Moving off the Trails – A Guide to Glacier Trekking

A number of years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in the film ‘Touching the Void’, performing stunts and putting in place the safety rigging. During this film I was required to abseil, fall into and climb back out of lots of crevasses. Crevasses are spectacular ravines of ice, formed in glaciers when the ice is under tension or compression. For those not initiated, venturing onto glaciers for the first time is a daunting prospect. The fear of falling into crevasses Touching the Void-style (free fall arms flailing into the black abyss!) is what the majority of my clients initially think happens. In 23 years of alpine climbing I have only ever fallen into a crevasse like this whilst re-enacting events for the film. If you take the proper precautions and do your homework the worst that usually happens is you put one or both legs into a hole.

On Mountain Tracks courses we get lots of keen hill walkers from the UK undertaking our glacier treks across the Alps. The fitness levels needed for these trips are similar to that of long alpine trail walks but with the higher altitude to factor in. Your rucksack might be slightly heavier with the addition of mountaineering equipment (although you’ll be actually wearing it on the glacier) and some warmer layers.

In the Alps there are plenty of accessible glaciers to practice your skills on, like the Mer Du Glace, Le Tour Glacier in Chamonix, the Montet in Zinal, or the Ferpecle in Arolla. Glacier treks are essentially trail walking on ice with everyone linked with a rope. In addition to your normal hill walking skills you will need to be competent in some basic rope work and know how to get someone out of a crevasse if they do fall in. Essentially, the bigger the group the safer you are on a glacier as you have more people to pull someone out. If there are only two of you then this is when you need some knowledge of snow belays and pulley systems to get the stranded party out. There are plenty of good books to show you how to undertake glacier travel safely such as ‘Alpine Mountaineering’ by Bruce Goodlad and a great video from the BMC called ‘Alpine Essentials’. If this all sounds too much then come on one of the Mountain Tracks guided holidays where IFMGA guides lead the trek.

The key points to understand as a ‘DIY glacier trekker’ is the long roping system on a wet glacier (glacier covered in snow). All members of the group wear a climbing harness and are tied to a rope about 7 meters apart. This rope has to be kept tight when crossing the glacier so that if someone steps in a crevasse the rope prevents them from falling any further. It’s therefore imperative that there is no slack in the system and everyone is spaced out. I frequently get asked ‘what is the correct distance between people’ and again there is no hard or fast rule, but the less people on the rope the greater the distance, so 2 people might want 25m space, 3 people 15m, 4 people, 7m etc. Some common bad practices that I see regularly are people tied too close together (2m between each person), people carrying coils in their hands (very bad idea as there will be a shock load in the event of a fall and you’ll get pulled off your feet), and people wandering along with no rope…and therefore no hope if they fall in a crevasse!

Glaciers can be very hot places so make sure you have a sun hat, strong (category 3 or 4) sunglasses, and decent sun cream regularly applied. If the weather is poor, venturing onto a glacier is a bad idea unless you are with an IFMGA guide. The crucial point here is that crevasses aren’t marked on the map. In poor visibility it is easy to wander into one as everything looks the same…the landscape appears entirely white! Most Guides are experts at navigating in these conditions using a map, compass, altimeter and GPS, even then they would think twice about leaving the hut. Other dangers are ice cliffs or seracs that can overhang on steep glaciers. They sometimes collapse and fall onto the glacier smashing everything in its way, so always keep your eyes peeled up slope when crossing under these and don’t hang around for a picnic. On the sides of glaciers you always get tottering piles of glacial rubble with boulders the size of cars; so again be aware of these and don’t stand under them or in the firing line whilst putting your crampons on ready to venture onto the ice. It’s worth noting that on flat dry glaciers (i.e. those with no snow lying on them) you can walk unroped and without crampons as the crevasses are easily seen and gravel on the glacier provides good grip underfoot.

