Glacier Skiing  All your eggs in one basket?

How do you manage the crevasse risk when touring on glaciers?? Matteo Scoz from NZAC Otago section reflects on a near miss on the Tasman.

On a 2016 trip to the Tasman Glacier our party met up at Tasman Saddle hut with another party of 3: a 1 Kiwi originally from Europe, and 2 young American guys. The (Euro)Kiwi-American party was well equipped and experienced; they had already spent 5 days touring together around Tasman Saddle since they first met in Mt Cook village few days before.

In the morning the weather was fine and the party of 3 took a direct line to the lower Tasman with some big objectives in mind for the day.

They went out of our sight, as they skied together towards the “canyon lands”, a crevassed area around the 2100m altitude. Our party took a more conservative line on the mellower terrain that goes around the zone of crevasses.

While skiing we noticed one of the other party members in the distance skinning back up. Shortly afterwards, we also noticed another member waiving to attract our attention. As we skied to them it was clear that someone had gone into a crevasse.

That unlucky person had fallen into an open crevasse. He’d fell a few meters down the slot, and was hanging upside down, with his splitboard wedged between the walls of ice. He was responsive but unable to move.

An anchor and a Z -pulley (3:1) system was set up and a rope lowered for the victim to attach himself. The victim was rescued in less than 30 minutes from the accident with only minor scratches. He walked himself back to the hut and later flew out to the village unharmed but shaken.

After the rescue, we all had a bit of time to reflect on skiing and safe glacier travel:

Glacier travel on foot is done roped up at all time. Skiing roped up (especially down hill) often becomes impractical and it also can defeat the main purpose of being there in the first place: ie to actually enjoy the feeling of skiing.  When compared to travel on foot, the greater surface area of skis/snowboard, and the speed that you can cross a snow bridge when travelling downhill, means you are far less likely to fall through a bridge into an unseen crevasse.

So it is often acceptable to ski un-roped on suitable terrain.(Ie, where you have assessed a line that reduces the likelihood of skiing across/near dangerous crevasses to an acceptable level). Practical steps such skiing well separated and always keeping a visual of each others help mitigate the hazard of losing a skier into a crevasse or having more than one of the part fall into the same crevasse.
The accident made me analyze how most ski touring parties manage glacier skiing and after assisting with the rescue I have identified a few common mistakes made while ski touring on glaciers:
  • Often the team leader (who is usually the most experienced of the group) carries the majority/all of the safety gear (rope, stake, Z pulleys), and most of the time the leader is first to ski down and find the way. A fall into the crevasse by the team leader (who has all the gear and most of the experience) would be catastrophic for the group.
  • Parties of two involve a greater risk of not being able to complete a rescue. If a victim is not able to self extract, it  can be very difficult for one person to perform an effective rescue by themselves.
  • PLB:  If this is carried in the back pack, it is often out of reach when stuck in a crevasse: If you have the PLB and you are injured when you fall in, who will press the button to start the process of getting help on the way?
  • Splitboard vs skis: The fact that splitboad bindings are not designed to release probably saved the life of the rider. If it had been a skier who’d fallen in the same slot, they bindings probably would have released and they would have fallen a further 20-30 meters to the bottom of the crevasse…  (should we all go out and buy splitboards??)
Based on this experience, I have improved how I manage ski touring glacier travel:
  • I make sure we run a refresher prior going out on how to set up anchor and Z pulley systems for everyone.
  • ski one at the time or well separated, and keep in visual contact with each other.
  • The ideal party size of 3 to 5 people is a good and manageable number for safer travel. In case of a rescue one person at the haul system and one at the edge is the minimum to have an effective rescue, when the victim is not able to self extract or assist..
  • Share crevasse rescue hardware among the group to ensure no critical piece of gear is carried by one person only. Consider carrying 2 ropes in the form of a main and thinner back up (8mm) for smaller groups
  • 2 PLBs
  • Always wear harness with a ice screw and a length of cordelette. If you fall in a crevasse when skiing, you might have the chance to place an ice screw as a temporary anchor to stop yourself falling further whilst your companions are setting up a rescue system.
The NZAC runs glacier skiing courses each season, to help you learn how to ski safely on glaciated terrain. There’s also lots of videos which discuss glacier skiing; look for ones done by professionally qualified guides!
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