22 Years of Avalanche Fatalities | Ice Climbers At Risk

avalanche above camp bird road

Helicopter assisted avalanche mitigation – big release into a gully above one of the many ice climbs on the Camp Bird Road, Ouray, Colorado. ©Angela Hawse

A recent study, 22 Years of Avalanche Fatalities by Activity and Trigger Type in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, Canada reveals that 43% of avalanche fatalities were ice climbers, 32% were skiers, and 18% were snowshoers. The study also reveals almost a 50/50 split between victims triggering avalanches themselves or getting hit by a natural from overhead.

table showing avalanche fatals by activity in the last 22 years in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay Parks, Canada

Looking at this study, it’s odd that many ice climbers and mountaineers throughout the world do not carry avalanche rescue equipment. This long-standing culture of climbers not carrying avalanche rescue equipment is especially odd considering ice and alpine climbs often involve avalanche terrain i.e. gullies or exposure on the approach or descent.

In contrast, backcountry skiers have always accepted responsibility for avalanche risk. The backcountry skiing code-of-conduct insists that everyone carries avalanche rescue gear.

Avalanche rescue gear is considered fundamental gear for backcountry skiers. Not only do backcountry skiers expect their partners to be properly equipped, they expect them to be adequately skilled in the event of an avalanche.

Although we see a shift towards avalanche awareness in climbing culture, Chicks wants to encourage all ice climbers and mountaineers to adopt the fundamentals of avalanche safety: always climb with avalanche gear and know how to use it. Don’t climb with anyone who doesn’t.

The best way to familiarize yourself with avalanche rescue gear and fundamental skills is to take a 1-day Avalanche Rescue Course.

Avalanche Rescue courses are not only for skiers. They are for everybody (skiers, boarders, climbers, snowshoers, sledders) who gets out in the mountains in the wintertime.

If you can’t afford to buy avalanche rescue gear, it’s easy to rent.

Again, having avalanche rescue gear as well as the ability to properly use avalanche rescue gear is the only chance for survival in the unfortunate event you or one of your partners is involved in an avalanche.

Together with the Silverton Avalanche School , Chicks is hosting three early-season, 1-day Avalanche Rescue Courses. Each course will be held in a different, yet equally fantastic Colorado San Juan Mountains location.

These clinics are offered throughout the country. Check out the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education’s Upcoming Public Avalanche Training Courses List. Get signed up for one before you set off pursuing your winter ice!

5 Questions To Help You Plan And Prepare For Climbing Success

Caro North on a mission to send in Salvan, Switzerland. ©Karen Bockel.

 

1. Where?

Bring your guidebook (or topos) of your desired route(s).

Read and take notes on directions to the trailhead, approaches and route description(s).

Use tech resources such as gaia.gps, mountainproject or sumitpost for beta for information.

Pro Tip – If the guidebook is too heavy, take photos of all relevant pages.

2. When?

Make yourself a time plan.

How long does it take to drive to the trailhead?

How long is the approach?

When do you want to be back?

How long does it take to get back?

How much can you climb in the rest of the time?

3. What?

Is your route the right objective for the day?

Are conditions appropriate?

Do you have the gear and experience for the send?

Have a Plan B if things don’t line up.

4. Why?

Is it a project?

Just getting mileage?

Happy to enjoy a leisurely day at the crag?

Define your goal!

5. Who?

Who is the most important part!

Are you in the right mind space?

(Put away the distractions and hidden agendas.)

 

Is your partner on the same page?

 

Communicate your plan for the day.

Teamwork makes the dream work!

 

See you in the hills,

Your Hips Are Your Power Center

Magali Lequient climbing "Liquid Zipper" (11b) at "The Pipeline Crag" in Maple Canyon, Utah.

Magali Lequient climbing “Liquid Zipper” (11b) at “The Pipeline Crag” in Maple Canyon, Utah.©Chris Noble

“Do the Elvis!”

Two young men, whom I barely knew but had eagerly suggested we go sport climbing together, yelled up at me.

“What?” I yelled back, trying to maintain composure. What the hell were they talking about?

I was struggling at the crux of a moderate sport route and when I looked down both of the guys were grinning and gyrating their hips.

At the time, most of my experience was in trad climbing. “I must be missing something,” I thought. I’d never heard of “doing the Elvis” in trad climbing.

Later, I went to a local climbing gym to learn better technique from a coach. After many sessions, it finally dawned on me: my hips should not act like an anchor on a ship! They are in fact my power center.

If you think about it, you can move your hips in many ways to your advantage, just like those boys were trying to show me all those years ago.

  • Move your hips out from the wall so you can see your feet.
  • Once you place your feet, rock your hips over them so that you can stand up.
  • Engage your hips forcefully (as if doing a squat) to get power from your lower body rather than trying to do all the work with your less powerful upper body by pulling only with your arms.
  • Wind up with your hips for momentum when making a big side-to-side or upward movement like a deadpoint or dyno.
  • On steep technical rock, focus on keeping your hips “married” to the wall for better balance.

