Tuesday 31 July 2018

Roping up in Australia?

This season a thing which is a bit odd keeps popping up, bugging me and I can't let it slide (pun intended): Roping up in steep terrain where everyone in the party is moving. 

Anna and Emil roped up on the Glacier du Tour
First of all I have to clarify when I'm talking about roping up in this article,  I'm referring to the classic roping up for glacier travel: Simultaneous movement of a rope party with fixed distances between the members. This is different to belayed climbing where some sort of anchor is involved. Now how did this became a thing on the steep snowy and icy slopes of Australia?!? Let's take away the punch-line straight away: There is no real-life application of unbelayed, simultaneous and roped up movement in Australia ... unless you take Petey's almost valid point - because it looks cool on insta 📷😀

Before I go into the technical details let me introduce two mountaineers whose street-cred on a scale from one to ten is about godfather:
  • Pit Schubert *1935
    He is an aerospace engineer, the founder and former head of the safety commission of the German Alpine Club, Previous president of the safety commission of the UIAA and one of the very few people who made it into the Messner's Rock & Ice Stars hall of fame.
  • Gottlieb Braun-Elwert *1949 ✝2008
    Rock and Ice Stars
    Messner Mountain Museum Bozen

    He studied at the TU München and became a nuclear physicist before getting his IFMGA Mountain & Ski Guide certification and moving to New Zealand. 
Yes you're reading that absolutely right between the lines. Trying to argue against their scientific research is as smart as arguing climate change doesn't exist. You can do that, but if we have to evaluate how smart it is on a scale from one to ten ... you get the idea.

Roping Up

When do we rope up? Let's have a look at the safety recommendation of the Club Arc Alpin which is the umbrella organisation of the German, Austrian, Swiss, South Tyrolean, French, Italian, Slovenian and Liechtensteiner Alpine Clubs. Phew that's a lot of clubs!

"Rope up for glaciers, belay when the consequences of a fall are serious"
 - Recommendations "Safety on Alpine tours" (2015)

Obviously on glaciers roping up make sense because we don't have steep terrain and if one member of the rope party falls into the crevasse, the rope cuts into the lip and creates friction. If we did the right thing and added breaking knots, it creates even more friction and that should be enough for us to arrest the fall. Happy Days 🌞 

Typical Alpine Tour - OeAV Cardfolder Hochtouren
To understand where the roping up comes from we need to dig a bit deeper. There are some  points which you want to check on a a typical alpine tour (Source: OeAV Cardfolder Hochtouren):
  • Start at night (a) Explore at least a part of the route which you have to master in the dark, already the day before
  • Moraine and glacier approach (b) Watch out for icy spots in the morning, especially when crossing glacial streams. Due to the increase of temperature over the day, glacial creeks can increase and can be difficult to pass on the way back.
  • Before stepping onto the glacier (c) Find a comfortable and safe location to rope up. How is the surface? Blank ice, hard packed or soft wet snow? The answer decides whether we start with crampons from start or put them on later - in any case, the need to be on at the right time! Use this break to have a drink, eat and follow the call of nature.
  • On the glacier (d) Evade zones with crevasses wherever possible. Choose a path across and not parallel to the crevasses. If this is not possible, walk staggered. Use suitable places for breaks, ideally on rock islands. If you have breaks on the glacier everyone stays roped up and keep the distances. Pay special attention to terrain steps which will have increased number of crevasses.
  • Serac-zones The areas under ice towers and hanging glaciers are dangerous. Pass them quickly if you can not avoid them.
  • Terrain with increased risk of falling In steep snow and ice flanks as well as in steep rock passages there is risk of slipping and falling for the entire rope party! In this area the rope party on a long rope ends. These passages will be passed depending on the skill of the participants: 
    • rope free (e) 
    • or secured at fixed points (f)
  • Summit. Use the good overview to plan your descent e.g. check the location of crevasse zones. Stick to your schedule and observe the weather as well as temperature (glacier swamp!)
Slowly it should dawn on us why people rope up on steep slopes as well: It's convenient. You just crossed the glacier, stepped across the Bergschrund and your party is on the way to the summit. Although being roped-up isn't beneficial anymore - quite the opposite - it is a convenient way to carry the rope and unfortunately that image has been burned into our head for ages. Instead of choosing the safe options (e) or (f) we've seen or learned the unsafe behaviour of remaining roped up without belay. Being roped up is associated with safe although science doesn't support this in every situation.


