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I'm starting to go through the book "freedom of the hills". Somewhere in the initial pages, it states that a climbing party must consist of a minimum of three members. A bit later it states that during glacier travel, there should be a minimum of two rope teams.

Near the end of the first chapter, in the subsection "Gaining the freedom of the hills", there is a sub-subsection titled "Climbing code" with an itemized list. One of the list items states:

“A climbing party of three is the minimum, unless adequate prearranged support is available. On glaciers, a minimum of two rope teams is recommended.”

Excerpt From: Mountaineers. “Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.” iBooks.

Does it make sense to split up into two rope teams in case of a 3-4 member climbing party? I hardly think it makes sense to have a rope team of one member. But what about two? Were one member to slip into a crevasse would it not be easier to arrest their fall if the rope had more members?

To rephrase the question, how should a 3-5 member climbing party split up into rope teams for glacier travel?

  • Might I suggest to write the paragraph in a quote and provide a page number so I can check it out in my edition? – Gabriel C. Jan 7 at 14:38
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    A note on splitting teams: That may, for instance, be done to ensure that critical gear doesn't disappear into a crevasse. Losing one of your tents results in discomfort, losing all could be more of a problem. (Note, I'm not familiar with the book in question, so this answer might not apply in that context.) – TvZ Jan 7 at 19:06
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    @TvZ Freedom of the Hills is pretty much considered the mountaineering bible in the Americas. – Gabriel C. Jan 7 at 19:53
  • One for the reading list then! I've mostly read German and Dutch materials. – TvZ Jan 7 at 19:59
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    @Yogesch I really suggest buying the paper edition. It is not an expensive book and the publisher is a non-profit that aims to educate and advocate for the outdoors. Mountaineers books – Gabriel C. Jan 8 at 13:34
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A bit later it states that during glacier travel, there should be a minimum of two rope teams.

Is there any explanation why there should be 2 teams? The only case where this makes really sense is that a whole team falls into a crevasse. This must not happen under any circumstances.

If the idea is that a second team can start the rescue immediately, this is a dangerous approach. After a crevasse fall has been stopped, it is paramount to build a reliable anchor (T-anchor or ice screw, depending on conditions) before anybody moves on untested terrain. A second team rushing to the rescue can easily cause a second fall into another crevasse nearby.

Probably the perfect size for glacier travel is 3 persons. The chances of holding a fall in a 3 person team are sufficiently good and recovery of the fallen person is relatively easy with 2 persons at the top. On the other hand, the smaller the team the more agile. Every irregularity in your pace (either by terrain or irregular pace of the leader) will add with every person on the rope. This turns the last position of a team into a kind of stop and go (or rather stop and run) pace. 1

Considering this, for a 3 and 4 person team there is only one option which is going as a single team. For 5 persons there is the option of a single team as well, which is still ok as long as the terrain is rather regular [2]. If this is not the case or if the teams are preferring smaller teams and sufficient experience for the smaller teams, you can split this into a 3 person team on the front and a 2 person team behind. This combines the advantages of small teams with the benefit of a second team in case something goes horribly wrong. Note that in this case the second team has a tested trail and therefore the disadvantage of having only a second person for holding a fall is greatly diminished although not completely removed

1 For this reason it is often recommended to have the fittest members of your team towards the back and the weakest at the second or third positon.

[2] A typical example of an irregular terrain is a crevasse zone where you have to change direction all the time. Keeping the rope taut all the time is more difficult with a bigger team.

edit:

On the concept of avalanche terrain and a second team digging the first team out. This is extremely wrong.

  1. Avalanche terrain is not the norm on a glacier. Most glaciers are quite flat most of the time and there is no risk of avalanches.
  2. If there is a realistic danger of avalanches and you cannot turn around or do not want to, the sensible thing is to keep a bigger distance between members (~50m). This has two positive effects. First, the snow is loaded less at a single point and the risk of triggering an avalanche is smaller (minimizing the risk). Second, in case of an avalanche only one person is affected (minimizing the damage). Roping up makes it impossible to keep a good distance and is a guarantee that the whole team is affected by an avalanche. (It has to be noted that in this situation you are likely in a spring ski tour where the glacier is snowed up properly and the risk of a crevasse fall is very small anyways)
  3. Avalanches can only be triggered in steeper terrain (dry snow avalanches are most common on slopes between 30° and 45°). In steep terrain a single member stumbling can pull the whole team with them if the snow is sufficiently hard. This is definitely a situation where you do not want to go roped (even though a lot of mountain guides have no issues short-roping 4 clients on an icy 35° slope...)
  • A second team won't be able to do much if an entire rope team falls down a crevasse. The idea of a rope team is to prevent falling too far in and still be attached to the surface, making the rescue process way easier. Your first sentence is a bit weird. There is also a clear advantage to a second team, they can start to work on the rescue while the first team is still stuck in self-arrest. – Gabriel C. Jan 7 at 14:44
  • Depending on the chosen textbook person 2 or person 3 is building the anchor with the other person holding the fallen person. You do not need a full team on self-arrest. One the fall is stopped, one person can easily hold another person if they keep their weight low enough. And you should always build an anchor first before anybody moves. There might be another crevasse that rescuers fall into if they rush to help – Manziel Jan 7 at 15:19
  • It seems to me that for the free rope team, starting to prepare deadmans, readying prusiks and pulleys, and getting a first aid kit out shouldn't be forbidden before the first team has freed itself from self-arrest. As far as I'm concerned, they aren't in any more danger in the boot track before or after the anchor is setup and could actually assist in setting up more anchors while the first one is built. – Gabriel C. Jan 7 at 17:35
  • Sure there is something that a second team can do to speed up rescue. But the advantage will be small and most of the things can be done by person 4 or 5 of the same team as well. However, I do not see anything that would require or even strongly recommend a second team as stated in this book. A single team can do just fine – Manziel Jan 7 at 18:28
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    @Yogesch A fair point, but what I mean is that the risk is already there regardless of the presence of the first anchor or not. In fact, if we took your argument all the way, it becomes complex crevasse terrain and the second team should probably never move up to the first team as no one can be certain that their anchor isn't on a snow bridge that will collapse if two or three people are over it. – Gabriel C. Jan 8 at 13:56
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You are not going to like the answer, but a 5 member team should recruit a 6th person. I think 3 people per rope is ideal. 4 people always seems like too many and 2 people makes stopping a fall really hard. A one person rope team is not a rope team.

