55

four climbers moving together

This image has recently come under considerable criticism on social media for dangerous mountaineering practices. The location is unknown as the qualified mountain guide observer wanted to maintain the climbers' anonymity.

The terrain was described as

  • Hard packed solid ice
  • The slope quickened into a narrows with another slope leading to a boulder field
  • The observer described a slip as unsurvivable
  • The technique was also described as 'misguided Alpine thinking'
  • There are four individuals in the image
  • They are connected via rope

What specifically is wrong with the technique being applied in this image and what risks does it pose? What should the group have been doing to ascend more safely?

  • 2
    Would you happen to have a link to the where people were debating the safety of this? I think it would be interesting to read. – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 2 '17 at 1:43
  • m.facebook.com/groups/… – Venture2099 Feb 2 '17 at 7:38
  • Also, what does "slope quickened into a narrows" mean? Does it simply mean that the slope is steeper below the photographed place? – anatolyg Feb 2 '17 at 11:20
  • It means the the slope enters into steeper sided terrain before hitting another downward slope and exiting at a boulder field. – Venture2099 Feb 2 '17 at 11:53
  • 3
    @Venture2099 That link is only available to people in the FB group. Thanks though. – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 2 '17 at 15:38
23

The most common options coming to my mind are:

  1. Securing from anchors and building e.g. one rope-party with 2 and one with 3 members

    • This is slow but very safe. You do it in steep and/or difficult terrain.
  2. Moving continuously being roped together while the first uses gear

    • Using e.g. a tibloc or you can use rocks to let the rope move behind them (with respect to the side so in case of somebody falling, the rope will cause friction and the weight of different rope partners slowing down the fall - this is more likely done on ridges and not on a face like in the picture)
    • Being comfortable and without big technical difficulties (in respect to the skills of each person in the party) this earns a lot of speed. This is often done in steep ice or on easier to medium difficult rock climbs (common e.g. on UIAA III or IV climbs)
  3. Moving without protection being roped together

    • Is typically done on glacier hikes where the main risk is falling into a crevasse.
    • If there is no risk of crevasses, this can only make sense if you walk e.g. on a snow ridge where you have no possibility to use protection: In case one falls, the roped-in friend has to react very fast and jump on the other side of the ridge. This is very difficult and therefore needs experience. I was told this should only be done by mountain guides going behind the client.
  4. Moving without protection not being roped together
    • No backups. You have to feel absolutely comfortable with the terrain you are moving in.

For me it looks very unlikely to have hidden crevasses in the terrain seen in the picture. So for option (3) it is much more likely that the roping together introduces a much higher risk here than going without rope. Especially if you tie in 5 people (!) it is not very likely that the members will hold the party if somebody falls. It will be more like a chain reaction with very fatal consequences, not only for the one who falls, but for the whole party.

I once was guided in South America on rocky terrain in a five-member party without using protection. For me this is similarly a no-go but the guide said it's OK and he does it all the time. For me this is not the way to move in the mountains, but opinions differ.

I say you use one of the options (1), (2) or (4) depending on how comfortable you feel in respect to the experience and skill level of all (!) members of the party. If you can't find a conclusion the way to react is: don't ascend further - return to a route which is safer for your group.

For me it seems that the wall is not that steep so that option (1) is too slow. Especially if you only have 1 rope for 5 people. So I would either search for spots to use mobile protection to place a camelot or nut. Or I would try to find rocks to guide the rope properly - descriped in (2). The only good alternative for me is that everybody feels safe and all are moving unroped (4).

44

If the snow was hard packed enough that a self arrest is not possible, and there are no intermediate anchors, then if one person falls, they can take the whole team down with them.

If that was the case then what they should have done is to have the first person place anchors as they went up, either snow pickets or ice screws depending on the conditions. The anchors are clipped to the rope and passed by each climber in turn.

The last person in the group picks them up as they go, and when the leader is almost out of pieces, they create a bombproof anchor, bring the entire team up to it and get the pieces from the last person. Its identical to simuling while rock climbing, just on snow/ice.

Beyond that, I am not certain of what else they could have done, other than not being there. It is possible that a different time of day would have made for better conditions, but that is hard to say from the image.

  • 2
    This basically seems like a reasonable answer, although it's possible that a fixed belay or no belay at all was a reasonable option instead of a running belay. It's possible that what they were doing was reasonable given the conditions, if the climbing was easy and the only reason for roping up was in case of a hidden crevasse. – Ben Crowell Feb 1 '17 at 15:55
  • 4
    @BenCrowell Its hard to know without being there. Personally I would doubt the existence of any crevasses on because of the rocks, but again its hard to say without being there. – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 1 '17 at 15:57
  • 3
    +1. Your description sounds like what's also know as multi-stage pitching. It's hard to tell what the climbers are doing, but "moving together" but I assume the criticism was for the climbers moving together without anchors rather than for them being roped together per se? – Nathan Cooper Feb 1 '17 at 16:17
  • 5
    In the case a group is skilled and a fall very unlikely, but they are traversing from one crevasse field to another, the time savings remaining roped up may make more sense than running belays or unroping. If you and you team decide soloing the route (from description I probably would) is acceptable, then climbing like this could also be considered acceptable. However, in most cases I have seen this done, its not be thought through very well. – user5330 Feb 1 '17 at 19:19
  • 3
    @Wills: Not really. You have to coil the rope and someone has to stow it. Then when you rope up again it's going to take more time. Maybe for a very efficient, experienced team this could be 5-10 minutes, but I've never climbed with a group that was that fluent :-) – Ben Crowell Feb 1 '17 at 21:31
13

