Alps trip Part 2: Glacier safety drills

Aside from hiking up to various glaciers looking for possible field sites, I was also in the French Alps to refresh my glacier safety skills. So my Dad and I spent two days out with our mountain guide friend Simon Abrahams (check out his twitter account) to brush up our safety drills.

There are two key safety issues for working on glaciers: cold or exposure injuries like hypothermia or frostbite; and falling into crevasses. Cold injuries are best dealt with via preventative measures, like proper layering to keep warm and ensuring that you drink enough. I already know a fair bit about this from my previous Antarctic fieldwork, so we were focusing our training on preventing crevasse falls and on crevasse rescue techniques.

Crevasses are cracks in the surface of the ice that can be several metres wide and many metres deep. At the end of the melt season, when there is little to no snow, crevasses are obvious and easy to avoid but during the rest of the year they can be covered by snow bridges. This makes them hard to spot and very dangerous because snow bridges that are thin or weakened, e.g. by warm weather, may collapse under a person’s weight. Baring in mind that glaciers are often in remote areas many hours from any help, it’s therefore important for everyone working in these environments to know how to get themselves or a friend out of a crevasse.

We didn’t fancy practicing our rescue drills in an actual crevasse (too dangerous!), so we nipped up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to find a suitable edge to stand-in as a crevasse lip. In this case we found a wind scoop, formed by snow blown around the base of a cliff, which did nicely. Our practice involved throwing a rucksack tied to a rope (simulating our unfortunate friend) over the lip of the wind scoop and taking it in turns, under Simon’s guidance, to set up a snow anchor and pulley system to haul the bag back up. The idea was to simulate the worst-case situation of rescuing a team member who has fallen into a crevasse and is unconscious or otherwise badly injured and unable to get out on their own. This situation is why you usually work on ice in teams of at least three people, because setting up the kit and hauling someone out of a crevasse on your own is very hard work. This is especially true in the cold and at altitude or if you weigh less than them, as will almost always be the case for me.

The wind scoop we’d chosen to practice on was at the bottom of the Col du Midi, below the Cosmiques hut. Getting there was a little hairy – you have to walk along a narrow ridge to descend from the Aiguille du Midi and at this time of year it is icy and easy to slip off. I was glad to be wearing my new & extremely sharp crampons!


Once off the ridge, we reviewed best practice for glacier travel in crevassed areas and set off for the wind scoop. After a bite to eat (yummy quiches, why are French bakeries so much better? No offence Greggs), Simon ran us through the techniques for hauling an unconscious person out of a crevasse. Having learnt these previously from my Dad, it was very useful to have them reviewed by a professional mountain guide and to be introduced to some modern kit that I’d not come across before. I had definitely picked up some bad habits and out of date techniques. I do need a bit more practice though – so I’ll be bullying some rock climbing friends into letting me hang them over the edge of a crag in the Peak District in order for me to ‘rescue’ them repeatedly!


The next day was a bit wet and windy so we didn’t brave the heights and confined ourselves to the Chamonix valley floor. I wasn’t too sorry as I’d developed a horrible altitude headache on the ascent back up the Aiguille du Midi ridge the previous evening and didn’t fancy getting another one. A clear demonstration of the woes of going straight up to an altitude of 3,800m without proper acclimatisation.

A quick trip out to a local crag to practice jumarring and assisted crevasse rescue was the order of the day. Jumarring is a self-rescue technique using a mechanical ascender in order to climb up the rope and get yourself out of a crevasse. It requires a bit of coordination to get right and does involve a lot of sitting in your harness with one leg up at an awkward angle. I’m sure we entertained the local mountain police, who were also out practicing their own rescue skills, as we swung around halfway up the cliff trying to jumar up the rope and keep balanced at the same time.


I’d like to say a big thank you to Simon for going over all these techniques with us and to him, Dee and the girls for having us to stay!


p.s. If you want to know more about crevasse rescue and glacier safety, I will try and post something more comprehensive at a later date. Otherwise I’d recommend looking for instructional videos on websites like UK Climbing and YouTube (search for ‘crevasse rescue’, ‘ascending a rope’, ‘glacier travel’ etc.). But before venturing out to anywhere icy I thoroughly recommend getting proper instruction from a recognised mountain guide or attending a suitable course. Some useful sites with info on courses for UK based readers are the British Mountaineering Council, British Mountain Guides and Mountain Training.


Here are a small selection of other photos from my Alps trip. Enjoy!

Alps trip Part 1: Field site reccy

Once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between blog posts and once again this is because I’ve been very busy. This time my excuses are buying a house (a worryingly adult thing to do!) and a short trip to the Alps, which is the main subject of this post.

My Dad and I drove out to Chamonix in the French Alps where we stayed with Simon Abrahams, a mountain guide friend of Dad’s (check out his twitter for lots of nice pics of mountains). Both Dad and I were rusty on our glacier safety and crevasse rescue techniques so this was a grand opportunity to have Simon run through these drills with us. I also needed to road-test some new crampons that were replacing Dad’s old 1970s spikes that I’d been using previously. The impossibly difficult bindings of these retro crampons were often the source of a lot of colourful language at the end of a long day on the ice! I am not sorry to be shot of them.

After our tiring drive (sleeping in the car is always a bad idea), we decided to break ourselves in with a bit of a hike. I wanted to check out the Mer de Glace as a potential field site, so we decided to traverse across to the glacier from the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 m above sea level), before descending back to Chamonix. The walk took around 6 hours, giving us a bit of acclimatisation time at a reasonable altitude.


I was impressed by how much the Mer de Glace has retreated and down-wasted over the last 150 years. The sign in the photo below indicates the level of the glacier surface in 1820 and you can see how much lower the ice is now. My Dad could see a huge change from the last time he visited in the 1980s and I could even see a reduction in the glacier’s size since I was last there in 2009. Evidence of climate warming in action!


This dramatic shrinkage is shocking but exactly what I’m looking for in terms of my own work – I need accessible glaciers with significant recent retreat. Clearly the Mer de Glace has the retreat box ticked and it even has a train service right up to the ice, bingo for accessibility! Even better, we have numerous paintings, sketches and photos (like the ones below) showing the extent of the glacier at its most recent advance, during the cooler period of the Little Ice Age at around AD 1800.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).  Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 and a zoomed in view of the snout position, with the snout marked by the white arrow.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).
Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 with a zoomed in view of the snout (marked in the main image by a white arrow).


On other hikes, I also had a look at the Glace des Bossons and the Glacier d’Argentiere as possible field sites. However both of these glaciers have retreated so much and so quickly that they have exposed polished bedrock and scree slopes around their snouts, which would be too unsafe to work on. When we were up near the Glacier d’Argentiere we witnessed 3-4 ice falls on the glacier snout over the course of around 20mins. I’d certainly not be keen to be getting up close to that!


So it looks like the Mer de Glace is going to be the optimal field site for me, if I decide to work in the Chamonix valley. Now I just have to write up some grant applications and work out the logistics!