Fundamentals: Using the Rope

By Don Graydon.

The first rule of safe glacier travel is very simple: rope up. Roping up is especially critical in areas above the firn line, where the glacier gets more snow every year than it loses to melting, making it likely that snow covers some crevasses.

Rope Teams.
  • On glaciers with no technical climbing, rope teams of 3 climbers each are ideal; two people are available to arrest a ropemate's fall into a crevasse.
  • Minimum party size of 2 rope teams is recommended so that a team involved in an accident will have backup help.
  • On technical glacier terrain (with slopes steeper than 40 degrees or severe crevassing), belaying may be necessary, making it more efficient to travel with 2-person rope teams. Have a second rope team as rescue backup.
Tying In.

General glacier tie-in procedures:
Tie the rope directly into the tie-in loops on your seat harness-rather than simply clipping a figure-8 loop into a locking carabiner at the harness.

  1. 3-person rope: Standard size for a rope team on a nontechnical glacier.
    • 2 of the climbers tie in at the very ends of the rope.
    • Middle climber ties into the very center of the rope.
    • Clip the small loop that remains at the end of the bowline, with a locking carabiner, to the harness to ensure the knot can't come loose.
  2. 4-person rope: Divide the rope into thirds. Two climbers tie in at the ends, while the other two tie in at the one-third points.
  3. 2-person rope: Use only a portion of the rope stretched between the climbers (a full rope length can result in too much slack).
Chest Harness and Prusik Slings.
  1. Chest harness: Put your chest harness on before heading out onto the glacier.
    • Some climbers then clip the rope through the carabiner on the chest harness, leaving it clipped in at all times. The harness will automatically help them stay upright in case of a fall.
    • Others wait until after a fall to clip into the chest harness, on grounds that the chest-harness attachment could hamper the self-arrest position they must assume to help stop a ropemate's fall.
    • Compromise: Clip the climbing rope into your chest harness anytime you cross a snow bridge or otherwise face obvious immediate danger of a crevasse fall; otherwise, travel with the rope unclipped.
  2. Prusik slings:
    • The usual practice is to attach your slings to the climbing rope just as soon as you have roped up to begin glacier travel. They are ready for immediate use in an emergency. Stuff the ends of both slings into your pockets, ready to be pulled out and slipped onto your feet when needed.
    • If you're a middle person, attach one prusik to the section of rope that goes to the climber in front of you and the other prusik to the section that goes to the climber behind you.
    • If you are using mechanical ascenders, do not attach them to the rope until after a crevasse fall.
Rope Management.
  1. Keep the rope extended-not taut, but without undue slack.
    • Rope leader sets a pace the others can follow for a long time. Second and third climbers try to closely match the pace of the leader so the rope stays extended.
    • At sharp turns, throughout the turn, adjust your pace to keep out the slack.
    • Travel with a small loop of rope (6 to 12 inches across) held in your downhill hand, to keep the right amount of tension in the rope.
  2. Run the rope at right angles to a crevasse whenever possible.

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