Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Crevasses.....Stop worrying and learn to love the slot

Crevasse. It’s a jagged noun, treacherous with sibilance. Right in the middle there’s that pit of a V; V for very deep, very bad idea....Very scary.
I had heard of glaciers: places where enormous holes can open up without warning and swallow up entire parties without a trace…I imagined that we would have to creep snail-like across the snow, afraid lest the slightest footfall reveal a fathomless crevasse. It was said that even the most expert, the most experienced guides could not always detect the presence of crevasses.’-René Desmaison, Total Alpinism, 1982
They are formed suddenly, and frequently with a noise that may be heard at the distance of several miles, and with a shock that makes the neighbouring country tremble: this effect takes place principally in summer. These rents are from a few inches to 20, 30, or even 50 or 60 feet in breadth, and generally of immense depth: probably extending to the bottom of the glacier. They present the greatest danger and difficulty to the passenger. They are often concealed by a layer of snow, which gives no indication on its surface, of its want of solidity; and it often happens that the chamois hunter, notwithstanding all his caution, suddenly sinks through this treacherous veil into the chasm beneath.’ - W.M Howard, MD. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Published 1821.
In the second narrative quoted above, the order in which the crevasse is dealt with is of interest. First it is described impersonally. Then the danger; the outcome of an unroped fall, is described and the precautions taken against such an occurrence are outlined.
To avoid the danger of falling into the crevices, especially those masked by the snow, we connected ourselves, three persons together, at the distance of 10 or 12 feet apart, by a cord round the body: so that in case of one of the three falling into a chasm, the other two could at least support him, until assistance could be procured from the rest of the party.’ - W.M Howard, MD. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Published 1821.
Lastly, some personal curiosity is dealt with.
We threw down into some of the narrow cracks, pieces of ice and fragments of rock, and heard for a considerable time, the more and more distant sound, as they bounded from side to side. In no instance could we perceive the stone strike the bottom; but the sound, instead of ceasing suddenly, as would then have been the case, grew fainter and fainter, until it was too feeble to be heard. What then must be the immense depth of these openings, when in these silent regions, the noise of a large stone striking the bottom is too distant to be heard at the orifice!’ - W.M Howard, MD. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Published 1821.
Cattle were driven across the mer de grace to graze on the Plan du Dru (a practice which ended as recently as 1920), their hooves swaddled in rags to give friction against the ice. The same method was used to safeguard mules bearing early tourists, with the ‘Torrent des chausettes’ on the 1:25000 IGN map taking it’s name from where these ‘socks’ were taken off. Crystal hunters explored the mountains from the mid 18th century in search of smoky quartz and pink fluorite, with many of these men becoming the first mountain guides. Surefooted chamois were hunted in these mountains and, as the hunted crossed glaciers, so too did the hunter. Gentlemen mountaineers and scientists were far from being the first to have business in the high places and thus were not the first to observe the quirks of ice on the move. The tendency of glaciers to advance and recede had been remarked on as early as 1781, by Swiss pastor Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach.
In 1814 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Shelley left England to see the sights of continental Europe, arranging to meet Lord Byron on the way. This trip was the genesis of much poetry and prose from the talented friends; most famously Mary (by then) Shelley’s gothic classic ‘Frankenstein’, published anonymously in 1818. Less well known is ‘History of a six weeks’ tour … with letters descriptive of a sail round the lake of Geneva, and of the glaciers of Chamouni’, published by the married couple in 1817.
We did not, as we intended, visit the Glacier de Boisson to-day, although it descends within a few minutes' walk of the road, wishing to survey it at least when unfatigued. We saw this glacier which comes close to the fertile plain, as we passed, its surface was broken into a thousand unaccountable figures: conical and pyramidical crystallizations, more than fifty feet in height, rise from its surface, and precipices of ice, of dazzling splendour, overhang the woods and meadows of the vale.’
The romantic and the scientific merge and blur in these letters, giving a glimpse into how the locals viewed the glaciers and how these educated, foreign romantics saw nature at work.
Within this last year, these glaciers have advanced three hundred feet into the valley. Saussure, the naturalist, says, that they have their periods of increase and decay: the people of the country hold an opinion entirely different; but as I judge, more probable. It is agreed by all, that the snow on the summit of Mont Blanc and the neighbouring mountains perpetually augments, and that ice, in the form of glaciers, subsists without melting in the valley of Chamouni during its transient and variable summer. If the snow which produces this glacier must augment, and the heat of the valley is no obstacle to the perpetual existence of such masses of ice as have already descended into it, the consequence is obvious; the glaciers must augment and will subsist, at least until they have overflowed this vale.’
