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As a child, I remember walking with my family over the Gornergletscher to reach the Monte Rosa-Hütte. I remember the same for crossing Vadret da Diavolezza. In both cases, we did not have crampons and and did not use a rope. We tried the same for the Mèr de Glace, but turned around as it was too icy. In all cases, there were many other people.

Vadret da Morteratsch
Vadret da Morteratsch,

The hiking book Walking and Trekking in Iceland notes that

Eyjabakkajökull is often crossed by walkers without ice axes, crampons, or ropes

Under what circumstances can a glacier be safely crossed without special gear? How do I judge if this can be done?

  • It's not just a question of ice ax and crampons, but also ropes, harnesses, anchors, and all the technical gear used for crevasse rescue. You need to get information on whether the glacier has crevasses big enough to fall into. – Ben Crowell Jul 27 '15 at 0:21
  • @BenCrowell Right. I did not intend to give a complete description of all the necessary gear. – gerrit Jul 27 '15 at 8:46
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Although always recommended, crampons and axes are only necessary for hiking on steep or slippery ice where there is fall potential or danger of sliding to the bottom of a slope and seriously injuring or killing yourself. If you're traveling along an easy, flat, or concave slope of a glacier, and you can manage in only your boots, then they aren't necessarily required.

Judging when a glacier can be safely crossed without the appropriate gear should only be done by guides or experienced glacier walkers. If you are unsure of whether a glacier can be crossed without the appropriate gear, then you'd be wise not to take any risks without it.

Mountaineering always carries with it a certain amount of risk. Responsible mountaineers always educate themselves for the terrain they plan to travel on, and take the proper precautions in order to avoid incidents or be prepared in the event of an emergency.

  • 3
    If you don't have an axe and crampons, and you are roped up, how do you stop your partner dragging you into the slot with him? – user5330 Jul 27 '15 at 4:25
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    Tie stopper knots in the rope between you and your partner. – ShemSeger Jul 27 '15 at 4:36
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    Your description of techniques for travelling on crevassed glaciers is wrong and unsafe. Every member of the team needs to have the gear, not just "one or two people." You don't know which member of the rope team is going to fall in, and if someone does fall unexpectedly into a hidden crevasse, all of the other people on the rope team will only have a matter of seconds to self-arrest using their ice axes. If they successfully self-arrest, then one person needs to get up and begin the technical process of a crevasse self-rescue. Tying knots in the rope is not sufficient by itself. – Ben Crowell Jul 27 '15 at 12:00
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    but falling down one with sharp pointy things attached to you can actually increase your chances of wounding yourself (snagging a crampon on the fall and breaking your leg, impaling yourself on your tool, etc.) No, this is wrong. Although it's true that you can be injured by your crampons in this type of situation, that isn't a reason for not wearing crampons. The reason is that although there are multiple possible strategies for getting someone out of a crevasse, the technique of choice, which you should try first and which has the greatest probability of success, is for the victim to [...] – Ben Crowell Jul 27 '15 at 12:19
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    Your edited version of the answer is better, so I'm removing my downvote. – Ben Crowell Jul 27 '15 at 18:04
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The first thing you need to find out is how heavily crevassed the glacier is, and whether any crevasses are likely to be big enough to fall into. Crevasses can be hidden by snow, so people can fall into them unexpectedly.

If you have reliable information that there are no crevasses big enough to fall into, then the use of ice axes and crampons is decided by all the same factors as in any snowy mountain environment, such as ice, exposure, steepness of the slope, and whether or not there is a boot track already.

If falling into a hidden crevasse is a possibility, then you need to do a lot more than just bringing ice axes and crampons. Crevasse self-rescue is a complicated technical topic. You need to learn it from a competent instructor and practice all the techniques extensively before you go. You will travel in a rope team, and every member of the team needs to have both the gear and the skills, because if someone falls in, it's unpredictable who will fall in, who will need to stay in self-arrest position, and who will need to get out of self-arrest and begin setting up the rescue. In addition to the group's rope and any additional rescue lines carried in packs, the minimum gear that each person needs to have on them would be something like the following:

  • harness
  • ice ax
  • crampons
  • at least one ice screw
  • at least one picket
  • 2 shoulder-length slings
  • 3 locking biners
  • 4 nonlocking biners
  • 2 Prusiks
  • chest harness

The standard mountaineering textbook Freedom of the Hills has a chapter on glacier travel.

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