Burying Dead-men and Plummeting Head First and Upside-down: It’s Much Safer than It Sounds

by Kelly Hughes

A large chunk of our days at Camp 17 are spent in safety training lectures and hands-on safety activities both on and off the glacier.  JIRP is dedicated to the health of all of the participants, and the first step to being healthy is being … yup, you guessed it … ALIVE.  Fieldwork on the ice and glacier travel between camps subjects the participants to inherent and sometimes unavoidable dangers … you know, like human swallowing crevasses.  The Field Safety Staff (FSS) and certified badass Jamie Price have led us through a very nice progression of safety training lessons over the past few days. 

We started gently (swaddled in our baby blankets) by learning how to tie knots and hitches.  Everyone immediately fell in love with figure 8’s, bowlines, and double fisherman’s knots.  After dinner hours exploded with knot-tying frenzies, and experienced students helped the more motor-skill challenged individuals (like myself) with those naughty knots.  Girth, clove and Munter hitches came next, and again the knot magicians shared their secrets to success until everyone (even me) had the orientation and folding of the loops correct for each.  Our friendly FSS members checked off everyone one by one to ensure that everybody is able to tie themselves into a rope or into anchors appropriately.  A team built with self-sufficient members can travel with less risk and less confusion.  Another crucial part of successful team operation that the FSS has been pressing upon us is communication.  Effective communication can lessen confusion and keep a team focused and efficient under stressful circumstances.  For long traverses across the Icefield, like our journey from the Lemon Creek Glacier to the Taku Glacier will be, the less risk and confusion the better (assuming that everyone would like to get there alive, in one piece, and sometime within this decade).

Ice axes outside the cook shack at camp 17. Photo by Jay Ach

Ice axes outside the cook shack at camp 17. Photo by Jay Ach

Just as we were all getting cozy with our knots, Jamie and the FSS took us out to a steep hill on the Lemon, stripped us of our skis and packs and armed us with nothing but our ice axes.  Jamie took us through 3 different scenarios of how we might fall (or be yanked over by a falling rope mate):

1) feet sliding out from under us onto our butts,

2) sliding face first on our bellies, and

3) sliding head first on our backs. 

There was initial hesitation from some people, but I personally have practiced self-arresting previously, so I knew very well the fun we were in for and couldn’t wait to run to the top of the hill and chuck myself off!  Everyone was jumping left, front and sideways within just a few run-throughs.  Later on we had a maximum sliding contest, burning a trail in the snow behind us!  Oh, and no one lost an eye to a poor pick placement … so the day was a WIN!

Jon Doty teaches crevasse rescue. Photo by Jay Ach

Jon Doty teaches crevasse rescue. Photo by Jay Ach

The safety training progressed to lectures on and practice with building snow anchors and belaying, should we be fortunate enough to recognize that we’ve entered dangerous territory before a team member pops through into nothingness while traversing across the Icefield.  There are regions on glaciers where extensive crevasse fields are more probable than other places, like convexities in the glacier surface (rises, bumps, or the top of an icefall) where tensional stresses are dominant, and along the margins where shear stresses are dominant. 

Along our traverse from Camp 17 to Camp 10, we will rope up in such areas, and if open crevasses are visible or probing reveals possible snow bridging, we will stop and build snow anchors in a secure area to belay team members across more questionable ground.  To do so, we will implement one or two of a few methods to establish an anchor point:

1) burying dead-men (not dead men we find on the Icefield, though that would work, but an ice axe placed horizontally into a slot dug at least 1.5 feet into the snow),

2) driving an ice axe in vertically (actually, not exactly vertical, but angled about 10 degrees away from the direction of pull for added strength), or

3) doing either of the first two methods with a snow picket if one is available. 

After the anchor points have been established, we will connect them with a closed cordelette and tie an overhand on a bite into the convergence point (called the master point).  The belayer will then girth hitch or likewise connect to the master point and put the climber/skier on belay using one of three methods:

1) an ATC belay device,

2) a Munter hitch, or

3) a body belay (though if a crevasse fall, rather than just a fall on a steep slope, is likely, the body belay is not the proper method as the friction is not high enough for a shock load). 

When practicing snow anchor building and belaying, we worked in small groups of two or three students supervised by an FSSer. Each person took turns as the belayer and the belayee (that’s not a real word, FYI), and the belayee would pretend to fall suddenly, surprising the belayer.  From what I could tell, everyone passed as a safe belayer (awesome!).

There was one more hitch we had yet to learn, but the night Jamie and the FSS had us learn it something was different.  The tables and benches in the cook shack were stacked and shoved off to the side and three ropes hung from the ceiling.  I knew what was coming because I had hung a very similar rope set up with my dad from a branch on a tree in our backyard in Colorado.  We made prusik hitches for our waists and feet, attached them to the rope (in the proper order: waist prusik on top of the foot prusik … crucial), and then we began to climb the rope to the top of the cook shack, three people at a time!  Everyone quickly realized that the hardest part is coming down … you know, when your muscles are already near maximum SWOL (as Lu-Tang would say).  We’ve set up the prusik lines on a few evenings now, and every time someone is ascending the rope (whether they’re “killin’ it” or having a bit of a struggle fest), everyone else in the room is cheering them on.  The dynamic of this group is indescribable.  For only knowing each other for a little over two weeks, we sure act like we’ve known and adored each other for years.

Kate Baustian demonstrates a self-arrest position.  Photo by Jay Ach

Kate Baustian demonstrates a self-arrest position.  Photo by Jay Ach

The last main thing on our safety training list was the crevasse rescue system called the Z-pulley.  I won’t bore you with the details (because by now you’ve realized I can turn anything into a dull novel), but it’s a 3 to 1 pulley system (meaning that we can pull 3 times the weight we could pull if we were directly dragging or pulling something up on a straight rope).  It works pretty dang well, and we’re getting lots of practice setting it up and using it with volunteer victims and/or Mr. and Mrs. Backpack.  It seems fairly complicated at first, but in practice it’s really not that bad – there are just a few places where it might be quite easy to royally mess things up (so the FSS are making sure we don’t).

That concludes the update on safety training from Camp 17.  Tune back in a few days from now to see how many of these things we had to put to use on the traverse from 17 to 10. Happy prusiking!