Swiss naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure’s ‘sliding’ theory was the beginning of the systematic scientific study of glaciers, heralding the dawn of scientific knowledge rather than folk knowledge of glaciers. Through to the mid 19th century it competed with the ‘expansion’ theory (that water permeated ice and froze, causing the glacier to lengthen) and the ultimately accepted ‘viscous’ theory, as proposed by Louis Rendu as early as 1841, in his ‘Théorie des glaciers de Savoie’.
Edinburgh physicist James David Forbes, Swiss biologist and geologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (born in Switzerland, though he would later emigrate to the United States) and Irish physicist John Tyndall were, following on from de Saussure, at the forefront of research into the movement of glaciers, working in partnership and latterly in competition (the taciturn Forbes published his observations on some of Agassiz’ fieldwork without informing Agassiz, who viewed this as a breach of trust and accused Forbes of such in a letter.) The viscous theory hinged on the understanding of ‘regelation’, a phenomenon described by Michael Faraday in 1860, which was understood by Tyndall but not by Forbes.
The acrimony and controversy among these early scientists undoubtedly hindered their research into glacial movement. In the aftermath of the bitter arguments over who had discovered what and when, the seemingly even-handed Tyndall, in his 1860 ‘The Glaciers of The Alps’ stated that;
The idea of semi-fluid motion belongs entirely to Louis Rendu; the proof of the quicker central flow belongs in part to Rendu, but almost wholly to Louis Agassiz and Forbes; the proof of the retardation of the bed belongs to Forbes alone; while the discovery of the locus of the point of maximum motion belongs, I suppose, to me.’
These scientist-mountaineers, spending time on glaciers and mountains, wrote little on the subject of crevasses, other than as an impediment to travel and occasionally mentioning them in support of their theories. Tyndall, during an attempt to climb the Jungfrau in 1863, was stopped when one of his porters fell forty feet into a crevasse. In a letter to Michael Faraday, Tyndall, despite this incident, stated that;
There is certainly no more real danger of falling into a crevasse on the Aletsch glacier, than there is of being run over by a cab in crossing from Albemarle Street to James’s Street. Recklessness however makes both positions dangerous.” (Jackson, 2018)
Slowly, alpine climbing techniques developed, contemporaneously with these scientific, exploratory, and sporting ascents. Following several experiences of his own and of others, and in reaction to a written plea urging him to pressure guides to abandon the use of ropes altogether, he instead forwarded the letter to the Times, adding that he thought the solution was not practicable in all situations and that it would be better to split larger parties up (Jackson, 2018). Given the rope technology and climbing techniques available at the time this seems to have been an eminently sensible suggestion.
We looked into the hole, at one end of which the vision was cut short by darkness, while immediately under the broken bridge it was crammed with snow and shattered icicles. We saw nothing more. We listened with strained attention, and from the depths of the glacier issued a low moan. Its repetition assured us that it was no delusion—the man was still alive.’ (Tyndall, 1896).
In 1872 ‘The fortieth ascent of Mont Blanc’ was published, attributed to Jules Verne but possibly written by his brother, Paul.
We were about to advance upon the Bossons glacier. This glacier, difficult at first, presents yawning and apparently bottomless crevasses on every hand. The vertical sides of these crevasses are of a glaucous and uncertain colour, but too seducing to the eye; when, approaching closely, you succeed in looking into their mysterious depths, you feel yourself irresistibly drawn towards them, and nothing seems more natural than to go down into them.’ (Verne, 1872)
As well as an account of an emotional draw to explore the crevasse (although the above passage might also be an example of Freud’s ‘Todestrieb’, or ‘death-drive’) the short story includes a description of the precautions taken when crossing bridged crevasses.
You advance slowly, passing round the crevasses, or on the snow bridges of dubious strength. Then the rope plays its part. It is stretched out over these dangerous transits; if the snow bridge yields, the guide or traveller remains hanging over the abyss. He is drawn beyond it, and gets off with a few bruises. Sometimes, if the crevasse is very wide but not deep, he descends to the bottom and goes up on the other side.’
