A hundred years ago, it was standard mountaineering technique to tie people together about the waist in groups of three, four, or more on all types of treacherous terrain. If one fell, the others could hopefully brace themselves to catch the fall. For a particularly difficult section, one person might climb past it to stance, then take in the rope in a hip or shoulder belay.
Since then, both technique and the assessment of difficulty and risk on rock have improved dramatically. Except for guides moving with clients over easy terrain, climbers rarely travel three or more to a rope without placing gear. The closest modern technique is “simul-soloing,” where two climbers move simultaneously over relatively safe ground with at least one piece of gear between them.
Risk assessment is similarly more advanced. With finely-graded difficulty scales such as the Yosemite Decimal System, climbers can choose the appropriate technique based on their ability and tolerance for risk. On a route rated 5.4, one team might scramble unroped, another simul-solo, and a third use fixed belays, all of them taking equal risk.
In sharp contrast, we still have hundred-year-old ideas about technique and difficulty on glaciers. The standard modern glacier-crossing technique is still to assemble teams of three or more and walk along without intermediate protection, possibly performing a boot-axe belay around a questionable crevasse crossing. While there is little to be done about technique other than crazy setups like carrying long poles under one’s arms, there should be a difficulty rating system for glacier crossings, so that one may choose a suitable level of protection.
I came into this season somewhat apprehensive about any kind of glacier crossing. Having seen and crossed a variety glaciers, I found some completely safe, others safe with some care, and a few sketchy. Here is a rough ranking with some notes.
Just about anyone can cross these unroped.
- Skillet, Teton, and Middle Teton glaciers: I have heard of one person falling into a small crevasse on the Teton glacier, and one must be aware of the bergschrund on the Skillet, but these are all tame.
- Assiniboine approach glacier: The obvious low-angle route is crevasse-free.
- White Chuck/Cool glaciers, Glacier Peak: The standard south-side route crosses both of these, but in tame, low-angle places.
- Goode glacier: Though getting across the moat to Goode’s NE ridge can be a trick, the glacier is tame.
- Colchuck glacier: It flows in a straight line and is generally tame.
Safe with care
You should pay some attention here, but are unlikely to face serious risk or difficulties.
- Mary Green Glacier, Bonanza: While you must take a roundabout way to avoid crevasses, there is a broad safe path that is fairly clear.
- Sloan glacier: You must be aware of the crevasses when traversing above them.
- Curtis glacier, Mount Shuksan: There’s a pretty straightforward route up and around the crevasses next to the Fisher Chimneys route.
- Torment glacier, southern Pickets: At the cost of some extra walking, you can climb around the crevasses.
- Coleman-Deming standard route, Mount Baker: There is no apparent crevasse hazard on the Deming, and a broad path on the Coleman.
These require some care, and a rope may be desirable.
- Coleman glacier (headwall approach), Mount Baker: A crevasse maze that could have been sketchy if the glacier hadn’t been almost completely dry.
- Boston glacier: Staying high avoided most of the crevasses, but a few had to be dealt with.
- Bugaboo glacier: Care was required in a few places, but the route wasn’t all that complicated.
- Andromeda glacier: There is a fairly narrow path to reach the base of the climbs, and it involves climbing onto the icefall and dodging some crevasses. It is not too bad when the glacier is dry.
- Athabasca north glacier: The safe route is indirect, and not obvious from above. However, it is wide and not too complex.
These probably involve some unavoidable risk, and a rope is usually a good idea.
- Emmons glacier, Mount Rainier: The route is reasonably complex, and there are overhanging crevasses. Without the established boot-pack, this would be tricky.
- Challenger glacier: This is a long crossing of a fairly complex glacier. While staying high is fairly safe, I still saw some overhanging and hidden-from-above crevasses.