Roping up for Glacier Travel

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


From the July 2006 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

My team and I are traveling to Rainier to climb the Dissappointment Cleaver route and have a question about roped glacier travel.

Our plan is to have the roped leader and end person tied into the rope (9mm, 60 meter) with a figure eight and the kiwi coil tie-off around their chests. The middle partner tied in via a butterfly knot on a locked biner with a chest harness and prusiks attached to the rope going to the lead climber and end climber. We all have seat prusiks and a texas prusik system attached to our harness and rope.

Should the middle person have a different set up on the rope to be safe and efficient?

Should a three person rope team travel with the rope fully extended? Is the above our most efficient way to travel safely and quickly on the glaciated terrain of Mt. Rainier?

Thanks for your time and response!

- Lisa (somewhere in cyberspace)


Dear Lisa,

I'm glad to hear of your trip to Rainier. Good luck with your climb.

Having the two climbers tied in with figure 8's with the excess coils around the chests (with either a kiwi coil or a mountaineers coil) is a fine idea. Ideally, the length between the climbers is very close but not so close that two people will fall into the same crevasse. The exact distance varies by the climb and current conditions, but normally it's around 30-40 feet. With a team of 3 climbers that will require the use of 60- 80 feet of rope plus 10-15 feet taken up by knots. Therefore, if using a 50-meter rope (165 feet) you will have an excess of 80-85 feet. With your 60-meter rope, you'll have more.

You may also consider using a mountaineers' coil - instead of a kiwi coil - to tie off the excess rope. The disadvantage of a kiwi coil is that it places some of the pull onto your chest and upper body. I think a slightly better tie place is using your waist harness only and attaching the rope there with a hard knot (a figure 8 is fine). The excess coils can then be tied off with a mountaineers coil that are independent of your waist tie-in knot. The other slight disadvantage of the kiwi coil is that in order to lengthen the distance between climbers during a crevasse rescue situation you must undo your tie-in knot and allow excess slack in the system. However there are ways around this, and it just requires some hands-on practice to see some of the small limitations of a kiwi coil versus a mountaineers coil and to develop a system that works for your team.

Generally, I will put both prussiks (if I'm using two) on the same strand of rope - and not split the prussiks between the two end climbers. Both methods have minor pros and cons.

I rarely if ever use a chest harness for the same reasons I mentioned regarding the kiwi coil versus the mountaineers coil. I dislike a chest harness that creates a higher pulling place on my harness when I tie in. I find a high tie in spot on my body makes it harder to self arrest another team member. However, there maybe a few limited circumstances that warrant a chest harness (I improvise one on some expeditions when I have huge loads and snowy conditions). On typical summit days when climbing with a small pack (say, 30lbs or less), I prefer to not have a chest harness on.

A three-person rope team should travel somewhat close together, rather than having the rope fully extended. Full extension (having the climbers 50-60 feet apart) makes communication difficult and tends to allow or foster excess slack in the rope. A better solution is having, as you suggested, both or even one of the climbers carrying excess coils. Another great way of carrying excess coils is placing them in your pack.

A rough rule of thumb suggests that inexperienced teams should have a little more distance between climbers (to give them more time to self arrest) even though that may slow down the efficiency when traveling on the glacier. More experienced teams which are good at holding falls may want to travel closer together in order to move faster.

Have a great climb.

- Mike Powers

Click the link to return to "Ask A Guide" Letters.


Program Finder