As mountaineers, our experiences with crevasses and our relationship with them generally changes and evolves as we grow in experience, much like our relationship with the mountains themselves. While a lot of ink has been spilled about the latter, from Wordsworth’s florid prose to Twight’s abrasive punk articles, our relationship with crevasses goes by relatively unexamined. Perhaps because, while the mountain gives and takes, allowing the tension of juxtaposition and a degree of navel gazing, the crevasse just takes; it swallows a foot, a leg, a piste-basher. Maybe crevasses are just too dark to be anything other than the bad guy; an obstacle on the way to that shining summit.
For the most part crevasses, to the mountaineer, represent a danger, a hidden or obvious threat to our well-being, our leisure and at times our existence.
I look to my right, the slowly tapering walls of hard ice slither into darkness. I know that it isn’t bottomless. The pressure of the deep glacial ice will press the walls together at around 60 or 80 feet. That’s how people die in crevasses. They become slotted into a narrow, gently tapering crevice. Their body heat melts the ice a little, and their body weight wedges them deeper into a self-made sarcophagus. They get compressed and it gets harder to breathe. Their body temperature drops steadily, fatally, until they are 32 degrees and dead. The snow ledge - for now - has saved me from this, my most frequent nightmare.’ - Steve House, Beyond the Mountain. House managed to climb free, despite having broken his leg in the fall.
For the most part crevasses, to the mountaineer, represent a danger, a hidden or obvious threat to our well-being, our leisure and at times our existence.
They can also be places of refuge and of great beauty, with a unique atmosphere, as much deserving of the title ‘nature’s cathedral’ as any limestone grotto.
I heard of crevasses in the weeks prior to my first alpine climbing trip. At that point I had worn crampons only once and hadn’t climbed anything longer than three pitches. My older and marginally more seasoned companions decided, quite wisely, that we should learn crevasse rescue before we left Scotland.
We met at a local quarry with featured bolt anchors near the rim and spent a few hours one dreich afternoon hauling an almost empty rucksack up a grotty slab. I had been advised to get some prussic loops and had dutifully bought two lengths of blue 5mm cord, tying them as instructed.
Two loops of cord, a few spare screw gates and two ice screws apiece. This totemic protection gave my partners and I the confidence to make our way up a few easy peaks, roped as a four. Nothing untoward happened and I began a love affair with mountains.
And I saw my first crevasses.
I remember the bergschrund below the summit of Mont Dolent, a ragged and narrow slot that I hurried over, trying to think myself lighter, dehydrated and and dizzy with exertion.
I remember the dry slots of the Mer de Glace, flaked with dust and dirt. Hopping over them, I was told that above the firn line the brethren of these slots would be lying in wait, ready to drag me into the cold and dark; to squeeze me to death between their walls, to mangle and freeze me. I didn’t dare get close enough to the rim to see far down but I got the message, loud and clear.
Once we started onto the wet glacier beyond the Courvercle hut I remember the feeling of not knowing what was underneath my feet and finding that sensation deeply disconcerting. A crevasse, as I understood them, could get me at any moment, anywhere. Solid ground, granite, dirt…these had never felt so good as when I got off a glacier.
I was safer than I had known on those first forays. My companions had kept an eye on me, educating me at a pace that they thought I could handle. Soon though I began organising my own trips, with less experienced friends. That’s where things started to get dangerous; when the bridges were weakest under my feet and the drops the biggest.
If I were to tally up the ascents I made with fellow neophyte alpinists I would be able to show that I spent months of days walking on crevassed glaciers with companions who couldn’t have built a useable snow anchor and, even if they had, would have struggled to rig a basic haul. We had the gear, just, but no idea; those same two ice screws, two loops of cord (now looking worse for wear) and a handful of snapgates…because I’d learned about going lightweight. We were a disaster waiting to happen that, somehow, never happened.
About this time a girlfriend took me to a modern art museum. It was free, a short walk from her flat. Among the exhibits were a series of paintings and woodcuts by Edvard Munch. While I had blitzed through much of the building, in a hurry to be elsewhere, I lingered by that display for some time, drinking it in and thinking about what was in front of me.
The three ages of woman. The unthreatening, demure virgin, the lusty and sensual woman in the prime of life, and the dark and haunting spectre of spent womanhood. What captured my attention was, of course, how I could recognise the interplay of these stages in the women in my life. Of course.
