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Written by George Fisher

Image for article CREVASSE RESCUE

Within mountaineering literature there has always been a morbid fascination with falling into crevasses, with Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void dominating the genre since its publication in the late 1980s.

This summer there was another unhelpful heatwave across the Western Alps. This had the effect of melting the snow on the glaciers, meaning that the crevasses opened up much faster than under usual weather, with the bridges across these very weak and some collapsing.

The high temperatures often meant that it did not freeze overnight. Therefore the snow would not support your weight, even with a classic pre-dawn ‘alpine start’. The result was that many more people than in previous years have fallen into a lot of deep crevasses.

There is often one common factor in situations when someone falls in a crevasse. It is frequently not the fall into the crevasse that causes the injury, but the well-intentioned yet botched rescue. This is where the person on the surface attempts to rig a Z-pulley system to haul the victim out by the means of a ‘winch’.

For the winch to work, it needs to be ‘bomb-proof’. It has to work first time, it can’t be bodged. If you are the only person on the surface, and you are holding the victim’s full body weight as well as their rucksack and all their other paraphernalia, it is virtually impossible to build an anchor that’s fit for purpose unless you are a professional guide.

Simon Yates, Joe Simpson’s climbing partner, knew this and his solution was to cut the rope and ultimately create one of the greatest mountaineering epics of all time.

So don't try. You will, 9 out of 10 times, end up dropping the victim even further down the crevasse and possibly the rope as well.

Let us roll back and have a quick look at how not to fall too far into a crevasse in the first place. The idea is that if the victim falls into a crevasse, it is the friction of the rope over the edge which provides the braking effect. The more rope which comes into contact with the edge of the crevasse, the more friction, and the easier it is to hold a fall. It follows that the greater the distance between you and your climbing partner, the easier it is to hold a fall.

A minimum distance would be a measurement of six double-arm spans. This can be increased if the glacier is melting, or if you are on a glacier with no tracks. Or if you are just plain scared.

It is also important to keep the rope tight. Either above the snow, or more realistically only 30cm touches the ground between you and your partner. Do not be tempted to carry loops of rope in your hand. In the event of a fall, the loops will get pulled out of your hand with a severe jolt, making it impossible for you to hold the fall.

The good news is that if your partner falls into a crevasse, and if you follow this basic protocol, it is more likely than not that you will stop them going too far. It is also likely you will be able to remain standing as well.

So, returning to the early scenario concerning building an anchor. Remember: you are the anchor. If you have had the good sense to rope up with plenty of distance between yourself and your partner, you should be well away from the immediate danger, and shouldn't need to employ the Touching the Void crevasse rescue system.

This is what you should do:

  • If not already doing so, sit down and dig your feet into the snow.
  • Drive the shaft of your axe into the snow and hold onto it.
  • Shout to attract attention. Most modern rucksacks have a whistle built into the buckle on the chest strap. Use it.
  • Wait 15-20 minutes to see if the victim has managed to climb back out of the crevasse. If there is no discernible movement, then you should activate these next steps:
  • You will of course have your phone in the breast pocket of your jacket. Call Mountain Rescue with your details.

Mountain Rescue are well used to dealing with these scenarios, and will not pass judgement on a call for help in the situation described. After all, they would much prefer to deal with this than someone who has attempted to build an anchor after watching a misleading, heavily edited YouTube video, the sole purpose of which is to make crevasse rescue look straightforward.

In summary, the best advice is that if you are the person on the surface, do nothing other than sit there. If you are the victim who has fallen into the crevasse, then try to climb out using mechanical rope clamps such as a Wild Country Ropeman, or my preferred tool the Petzl Micro Traxion because it can be clamped onto the rope with one hand quickly and is less likely to be dropped. It goes without saying that some prior practice in their use is a good idea...