By David Shuer
After seeing Tahoma (Rainier) from your flight into SeaTac, or reading Into Thin Air, or living in the Pacific Northwest looking up at the volcanoes that dot the skyline, you’ve got the bug and want to climb some glaciers. The options are endless in the PNW; ranging from small pocket glaciers and snowfields to the miles-long rivers of ice of the Cascades’ volcanoes. Ice axe arrest, crevasse rescue, winter camping, and other techniques for climbing on snow and ice are essential to climbing glaciated mountains. In this post, we’ll run through a progression of skills to practice building experience and prepare for glaciated climbs.
Snow Travel Fundamentals
First, you’re going to want to become comfortable walking in crampons, using an ice axe, and camping on snow in non-glaciated terrain. The Worm Flows on Mount St. Helens, South Side of Mount Adams, and Cascadian Couloir on Mount Stuart are all great first mountaineering climbs to begin refining these fundamental skills. There are many other options, but look for climbs with long, snowy slopes between 25 and 40 degrees, as this is the steepness of most glacier climbing. May to early July is a great time to seek these climbs once winter conditions subside and before the snowpack melts away for the summer. Becoming comfortable moving securely in this terrain is a crucial part of any glaciated climb.
Navigation and Tour Planning
Although Pacific Northwest summers are often filled with blue skies and sun kissed days, knowing how to create a route plan and navigate in a whiteout are must-have skills for mountaineering. Weather can come in fast, and it is vital to be confident using both analog (map and compass) and digital navigation tools. In conditions where a GPS is needed, a touchscreen phone will often be unusable. Our tour planning webinar has a wealth of information on these topics and is a great place to start.
Traveling on a Rope Team
Once comfortable with basic snow travel techniques, gaining experience traveling over glaciated terrain on a rope team is a great next step. This skillset includes knowing how to rig a rope for glacier travel, including transitioning to and from shorter intervals for steps of moving on rock. Having this transitioned dialed can make a great difference in ease of travel and in reducing rockfall hazard where a longer rope length may catch on loose rock.
Snow Anchors and Crevasse Rescue
Any aspiring mountaineer must also be able to build snow anchors in a variety of conditions. This includes the T-Slot, vertical mid-clip with a wire, and top-clip to name a few. In case a belay is needed to cross a snow bridge, or for performing a haul out of a crevasse, these anchors are must-haves. Mountaineers should be confident in their ability to perform crevasse rescue using a 3:1 z-pulley and 6:1 drop C off of these anchors.
Assembling a Rope Team
The final step in preparing for a glaciated climb is assembling your team. A rope team requires two to five people. Two-person rope teams necessitate that each team member can arrest a fall of their climbing partner on their own and build a strong snow anchor while holding their partner’s full weight in the event of a crevasse fall. For this reason, climbing as a team of two is only recommended for highly skilled teams, and is generally discouraged when the option to climb as a bigger team exists. Three and four-person rope teams are ideal for glacier travel.
Preparing for your First Glacier Climb
With all these skills in hand, there is no better place to build experience mountaineering than the Pacific Northwest. Finding partners to practice skills and go out on climbs with is another important part of this journey. Local climbing clubs and mountaineering courses can be venues to meet people with similar goals. Our classic 6-day course is another great way to meet potential climbing partners and learn the above skills to build a foundation as a new mountaineer. If you have a little more time or want to head further afield (like the Alaska Range), we break down our comprehensive menu of mountaineering courses in this blog post. If you’re on a roll, give our Mountaineering Courses Webinar a watch as well.