German noun - accident that occurred because a party was roped up and the whole rope party fell. 

© Georg Sojer
Yes. We Germans have a word for that. There are a lot of opinions out there which are more based on gut-feelings or anecdotal evidence however the laws of physics don't care what you think.

"The laws of physics are independent of your experience and your guiding qualification."
- Gottlieb Braun-Elwert

Lucky for us Pit and Gottlieb care about physics so much, that they did scientific experiments and we can benefit from that. We just need to listen. I won't get into the deep end of the scientific details. You can read up on it yourself; I've provided the links at the end. However the first research about slip and slides of rope parties on steep slopes has been published as early as 1982 (!) At that time I was four years old and probably annoying my mum by asking for ice-cream instead of handling ice-axes. You would think over three decades are enough for mountaineers to take on well founded safety advice but to everyone's frustration that's not the case.

Safety and Risk on Rock and Ice - Volume One - Pit Schubert
Bergverlag Rother - 9th Edition 2016 (1st Edition 1982)

This is it. That's the book which should have changed our behaviour. Back then Pit demonstrated that on a hard frozen 25° slope it's almost impossible for a rope party to hold a fall of a falling member. When they start sliding down, recovering by synchronised self-arrest falls under wishful thinking. 

"For unguided parties there is only one way: either belay with fixed belays or take the rope off."
- Gottlieb Braun-Elwerts - Moving on a rope June 2007

Years later Gottlieb revisited this topic and published a very elaborate slide deck which unsurprisingly came to the same conclusion because science bitches! You can download the slides and other interesting articles from the website of Alpine Recreation.

Short Roping

What about short roping? This technique requires years of training and experience to master and is better left to the professionals. It comes with various risks for the guide and has substantial limitations. Basically in moderate terrain it can only avoid a slip becoming a full scale fall. The protection is fairly limited and more of a psychological than a physical nature. Again you'll find a lot of information on the site of Alpine Recreation.

Probability of an experienced guide falling with just one client depending on slope angle and snow conditions. Relatively safe zones are marked in green. (Gottlieb Braun-Elwert - Moving on a rope)
The above graphs shows safe zones based on the assumption the downhill person slips and slides in a rope party of two. If you have more people on the rope, the leader is inexperienced and / or the uphill person falls, the red area gets much bigger.

Recommendations & Conclusion

Australia has a substantial lack of glaciers and therefore the main reason for roping up - protection against crevasse falls - does not exist. If you come across hard packed icy and steep slopes e.g. Eskdale Spur or Mt Buller Westface, you have to make a choice:
  • Walk without rope (and self-arrest yourself when you fall)
  • Use a gliding belay
  • Or set-up a fixed belay
Since belay means anchor, you should brush-up your skills and knowledge about snow-anchors. Learning techniques like teleferique or gliding belay is good idea as well. There's plenty of information out there. Anyway - let's wrap this up with a simple formula:

Always use a rope with anchors in the Australian backcountry

Cheers and see you in the mountains 🍻🏔
MSc Mechancial Engineering TU München & VCC Safety Officer

P.S.: Of course if you're training for an oversea's adventure and don't use the rope in anger, rope up as much as you like and get kinky ... but please do it only on flat terrain or slightly angled slopes.



  1. Hi Phillip, a question re your post about roping up in Australia.
    I havn't heard the term Gliging Belay. I Googled and searched Youtube & Vimeo but can't find an explanation for it.
    Is there another option that you can suggest that will give me an explanation or video to watch?

    1. Rockclimbers would call it simu-climbing. The first guy of the rope party puts in some anchors with a progress capture like a Tibloc or Micro Traxion and the last one takes them out. It only works uphill and the anchors better be bomber if the first one slides. Eventually you have to make a stand to swap or hand-over gear.