It look like they are "moving together". Very common in alpine ascents when moving over easier ground where it would take too long to pitch the climb (fixed belay). The leader would run out around 10-20 meters to the second and would look for rock features or quick placements to get some protection in. Notice the rock features on the ascent, I'm guessing there would be placements there. If the leader or the second falls they will counter one another arresting the fall. It's a good system if worked correctly and it looks like the climbers in the photo are doing everything they should given the angle and general conditions. You can move quickly and relatively safely on easier ground using this system and you don't have to stop to place a fixed belay unless the climb needs to be pitched. I have climbed like this on ice and on easy rock.

9

As mentioned by others: It is impossible to definitely judge the situation from just the photo, and that's all we have. As far as I see, there is no protection between the roped climbers here. So my answer is under the following assumption:

The party is roped up with lots of rope between climbers without any protection in a steep slope of mixed snow and rock.

This is never a good mode of ascent as it highly increases the risk. Lets define a "death rate" as probability of an event times amount of casualties resulting from that event. For simplicity every climber has a 1% chance of falling. When soloing the total risk of the 4 climber party is thus 4 climbers * 1% fall chance * 1 death = 4% death rate. If they are roped up, the risk is 4 climbers * 1% fall chance * 4 deaths = 16% death rate. It increased 4 times (in general by the amount of climbers in the party).

Ascending roped without protection is done with a taut rope very close to each other. Even in that configuration it is hard to arrest a fall, the idea is more to prohibit a fall when the second stumbles. On a long rope with (inevitable) slack it is impossible. The only slim hope is, that while falling down the rope entangles itself in a rock... Every year in the mountaineering accident statistics of my country (tiny Switzerland) there is a few casualties from so called "Mitreissunfälle" (literally carry along accident) - so this is not theory, it happens.

There are several options that all have their place depending on the climbers and conditions: Short-rope, running belay (long rope with protection in between), fixed belays or soloing.

Of course there is the case of crevasse terrain with intermediate steep section where one is inclined to keep going on long rope without protection to save time. This is however just a pretext and should not be done unless you are under serious time constraint and every one in the party understands the risk. Rather invest some minutes to unrope or put in some (few) protections on a running belay than pulling/being pulled to death with your friends.

8

It's impossible to say from a photograph whether something is "safe" or not. Many factors come into play, including the experience level of the climbers concerned. For all we know, they may have been roped together for a glacier traverse, and chosen to stay roped up for a short section well within their capabilities, knowing they will need to be protected again later.

It's easy to forget that unroping takes time, which can be a risk in itself; in mountaineering, one needs to be aware that the activity involves being aware of and trading off different risks all of the time.

5

Looks like a team arrest setup. I've seen it in the books but never had a case to use it. The idea is when a single ax self arrest won't hold all of the axes might. With 5 people the math starts looking good. Icy snow like what I see here holds crampons and force-driven axes very well.

Ok I'm the guy famous here for climbing with an ax for which self arrest doesn't work because we were climbing into area where boot ax belay was mandatory anyway, so maybe my evaluations aren't quite right, but here goes: On this slope, the only thing that makes it look to me like they're out of range is the weight of their packs.

  • 1
    Your assumtions is only true if the people are close to each other (max 2 meter distance). If 10 meters are between the individuals, a fall of one of the front persons will produce so much energy that it is impossible for the others to catch the fall. – jrast Feb 5 '17 at 10:04
3

If one of them slips and falls, there's a chance the others won't be able to save their comrade from falling and will be dragged down as well.

ROME - Yesterday morning, a Dutch woman saw her husband and three children fall into a ravine during a climb on the Mont Dolent, part of the Mont Blanc Massif.

(...)

The family had set out in the early morning from a cabin at 2600 meters. Mother Ada stopped at a lower glacier, after which the father and their three children continued the ascent which isn't known as extremely difficult to climbers.

After having reached the summit and having started the descent, after about 200 meters one of them supposedly slipped and dragged the other three in the fall. The four where connected with ropes. This system helps less experienced climbers, but can, as it was yesterday, be fatal to the whole group.

—"Woman sees her family fall into ravine", Parool, 25 July 2008 (translated from Dutch)

  • @Liam I'm open to discuss the use of other languages than English, but your edit also removed the source for the quote, which is why I've rolled it back. – SQB Feb 4 '18 at 9:39
  • Hi SQB, all SE sites are English sites (unless otherwise noted, i.e. es.stackoverflow.com). I apologise for removing the source, that was incorrect but it's still the correct thing to only have the English quote. – user2766 Feb 5 '18 at 9:14
  • @Liam okay, I'm used to first quoting the source in its original language and then providing a translation, but if this is the norm for this stack, I'll conform. – SQB Feb 5 '18 at 9:38

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