The way I would break things down:

1 person - Find more people to climb with

2 people - If you are both experienced and the risk of falls is relatively low and the route well traveled (e.g., the standard route on Mt Rainer), this is ok. If the route is not well traveled, the risk of a fall is high, or you are not experienced, find more people to climb with

3 people - This is perfect for all but the most remote and infrequently traveled routes.

4 people - Kick someone off the team, find more people to climb with, or be prepared for logistical difficulties

5 people - See 2 people (but with the added benefit of a second team)

6 people - You are golden

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    Thanks for the clear suggestions. Might I request to clarify, perhaps with some examples, what logistical difficulties do you mean in case of a 4 member rope team... – Yogesch Jan 7 at 5:54
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    Not much of a fan of this answer. Although I agree that 3 is an ideal size for a team, I prefer a 4 or 5-man team over 2+2 or 2+3, assuming in glacial terrain with hidden crevasses. The logistical issues are mainly: communication in crisis situations, more complex rope management and (possibly) rope between team members. #1 is solvable by putting the more experienced members on either end of the rope, #3 by using a longer rope. – TvZ Jan 7 at 19:00
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    @TvZ I also would take a single 4 man team over 2+2. I disagree with 2+3 vs 5, but mostly because I think the second team is valuable and most of my climbing is where the risks are low. I would never question someone who went with a single 5 man team. – StrongBad Jan 7 at 19:05
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    @StrongBad I'd say a good argument against larger rope teams is the rubber-banding that happens when everyone tries to keep the rope tension just right. It makes for chaotic movement speed the further at the back you are. – Gabriel C. Jan 7 at 19:56
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I would not agree that 4 members is a bad number. Having 4 roped together during glacier travel with the risk of creavasses is still quite good and not much worse than 3 but if things become more technical (with the need for belaying) they can split into two parties of two which is the ideal number for climbing with belays. I myself did all my climbs as a party of two which is not ideal for glacier travel but that's how we ended up always. I did many climbs in the Alps, South- and North America, Central Asia and only once fell into a crevasse completely but as you can tell from this post the fall was arrested by my partner. If you are a party of two it's a good practice to have the lighter person below (i.e. behind on the way up and in front on the way down) This way the lighter person has to be pulled upwards in case of a fall of the heavier, so it should be easier for her/him to stop the fall.

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I went ahead and fished out my copy of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, which happens to be the 50th anniversary 8th edition.

The reason there isn't much detail in the list you quote is that it's in the primer chapter. In chapter 17, Glacier travel and crevasse rescue (p.375), you have to go to the Fundamentals of glacier travel (pp.381-382) in the Rope Teams paragraph. There, you find a good explanation of the line you quote:

Rope teams of three climbers each are ideal for travel on glacier where no technical climbing will be encountered. With a rope team of three, two people are available to arrest a rope mate's fall into a crevasse. A minimum party size of two rope teams is recommended so that a team involved in an accident will have backup help. In some instances, a party of four may climb on a single rope; for example, if one of the climbers may not be able to arrest a crevasse fall, or if just one of the party is experienced in crevasse rescue.

[...]

On technical glacier terrain - with slopes steeper than 40 degrees or with severe crevassing - belaying may be necessary, making it more efficient to travel in two-person rope teams. In this situation, having a second rope team as rescue backup becomes even more important. While the person who is on the same rope as the fallen climber holds the rope fast, the second team can setup a snow anchor and initiate the rescue (see "Crevasse Rescue Response" later in this chapter).

As mentioned in other answers, if you can't meet the safe minimums for rope teams for glacier travel, it is probably the best idea to change plans. 4 climbers could potentially rope up into two teams or as one team, but in the second case it requires a full-length rope (or double ropes):

Glacier travelers usually put 3 people on a 37-meter (120-foot) rope, and three or four people on a 50- or 60-meter (165- to 200-foot) rope. These configurations space the climbers far enough apart so that as the rope team crosses a typical crevasse, only one person at a time is at risk. Where there are truly humongous crevasses - in the himalaya or the Alaska Range, for example - greater spacing may be necessary.

A team of more than 5 becomes more risky as the distance between members isn't large enough for safe travel. There is also an efficiency component as the larger the rope-team, the worse the rubber-banding will affects travel speed as each member tries to keep the rope taut.

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