General Mountaineering Situations and Avoidable Mistakes
A reminder of some things not to do while climbing in the mountains or traveling on glaciers.
by Roger J Fleming
- Sustaining a head injury during a fall or being hit by falling rocks or ice. Grey matters – Wear a helmet.
- Being on a glacier unroped – it’s injudicious and dangerous. Hidden crevasses and snow bridges exist everywhere and no one knows where they all are. Additionally, as global weather has changed, crevasses are opening up and snow bridges are less secure/failing where they never did before. Don’t be the one who discovers/creates the newest hole while traveling unroped.
- Being roped too close together on a glacier and being pulled into a crevasse by another team member. Even if not pulled in, you may not have enough rope between you and the crevasse to establish a reliable anchor or mechanical advantage system if needed. This is the most common and completely avoidable glacier mistake.
- Falling into a crevasse yourself or having an inexperienced climber go in, and getting stuck because you can’t use basic mountaineering equipment or tie appropriate knots. Be certain you and your rope team members can tie and correctly use friction knots/gear before you go onto a glacier.
- Not carrying all the necessary gear for mountain travel/self-rescue and knowing how to use it properly. Never depend upon others for your safety or rescue. If you don’t have the gear and experience to use it appropriately, you should be with a guide. Don’t be a liability for others – act responsibly –
- Not knowing how to establish strong, reliable snow anchors and escape your tie-in point on the rope when another team member falls into a crevasse.
- Not knowing how to rig an assisted and unassisted hoist. You should be able to assist a partner in a crevasse if they are injured or need your help and cannot ascend the rope.
- Flipping upside down during a crevasse fall and not knowing how to right yourself (or a partner hanging in a crevasse). An otherwise healthy, but unconscious climber, hanging solely from a waist harness, can suffocate in a short period of time even when in perfect health, due to abdominal muscle fatigue.
- Increasing your fall distance into a crevasse and increasing the extrication work for yourself (or your partner) by carrying coils or allowing excess rope to build up between rope team members. Avoid unnecessary slack; only a guide knows when it’s appropriate to coil and how to carry excess rope.
- Shocking or overloading your snow anchor when hoisting a climber from a crevasse, due to the use of mechanical advantage systems. Hoisting systems greatly increase the force load transmitted to an anchor, so assure that anchors are constructed with multiple anchor points, redundant, equalized with a cordelette, and suited to the load.
- Building an anchor or snow/ice belay with placements all in one plane or glacial feature. If such a feature fails, the result could be total anchor failure. Be sure that one placement failure cannot adversely effect others.
- Using gear inappropriately. Double up on critical safety pieces, belays, anchors, and use locking carabiners (or doubled reversed carabiners) where needed.
- Failing to agree upon communications techniques with your climbing partner. Be sure that you and rope team members understand how to communicate non-verbally before communication becomes difficult or impossible. A person in a crevasse usually cannot hear anyone on the glacier above and visa-versa. Wind can also greatly reduce or eliminate all hearing.
- Dropping your rappelling/belaying gear or ascension device and not knowing how to rig alternatives. Learn and practice friction knots, the carabiner-brake rappel and Munter Hitch, with gloves on.
- Getting hair or loose clothing caught in an abseil device. Tie hair back and tuck clothing in. NEVER use a knife to unblock a stuck rappel – learn to rectify such situations safely with friction knots, etc.
- Failing to have self-check systems and using them. Avoid being distracted while conducting /constructing safety systems. (Harness buckle doubled back, helmet on, belay device & back-up properly rigged, etc). Visually check your partner’s tie-in knots, harness buckle, safety/belay setups.
- Getting benighted, or exposing yourself to unnecessary risk because you left the headlamp at home. A headlamp and batteries are basic equipment even on single day outings.
- Dropping gear or equipment because pack pockets are left unzipped or open. Avoidable/unforgivable.
- Dressing inappropriately on glaciers (t-shirts, shorts, etc). Dress as if you could go into a crevasse at any time.
- Climbing under/behind other parties on loose routes. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way by being under dangerous parties or natural phenomena (rocks, avalanche slopes, seracs) when it is avoidable.
- Not knowing your climbing partner well enough. Don’t accept what you are told as necessarily being accurate – judge for yourself, if you are appropriately trained and knowledgeable. Critically evaluate your partner, the circumstances, and apply your own training and logic. Be aware of your climbing partners’ limitations and climb accordingly.
- Assuming inexperienced partners will do the right thing – this is a common accident characteristic. If unsure, clearly explain first and get your partner to demonstrate techniques as confirmation of effective communication, prior to a partnership and/or system being relied upon.
- Many mountain travelers do not have the experience or knowledge to protect themselves or their partners, or to rectify problematic situations. Don’t be one of them: Get trained or hire a guide.
- Following the tracks of others and reading books will not teach you how to pick safe routes, extricate you or your partner from a crevasse, build reliable snow anchors or hoist an injured partner out of a glacier. Don’t be fooled by thinking you can accomplish these things because you understand drawings in books or have practiced indoors (or without gloves and a pack in freezing conditions).
- Mountain accidents are avoidable; but they are also unforgiving and almost always occur in unfriendly, unexpected situations. Get professional training and practice the techniques that you and your partner depend upon.
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