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How To Cross A Glacier

How to cross a glacier. Traveling techniques, recommended readings and suggestions, and a proper way to build the skills need to master the process!

By Lace Thornberg.

My turning point with glaciers came on a hike up Sahale Arm. Before that hike, I’d admired glaciers as shimmering sheets of ice from afar. On that hike, I got my first up-close view of a glacier and my first taste of being denied by a glacier.

Earlier that afternoon, at Cascade Pass, I’d run into a fellow WTA member. We’d chatted for a minute, but she soon took off. When I caught up with her again at the edge of the Sahale Glacier, she had transformed into a mountaineer, ice axe at the ready. She tied into a colorful rope and strode away again. Standing before this beautiful field of ice, I knew that I couldn’t safely go any farther and I couldn’t stand it. Hiking out, I resolved to change this.

>Blue Glacier by Meghan Young.jpg
A climbing team ascends Blue Glacier on their quest to reach Mount Olympus. Photo by Meghan Young.

Typical novice, I figured that I just needed to pick up the right gear, and, maybe, learn how to use it. I soon realized how much more there was to glacier travel than I had ever imagined. From understanding the physics of friction and force, to the science of how glaciers form and move, to the psychology of mental preparation, glacier travel requires a lot more than hard skills and physical strength.

Traveling on a Glacier

If you’ve never traveled on a glacier before, you have three options: go with friends who have glacier experience; take a class to build your own skills, or hire a mountain guide. If you’d like to be climbing mountains with glaciers regularly, taking classes is the only way to go. The Washington Alpine Club and The Mountaineers both offer Basic Climbing course with classes and field trips spanning several months. Many commercial outfits also offer classes, typically over a shorter time period. 

Read up

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, first published by The Mountaineers Books in 1960, covers glacier travel techniques and much more. This “climbing bible” is a great place to start learning the all the terms, from bergschrund to z-pulley, that you will encounter in your preparation. Falcon Guides’ Glaciers! The Art of Travel and the Science of Rescue also provides a good overview of how to safely travel on glaciers. It features hundreds of helpful diagrams, drawn by none other than WTA’s own Ryan Ojerio. Studying these diagrams will help you to visualize the concepts that your teachers will be trying to explain to you. 

Build your skills one at a time

  • You don’t go from hiking Mount Si to negotiating the Nisqually Ice Cliff in a weekend. 
  • It wouldn’t be safe and, unless you are some kind of fearless, adrenaline junkie, it’d be mentally terrifying as well.

Glacier travel calls for a level head and confidence and the best way to build your confidence is to take it one step at a time. Setting up a running belay is a multi-step process, but, like many glacier travel techniques, it’s really just a series of the same basic steps repeated in various formulations. Building anchors requires a fair bit of know-how, but you can break the process down into smaller steps.

Start by learning all the key knots and you’ll be off to a great start. You may even know some from other physical pursuits, like how to tie a figure-eight from rock climbing or a bowline from sailing. From basic knots, it’s just a hop skip to rope management.

You also need to get comfortable on ice and snow. The South Spur route up Mount Adams is a long snowfield (not a glacier). It’s a great place to practice travelling with an ice ax and wearing crampons without fear of falling into crevasse, or crack in the ice. It’s also a great place to test your reaction to being at altitude.

Sunrise from Ingraham Glacier by Kelsey Gurnett.jpg
Watching sunset from the Ingraham Glacier overlooking Little Tahoma. Photo by Kelsey Gurnett.

Act out scenarios on snowfields

If your rope mate slips or falls into a crevasse, you don’t have time to pull out a rescue manual and follow it step-by-step. When lives are on the line, you have to act instinctively.

The only way to do this is to go through the motions ahead of time in a safer setting. Working with fellow aspiring glacier travelers, you can simulate falling into a crevasse and getting out of it. The more authentic your simulations are, the more prepared you will be in the event that trouble arises.  

Choose your partners carefully

Travel on glaciers alone isn’t really recommended and your life depends on the people on your team. These two factors make choosing the right partners a crucial step in glacier travel.

Look for partners who are compatible both physically and emotionally. Your best friend or even your spouse or partner will not necessarily be a good rope mate for you. When putting together a rope team, aim to find individuals who are fairly evenly matched in terms of size and pace, but, as far as skills and experience go, try to avoid putting together an entire team of novices. Look to compensate for any deficiencies in one person with the strengths of another person.

Ultimately, if you aren’t totally comfortable with all other members of the proposed rope team, you need to decline the invitation. Likewise, you need to accept that you might not be an ideal member of any given rope team.

Practice, practice, practice

Once you’ve been out on a glacier, keep your skills up by heading out again and again. Glaciers vary widely in difficulty, so there are always new challenges to face and skills to learn.

The serenity of ice and snow, the incomparable views, and the sense of achievement you’ll experience in crossing glaciers and reaching summits will justify all the time and energy you put into learning how to do it right.

This article originally appeared in the May+June 2010 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.