I bet Elvis never dreamed he’d be invoked as a model for efficient climbing movement!

Alpine Butterfly Knot

alpine butterfly knot

Alpine Butterfly Knot. ©Elaina Arenz

The Alpine Butterfly Knot is primarily used to create an attachment point to the middle of a climbing rope in alpine or glaciated terrain.

However, for rock climbing the alpine butterfly knot is also great for isolating a bad section of rope and using the rope for the anchor.

The reason why an Alpine Butterfly is a good choice for the middle of the rope is that once it’s tied, the knot can be loaded in any direction. This makes it the perfect choice for roping up several people on one climbing rope—for crossing glaciers or other low-angle terrain that might be easy but where you still want security.

To clip into a butterfly knot it’s best practice to use a triple action carabineer designed to protect against cross loading like the Sterling Falcon Talon. Clip the bite of the butterfly knot to your belay loop.

As with any knot, it’s important that you can recognize a correctly tied knot. Be sure to dress it by pulling both strands tightly.

The simplest way to tie the Alpine Butterfly is the hand-wrap method. The advantages are:

  • Easy to tie while wearing gloves
  • You’ll consistently tie it correctly
  • Easy to untie after it’s been weighted

Check out this video demonstration of the Alpine Butterfly Hand-Wrap Method, watch it and then practice until you commit it to muscle memory. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

One-Handed Clove Hitch

Attach to the anchor with a clove hitch

Attaching to the anchor with a one-handed clove hitch. ©Aimee Barnes

Attaching to the anchor with a one-handed clove hitch is beneficial for a number of reasons.

  1. You are hardwiring into the anchor and you need no other tether.
  2. A clove hitch is easily adjustable.

twist the rope towards yourself and clip it into the anchor

With anchor at head  or chest height, raise rope and intentionally back clip the carabiner twisting the rope towards yourself.

one-handed clove hitch step 2

Pick up the rope that is coming from the back.

one handed clove hitch step 3

Twist toward yourself again and clip it. Creating a clove hitch.

finished clove hitch

Clove Hitch!

Flat Overhand Bend | Climbing Knots

Two ropes tied together with a flat overhand bend and set up for a rappel

A flat overhand bend used to tie two ropes together for rappelling.

Use A Flat Overhand Bend To Tie Two Ropes Together For A Double-Rope Rappel

When I got into climbing longer routes during my college years, I started to also encounter lots of long rappels.

The endless question of how to tie the ropes together never got a simple answer at that time. I saw people use anything from a double fisherman’s to a reverse-threaded figure eight with back up knots. These knots were cumbersome and often got stuck in cracks or under overhangs. Everyone seemed to have a different solution, and none of them were all that practical. I remember being frustrated and unsure.

Enter the flat overhand bend (also known as the offset overhand bend). This is a simple but plenty strong enough knot for joining two ropes together when you need to do a double rope rappel.

The most important part of a flat overhand bend is to leave plenty of tail, at least 12 inches. Also, make sure you dress flat overhand knots very tidily, avoiding any twists. Lastly, make sure to pre-tension flat overhands by pulling all 4 rope threads snugly.

A flat overhand bend

holds a lot of weight (6kN or the equivalent of about 10 climbers hanging with their full bodyweight) before it might fail by rolling—that’s why long tails are important. Long tails will keep your ropes connected even if the knot did start to roll.

It is also worth noting that the flat overhand bend had a bad reputation in the past. But fear not, there was mislabeling and misapplication that caused this “bad” reputation.For example, some people called this knot the European Death Knot or EDK. Meanwhile others used that same name for tying two ropes together using a figure eight instead of an overhand.

(People often think that a figure eight knot is stronger than an overhand knot but in this case, because the running ends are being pulled apart, the opposite is actually true. A few accidents may have resulted from the use of the figure eight in that application, but even that is not entirely proven…)

Use the flat overhand specifically to tie ropes together for rappelling.

If your knot is well-dressed and pre-tensioned with long tails, you are good to go.

You might also be interested in:

Use the Rope to Connect to the Anchor | Chicks Climbing

Sterling Powercord Cordalette | Chicks Climbing

 

The Rest Step

Click on the video above to watch Kitty Calhoun explain and demonstrate the rest step while carrying a heavy Indian Creek climbing backpack.

Use the Rest Step to conserve energy when hiking in the mountains and approaching rock climbs. You can also use the Rest Step while backcountry skiing.

Learn more about climbing and skiing from Kitty on a number of different Chicks Programs.

Learn more than the rest step. Kitty teaches Spring 2019 Chicks Indian Creek participants how to tape up before climbing

Kitty teaching Spring 2019 Chicks Indian Creek participants how to tape up before climbing.

