber will pendulum down, putting force on the rope to the side of and below the partner. The tug on the rope will be less than if the climber fell from high above. Also, the friction of the rope as it pendulums across the snow will absorb some of the force.
2. Running Belays: Roped climbers can move together on snow with the help of running belays. Saves time over regular belayed climbing but still allows for protection to be placed to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fall. Offers a middle level of protection, somewhere between team arrest and fixed belays. It can help in situations where a successful team arrest is improbable but where fixed belays aren't practical because they would take too much time.
  • To place running belays, the leader puts in pieces of snow protection as needed and uses a carabiner to clip the rope into each one.
  • The climbers continue to make good progress because all members of the rope team climb at the same time, just as in unbelayed travel, except that now there's protection in the snow that, if securely placed, will be likely to stop a fall.
  • Traveling this way, the last climber on the rope removes each piece.

3. Fixed Belays: The ultimate in safety comes from having climbers belay each other up snow pitches, in the same manner as in rock climbing. The catch is that this procedure may be so time-consuming it becomes impractical on the snow faces of major alpine routes. However, there is a wide variety of snow belays, varying in security and in the amount of time they take to set up.

4. Combination Protection Techniques: The reality of most serious snow climbs is that success calls for a combination of protection techniques. It's not likely a party will take on an entire climb unroped. It's just as unlikely that the party will use fixed belays all the way.

In deciding when to rope up, a climbing team is actually asking itself a series of questions. The team always ropes up on glaciers, but on snow or mixed terrain the team asks the following:

  1. Is each member of the party able to use self-belay or self-arrest to save himself or herself in case of a fall? If the answer is yes, the party can continue unroped. If the answer is no, the team asks question 2.
  2. Can we stop all falls by roping up and depending on team arrest? If so, rope up and continue climbing, unbelayed. If not, then ask question 3.
  3. Is it feasible to use some form of belay (a running belay or a fixed belay), and will this belay provide adequate protection? If so, begin belaying. If it's not feasible, because of poor terrain or lack of time, then the party must ask itself question 4.
  4. Shall we turn around, or shall we proceed unroped and assume the risks?
Long snow routes often demand fast travel to reach the summit. Therefore, these routes are often climbed with a combination of roped and unroped travel and mostly unbelayed. Belays of some kind are typically used on steeper, harder snow or when climbers are tired or hurt. Most of the reliance is on team arrest or running protection, though some sections may lend themselves to unroped travel. The option of turning around is always worth considering. If things aren't going well, select a new route, another destination, or just head home.

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