Years later that image came back to me while thinking about the three ages of the mountaineer. Reductionist, yes, but sometimes even crude tools have a use. The enthusiastic and naive beginner, the brash and headstrong young professional and the knowledgeable and staid alpiniste.
Place yourself on the scale. Now think where you would have placed yourself two, three, four years ago.
At some point during the danger years I realised know little I knew and set to work remedying the situation. From online resources, books and anyone I could pump for information I soaked up anything that would help me in the mountains. I lacked mentors; I could have learned so much more if I had been part of a group. I dismissed deadmen and snowstakes; they seemed too bulky and old fashioned for the kind of alpine climbing I aspired to. I added a tibloc to my rack and then a micro traxion and two DMM revolvers (snapgates; I was still into saving weight). Gradually my technical skills and mountain sense improved.
At the same time, I started going solo on glaciers.
A common expectation of avalanche education is that it should reduce the frequency of avalanche deaths. But is this expectation realistic? After all, education campaigns aimed at reducing unsafe sex, illegal drug use, unsafe driving and other risky behaviors have met with very limited success, and in some cases have even worsened the problems they were intended to solve.’ -From abstract ‘Sex, drugs and the white death’ Ian McDammon
I’d done a few routes with Ed and he was tired. But the weather was good and I knew I could keep climbing, should keep climbing, because when the weather broke I’d regret it if I took a break. I took the telepherique to the Aiguille du Midi and across the Vallée Blanche, getting the best possible view of the bus-sized slots that appeared and disappeared beneath the thin summer snow. I left the lift station, shouldered my pack and trudged through the wet afternoon snow from the Helbronner station to the Tour Ronde. As a concession to safety, I followed the trench carved into the glacier by the feet of other climbers and carried my poles by the middle, so that if I fell in I wouldn’t go further than my waist. I was a walking, sweating example of risk homeostasis and poor decision making. I found a flat spot, set up my tent and slept till early morning.
The next day, returning to my tent as the sun painted the summits red, I heard icicles dropping away beneath my feet and felt my heart jump into my mouth.
Somehow, I’m 29 now. 
Eventually my instinct for self preservation overcame the blinkers put in place by my ego. I stopped enjoying my little island of knowledge and started exploring the jagged but fruitful coastline of my ignorance, and being right became more important than preserving my sense of rightness. During the last few seasons I spent in the alps I was confident that my partners and I were being safe, that I had done everything I could to mitigate the risk. When I punched both feet through a mushy bridge on the way up the Argentiere glacier my partner and I were ready.
None of that explains why I fell in love with them.
As a result of the process outlined above I found myself in Antarctica, tasked with keeping scientists and technicians safe in a pristinely beautiful but potentially hostile environment. Not only with keeping them safe, but taking them climbing, skiing, mountaineering and crevassing in their allocated recreation time.
In the culture in which I now found myself crevassing had long been a recognised recreational activity. At first I had assumed it was enjoyed by the non-mountaineers because, like going for a ride on a skidoo, it didn’t involve too much exertion. Fortunately for everyone involved my opinion was moot; what the scientist wants to do on their winter trip is for the field guide to facilitate, not to criticise. I accepted that I’d lose some mountaineering days to crevassing and committed to going down a hole.
I abseiled off a three snow stake anchor. My colleagues and their charges had been inside this slot the previous week and everyone had raved about how good it was. A convenient platform and entrance to the crevasse had been created by the repeated collapse of a section of the roof, resulting in a relatively straightforward slope leading into the darkness. As I spun three screws into solid ice to protect the next abseil I was painfully aware that this process was ongoing and that there were large, snow-plastered icicles ending a few feet above my head, suspended from several tons of snow-ice.
As I inched my way deeper the light faded to a pale blue and I became conscious of the surreal beauty of my surroundings. Icicles wove their way down the walls, some at odd angles from the wind or from the movement of the blocks they were growing from. Only once I was made fast to a belay at the bottom and ready to start moving together did I have time to really look around and appreciate where I was.
Above me the crevasse was closed over, about thirty meters up. At the widest point it was twenty meters wide, with sheer to overhanging walls, festooned with icicles. Every kind of ice imaginable was visible; hard, black ice transparent to three meters at least, delicate clusters of hexagonal ice crystals that tinkled at the slightest touch; rounded blobs, the stalagmites to the stalactites above.
