Crevasse Rescue

Technique > Glacier Travel for Skiers and Snowboarders > Crevasse Rescue

There are a number of options for crevasse rescue. When climbing it may simply be possible to haul on the rope, and with a bit of assistance, pull the victim to the surface. The ideal scenario is for the lead to fall into the crevasse first as the remaining ascender(s) will have the assistance of the slope and gravity. Of course it may well be someone behind that falls and the first you know is either a cry or a shock on the rope. The initial reaction for the people on the surface is to get down low and try to take the force by anchoring feet in the snow. If the snow is soft this is usually successful, even if you do get dragged some meters. Alpine touring skis with their free heel bindings and snowshoes are much less practical than crampons for arresting falls.

Communication with the victim is difficult. Sometimes they will be able to hear you but their shouts will be muffled by the crevasse. Try to construct a belay point and wait a few minutes to see if the victim begins to climb out under their own steam. You will be aware of their movements on the rope.

Belay Points

There are a number of options for belay points. If the snow is hard enough or there is ice close to the surface you may be able to insert an ice screw. A dead-man is a flat metal plate with a pointed end that is pushed into the snow, however they are heavy devices and rarely carried by ski mountaineers. A belay point can also be fashioned with one or two ice axes or a rucksack.

While lying in the snow excavate a hole behind. This should have a flat front and be large enough either to take a rucksack or ice axe. A rucksack provides a better anchor. If using a rucksack pass a long loop around its centre. For ice axes the loop can be attached with a clove hitch. A single axe should be positioned horizontally with the pick pointing down into the snow or ice. Two ice axes, a luxury for ski mountaineers but common for climbers, form a stronger belay by positioning them in a cross with the head of the vertical axe supported by the horizontal axe. In this case the clove hitch can bind the two axes together.

Practise makes perfect

The next step is to attach one of your prussic loops to a caribiner with a mariner's not and clip this to the loop. Pile snow around the belay and stamp down to make it secure. You can now unclip the figure of 8 from your harness. As an additional security this can be clipped to the caribiner attached to the belay loop. This is shown as point B in the diagrams.


For self rescue the victim will need to release his skis or snowshoes and attach them to the climbing rope below his prussic loops. This is an example where binding straps rather than ski brakes are useful. It is also a good idea to do this with the rucksack to reduce weight. With feet unencumbered the victim may now be able to scramble out of the crevasse although this is rarely simply as the walls may be ice and the lip overhanging. If he finds himself on a ledge he may be able to attach crampons and climb out with the aid of his ice axe. Otherwise the prussic loops will have to be used. Putting all the weight on one prussic the second loop is slid up the rope. Weight is transferred to this loop and the process repeated until the skier reaches the lip of the crevasse.

It is a good idea cut out the lip to aid the victim and reinforce the slope by placing another ice axe or some other piece of equipment under the rope. Otherwise the pressure of the rope on the lip may cut into the slope making the final meters difficult to overcome.

Assisted Hoist

If the victim can't use prussics to climb but is able to help with a rescue an assisted hoist may be used. With the rope passed through the caribiner (B) and an autoblock knot replacing the prussic loop the belayer lowers another caribiner down to the victim who then clips this to his harness. The victim pulls on the rope on the anchor point side at the same time as the rescuer pulls on his rope. The autoblock ensures that no ground is lost if the rescuer takes a rest or the rope slips in his hands. The autoblock knot is better than a prussic as it works on its own.

Unassisted Hoists

If the victim is unable to help with the rescue, perhaps he is unconscious or hanging in mid-air at a difficult angle it is up to the rescuer(s) to raise him alone. This will require one of two unassisted hoists. Proceed in the same way as the assisted hoist by looping the rope through the belay caribiner (B) and attaching the prussic loop. When all is secure add an autoblock and remove the prussic. A second caribiner is clipped through the rope above the belay point and attached to the rope below the belay point with a prussic (A). A prussic is fine here as it only has to grip. Now pull on the rope to haul the victim out of the crevasse. In practise the friction presented by the two caribiners, the lip of the glacier and the prussic may be too much for a single rescuer. You can either double up the caribiners or add one or two small pulleys designed for the purpose.

simple assisted hoist

Simple Unassisted Hoist

An assisted hoist increases the mechanical advantage by around a third at the expense of complexity. A second prussic and caribiner is added at point C and the end of the rope is attached to the belay point with a figure of 8. The belay caribiner is probably a bit crowded by now so a fourth caribiner will be necessary. The rescuer now pulls on both ends of the loop of rope. In the diagram almost all of the rope has been pulled through.

Advanced Unassisted Hoist

Crevasse rescue takes practise and anyone thinking of going into glaciated terrain is advised to take a training course beforehand and go with experienced friends or a guide.

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