It's something we've all thought about: you're travelling across a remote glacier and your partner suddenly disappears into a slot in the ice. Do you really know what to do next? Fortunately, the method for getting someone out of a crevasse is relatively straightforward, provided that certain key procedures are used, as mountain guide Barry Roberts explains.
A sea of crevasses on the Geant Glacier, Mont Blanc, Chamonix: travelling safely in such heavily-crevassed terrain requires proper knowledge of rescue techniques. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
1. Anchor the rope
As discussed in the section on Steep Ground the single most critical element of a good rescue system is a solid anchor. If the anchor fails you can make the situation even worse than it is, so it must be solid. Choose an anchor position 5 metres back from the edge of the crevasse and in line with where the victim went over (set to one side there is a risk that the victim will pendulum on the rope). There are then two options for the anchor:
2. Check the victim and attach the rope
Once the anchor is secure, the next stage is to get a rope down to the victim. To do this, first clip a ropeman onto the screwgate at the anchor, run the rope through and screw up all the gates. You now have a secure rope with the ropeman acting as a solid one-way ratchet (i.e. the rope can be pulled through but can’t slip back). Take hold of the end that can’t slip back (the “live” end) and tie a figure of eight knot in the live end of the rope. Secure yourself to the rope with a prussic loop then walk towards the victim staying well back from the edge of the crevasse and shout down to ask how they are. When you hear the victim is ok , throw the rope tell and tell them to clip on and walk back to the anchor. As soon the victim is clipped in, pull the slack rope through the ropeman until it becomes taught. You now have the victim attached to the rope and secured so that they cannot slip any further into the crevasse.
3. Prepare lip
As you haul the victim out the rope can cut deeply into the lip of the crevasse, particularly if there is a snow cornice. This can make it very difficult for the victim to get out as they will be pulled vertically up into the overhanging cornice roof . You therefore need to prepare the crevasse lip. To do this, send one person with an ice axe forward secured with a prussic loop tied to the rope and attached to their harness. This provides security in case they slip or in case the cornice collapses. Use the axe to clear away as much loose snow as possible (remembering to warn the victim about the debris coming down). Then embed the axe with the adze pointing down firmly into the snow so that the edge of the rope runs over the shaft of the axe and should not cut so deeply into the crevasse edge. Retreat back safely to the anchor position.
4. Set up the pulley system
With a large enough group of people on the surface you can simply haul on the rope to pull the victim out. In practice, the friction in the system means that you will almost always have to set up a pulley system to increase the leverage . With the ropeman set-up, this is simple to do. First tie a prussik onto the live rope about 3 metres in front of the anchor point, and clip a snap gate through the end. Clip the dead end of the rope through the snap gate and you have completed the system. When you haul on the dead end of the rope, the prussic grips allowing the rope to slide through the ropeman ratchet and slip over the snap link giving the desired 3:1 mechanical advantage.
5. Haul out
You are now ready to perform the rescue. Simply haul on the dead end of the rope to gradually pull the victim up out of the crevasse. As you do so, the prussik will move towards the anchor, so you will need to have one person directing operations and watching the knot carefully. As it gets close to the anchor the co-ordinator should stop the hauling and slide the prussik 3 metres back up the rope towards the victim. Haul slowly and carefully, being particularly careful as the victim nears the cornice and may have to make a heroic effort to haul themselves safely out and over.
Glacier skiing through a heavily-crevassed section: confidence with rescue techniques is vital in such terrain. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
So to summarise, the sequence is:
This is the complete rescue technique. The only major variation you need to learn is if the victim falls in already attached to the rope. This is a much simpler and safer situation. All you have to do is:
Crevasse rescue is not difficult but it is one of the more complex and technical processes you need to learn and it is easy to make mistakes if you get confused. A few simple tips are worth bearing in mind:
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