Unplanned Bivouac, West Face – Grand Teton, 1984

morning after unplanned bivouac. Kitty Calhoun traversing on the west face of the grand teton, 1984

Kitty Calhoun, Co-Owner Chicks Climbing and Skiing, traversing back on route the morning after a forced bivouac on the West Face of the Grand Teton, 1984 ©Kitty Calhoun Collection

There is nothing like an unplanned bivouac to make me swear:

“I will never make that mistake again.”

When I first began doing winter alpine ascents, almost 40 years ago, what I feared most was getting benighted.

Yet, as these things go, in January 1984 I found myself near the top of the West Face of the Grand Teton, in the dark. There I sat, bumping my head against my partner, Bobby Knight. The head bumping was my way of forcing us to stay awake to keep wiggling our toes. I was terrified that if we dozed off our feet would freeze.

It turns out we were off-route. Bobby and I were supposed to be on the Black Ice Couloir. But, instead we were in a nearby dihedral. The dihedral had suckered us with endless, blissful mixed climbing. However, hours of joyful climbing soon turned to concern, as it grew dark. Using night vision and our weak, circa 1984 headlamp, we were able to keep climbing. But when the dihedral ended at the base of a dark, blank-looking face we were stuck. There was nothing to do but sit on a ledge, bump heads and wait for daylight.  It’s a good thing I have a hard head!

Eventually morning came, finding us sleepy but unfrozen.

In the daylight we traversed out right onto the Black Ice Couloir and continued to the summit.

Looking back, I’m certain that if we’d had a modern, Black Diamond Icon Headlamp with 125 feet of 500 lumens we could have kept going and avoided that frightening unplanned bivouac.

Save Room on Your Gear Loops

save room on your gear loops with the waterfall method

Save room on your harness with the “waterfall method.” ©Elaina Arenz

Save room on your gear loops with the waterfall method.

If you like to rack up on your harness like me, you’ll find that you quickly run out of gear-loop space if you’re carrying multiple sets.

The waterfall racking method saves a ton of room and helps you keep organized.

First, clip a cam to your gear loop as usual.
Then, clip a second cam to the racking carabiner of the first one.

You can see that I’ve already doubled up the purples and greens.
And then I’m clipping the second red cam to the red carabineer of the first red cam.

The waterfall method will help you save room on your gear loops. It will also help you keep better track of how many of each size you’ve already placed.

Inspect Your Rock PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)

Angela Hawse, co-owner Chicks Climbing and Skiing, IFMGA mountain guide, climbing Inti Watana. Red Rocks, Nevada ©Garrick  Hart

Angela Hawse, co-owner Chicks Climbing and Skiing, IFMGA mountain guide, casting off on Inti Watana. Red Rocks, Nevada ©Garrick  Hart

 

The last thing you want to think about when you’re off the deck is the viability of your equipment.

The beginning of every season marks an important time to check your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Just as we pump up our push-ups and finger board workouts, preparing for the rock season ahead, so too should we insure our equipment is in good nick.

Rock PPE or climbing protection protects us while climbing.

The life span of some climbing protection is easy to evaluate. With others it’s more challenging.

Climbing gear manufacturer, PETZL, breaks Rock PPE into three categories.

Rock PPE Inspection Guidelines

Category 1

  • Includes climbing protection like eyewear, gloves and rope tarps

Gear in category 1 is easy to inspect. It adds to our safety system, but it isn’t critical.

I include belay glasses here because they help reduce strain in my neck and back particularly when I’m sport climbing.

Category 2

  • Includes helmets

Retire Helmets after 10 years of minimal use and after 3-5 years of frequent use. Sign of UV fatigue, cracks, strap-wear or damage to the foam casing inside the shell means a helmet should be replaced.

Category 3

  • Fall protection

Fall protection is a critical category and gear in this category is the hardest to inspect.

Critical climbing gear includes harnesses, ropes, webbing, slings, PAS, carabiners, belay devices, nuts, cams, ascenders, etc.

Harnesses should be retired immediately if they show any wear, fraying or damage to the belay loops or waist belt. Retire a harness after 7 years; or, retire your harness every year if you’re a regular user.

Slings, cord and webbing should be retired after 10 years even if never used. Anything with excessive wear should be retired immediately. I retire my skinny cords like prusiks and cordelettes every year or two. Their smaller diameter means they wear faster. And, I use them a lot!

For ropes, read my previous article, Rules For Rope Care and Longevity.

Hardware like carabiners, nuts and cams are easier to inspect.

Look for grooves and any signs of hairline cracks.

Look especially closely for hairline cracks at the gate/pin area of your carabiners.

You can replace frayed cam wires yourself.

Frayed nut wires, however, means you need new nuts!

An unattended wire may not be a safety issue initially. But frayed wires will dig into your soft gear, clothing and skin, creating all kinds of problems.

 

Finally, know your equipment’s history and if in doubt, retire it.