The floor was solid for the most part. At the deeper side of the chamber a layer of ice, millimetres thick, shattered noisily under our crampons. I’m no glaciologist but the logical explanation is that in the height of summer water must rise to that level. Once the cooler weather comes the top layer freezes as the rest drains away, leaving a false floor behind.
We worked deeper, finding more and more to look at. The main chamber split into two; one branch giving a classic crevasse, an aesthetic slot of striated ice that pinched together at the top and at the bottom. The other fork led to an odd, angular grotto. Neither avenue offered much additional distance; in total we had gone perhaps 150m horizontally from where we had entered. Photography wasn’t easy due to the dull, flat light, coming through the ceiling like an out of focus milky way.
I left with a totally different view of crevasses then I had gone in with.
If this article shows any trend in the literature regarding crevasses, it is this; they are still treated in much the same way by modern alpinists as they were by the early explorers and scientists, often using the very same adjectives -fearsome, gaping, ominous. Our scientific understanding of glacial movement has changed immensely since those early days and our ability to navigate glaciers safely has been transformed by modern equipment, and, most importantly, modern techniques. Our emotional response to crevasses and the resulting references in mountain literature remain stuck in 1819, with W.M. Howard and his six foot baton.
There are exceptions. A search for ‘crevasse’ on the web brings forth reports of climbers killed in crevasse falls, a glacier made impassable by crevasses…but also of a bivvy in a crevasse, an idea that would have been utterly alien to early mountaineers. A few fresh adjectives have begun to creep in.
We brought sleeping bags and sleeping pads, but no tent, planning to bivouac in crevasses during the descent…We dropped the first 1,500m of the descent fairly quickly (which is actually the Japanese route, not the Sultana Ridge), and then continued along the Sultana Ridge a short ways before finding a hospitable crevasse to take shelter in. After sleeping about five hours, we got up and continued on our way. On the east ridge of Lady Point we popped into a crevasse that we had used as a shelter during our acclimatization venture to melt more snow, take some rest, and take a very short nap (maybe 30 minutes).’-Colin Haley, ‘Infinite Spur Laps’
An article in ‘Summit’ magazine persuaded me that this piece could be of interest to a wider audience. The author of that article had enjoyed an introduction to crevasses while doing the same job as I was, a concurrence that convinced me both that crevasse exploring is not yet a widespread activity and that it has a certain affect on those who partake of it.
Instead of the fear based approach to crevasses that I started off with, why not try something different. Don’t look down on them; look up, to the glittering chandeliers with the pale glow of a hidden sky above them. Get to know your enemy. Spend some time exploring, in the spirit of whichever Verne peered over those edges. The risks inherent to crevassing are no worse than those tolerated elsewhere on a mountain and the experience of being inside a slot, of imagining what it would be like to fall through that thin roof and crumple on the floor, will cure anyone of a desire to tramp about solo on wet glaciers in the heat of the afternoon sun.
Rob. Taylor
Images supplied by the author
Desmaison, R. and Taylor, J., 1982. Total Alpinism. London u.a.: Granada, p.26.
Howard, W., 1821. Narrative of a journey to the summit of Mont Blanc made in July 1819. Baltimore: Fielding Lucas, Jr.
Shelley, M and Shelley, P., 1817. History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni. London: Thomas Hookham, Jr. and Charles and James Ollier
Clarke, G., 1987. A short history of scientific investigations on glaciers. Journal of Glaciology, 33(S1), pp.4-24.
Rendu, L., 1840. Théorie Des Glaciers De La Savoie.
Tyndall, J., 2011. The Glaciers Of The Alps. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, R., 2018. The Ascent Of John Tyndall. New York: Oxford university press, p.Chapter 14.
Verne, J., 2014. The Fortieth French Ascent Of Mont Blanc. Lanham: Start Classics.
House, S., 2013. Beyond The Mountain. New York: Patagonia Books.
Haley, C., 2016. Infinite Spur Laps. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 May 2020].
Reynaud, L., 2020. LA MER DE GLACE ET LES GLACIERS DU MONT BLANC. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 28 May 2020].
I’m indebted to Anne and Bernadette of ‘Le Bureau des Amis du Vieux Chamonix’ for information concerning the final year that cows were driven across the Mer de Glace.
Burton, I., 2013. Crack Addict, Summit. (70), pp.44-48.