- Check, is the initial ice axe slot parallel to the crevasse? Is it dug deep enough into firm and solid snow? Is the down-slop face of the initial slot smooth for the ice axe to pull against? Is the second slot which accommodates the sling at 90 degrees to that first slot and directly in-line with the pull of the persons weight in the crevasse? Is that second slot the same depth at the first slot – you don’t want a step down into that first slot otherwise it will lift and upset the ice axe when weighted.
- Now with the head of your ice axe closest to you, bury your axe (pick facing downwards) into the slot you’ve dug, so that the clove hitch and sling line up with the downwards slot, which you’ll open up and lay the sling in, with the screw gate karabiner now on the very end closest to the crevasse.
- If you now put some downwards directional weight onto the sling, in line with the downwards slot, the sling will tighten around the shaft of the ice axe. With each slot being the same depth, the weight will come directly onto the ice axe and without any movement or lift the ice axe will pull against the snow bollards you’ve essentially created and not be disturbed, creating a buried snow anchor.
- Now this is the scary part! – gently transfer the weight of the person you’ve been holding in the crevasse onto the snow anchor you’ve created.
- Firstly, take a prussik or Ropeman (or other mechanical friction locking device like the Wild Country Ropeman) off your harness and fix it to the rope going down to the person in the crevasse (if using a prussik, use a French prussik knot).
- Now clip the Ropeman or French prussik into the screw gate karabiner on the end of the sling and push it down the rope towards the crevasse as far as you can reach.
- Now, very gently and very slowly, roll over holding the person’s weight whilst transferring that weight initially to your front points, as you’ll need to step down fractionally for the persons weight to be transferred onto the screw gate karabiner, sling and buried axe.
- I say gently, because it’s critical to make sure that your axe doesn’t move, your axe isn’t being pulled upwards but has a downwards force onto it, and the snow that you’ve dug into is solid enough to take that person’s weight. You need to keep eyeballing your buried ice axe as you’re doing this.
- Once their weight comes onto the buried axe and you’re happy with it, then slowly and steadily, shuffle downhill until all the weight comes onto the snow anchor and as you do this their weight will come off of you. At this point you can then start to take off your coils and unravel the rope so that to can leave the snow belay and go to the edge.
- To do this safely, tie a classic prussik onto the ‘live’ rope (which is the rope from your snow anchor to the person in the crevasse) and then clip yourself into the prussik. Slide the prussik down the rope as you now move towards the crevasse edge. This will protect you from falling down another crevasse between the snow anchor and the crevasse the person is in, as well as backing up the snow belay in case the rope fails.
- By the time you get to the edge of the crevasse, hopefully the person who has fallen into it will have prussiked up the rope and be near the lip and just need a small amount of help getting over the lip and out. Prussiking up a rope to get out of a crevasse is by far the best and safest way to get out. Hanging from a rope, getting into a position to prussik and then prussiking up a rope is a great skill to practise and can be done at a crag or anywhere you can drop a rope down safely.
The whole process does need some instruction and coaching, as there as many elements to it and safety issues to consider and a huge amount of judgement needed. As an example, in the picture you’ll see that I’ve attached a back-up rope to the person demonstrating the initial elements, as discussed above around a crevasse recue scenario. That back-up rope is initially on the person holding the fall in case they don’t hold it, and then gets attached to their snow anchor in case the ice axe rips out. And then there is the even bigger question around the quality of snow, what constitutes as good, firm or solid enough snow, which will hold a buried ice axe in this way.
If you play around and make buried ice axe belays, you’ll be amazed at the strength of a well-made snow belay in good snow.
It’s important to practise arresting a fall, making snow anchors and understanding the mechanics around the complete picture. This will give you so much more confidence and understanding and in turn having a respect for the rope work skills needed when walking on glaciers.
ISM teaches these elements and much more on our Level 1 - Summits & Skills 4000m six-day instructional course, which is a great foundation to summer alpine mountaineering.
If you need a refresher, then also check out our Level 2 – Classic AlpinISM instructional course.