Your trail walking gear is generally ideal for glacier trekking, though you might need to get some stiffer boots so crampons will fit. Further advice on boots, crampons, axes and harnesses can be found in my blog on Summer Mountaineering Equipment.

Stiff walking boots or light alpine boots are ideal. Boots that are too soft and light might allow the crampons to flex off when walking. On cold days you may also get nippy toes. Some recommendations are: Scarpa Cristallo GTX, Meindl Vakuum GTX, Scarpa Manta.

Crampons are spikes that clip or strap to your boots allowing grip on the ice. Most strap-on crampons will fit on a stiff walking boot, but before buying you must make sure your boots and crampons are compatible. Think ahead if you intend doing some easy alpine peaks and in this case get 12-point steel crampons, but if you just want to trek then go for some 10-point steel crampons. It’s essential they have anti balling plates to stop snow sticking to the base. Some recommendations: Grivel G12, Grivel G10, North Ridge Crampon Bag.

Climbing harnesses come in all shapes and sizes. Any will do, but it is preferable to have adjustable leg loops and, as with anything alpine, light is right! Some good choices are: Black Diamond Alpine Bod, Edelrid Apex, Wild Country Eclipse.

A mountaineering ice axe is essential for glacial travel if you have to steady yourself on steeper ground or use it as an anchor if someone slides into a crevasse. Most people walk with two trekking poles and an ice axe stuck through their shoulder strap for emergencies. I walk with an axe that’s about 55cm long (I’m 170cm tall); generally the taller you are the longer the axe, but axes over 70cm are rather unwieldy. Go for a steel head and ‘alpine’ rather than ‘technical’ style picks. I prefer the following models: North Ridge Pinnacle, Black Diamond Raven, Grivel G1.

Leather palmed thin gloves are excellent for handling ropes and trekking on glaciers. I always wear them on glaciers to prevent shredding my hands if you take a tumble on the ice. Fleece gloves do work, but they wear pretty quickly. Choices include: Berghaus Windygripper, Rab Powerstretch Grip.

Two locking carabiners for use on the rope are helpful as it saves tying on. Good examples are: North Ridge Alpha, Camp Orbit.

If you adopt the DIY approach then you will need a 30m rope and crevasse rescue kit and a couple of ice screws for each person. Again, if you go down this route you must do some research on exactly what you need.

Most classic glacier treks are six days long and cross a variety of terrain, from high glaciers and easy snow peaks, to flower-filled alpine valleys. Alpine huts are used as staging posts for each evening. Most are like a basic hotel on the mountain, some have showers and running water. The food and ambience is always great! Classic glacier treks include:

Classic Haute Route
The summer Haute Route trail is one of the world’s great multi-day treks and is featured in National Geographic’s top ten worldwide treks. The Haute Route trail provides some of the finest views in the Alps, stretching from Mont Blanc to the Grand Paradiso.

The Eiger Trek
The Eiger Trek will take you through stunning scenery and pass directly beneath the celebrated north face of the Eiger. Starting in Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, this high alpine week combines high altitude trekking with some exhilarating via ferrata.

Bernese Oberland Trek
The Bernese Oberland is one of the Alps most impressive ranges. This trek traverses the Bernese Oberland range from east to west on a wonderful high-alpine trail across glaciated terrain; you will be roped up and wearing crampons for long sections of the trip.

Italian High Level Route
This wonderful glacier trek – a.k.a the Spaghetti Tour! – provides a high (mostly above 3000m) circumnavigation of the Monte Rosa Massif. It crosses some of the most spectacular glaciated scenery on the Swiss-Italian border. The route also takes in technically straightforward peaks, some above 4000m.

Grand Paradiso Summits
A superb trekking adventure in the Italian Alps. The highlight of the week is the ascent of Gran Paradiso, the highest mountain entirely within Italy. The trip is 6 days of high-level trekking and easy climbing in one of the most beautiful national parks in the Alps, free of tourist development and home to wildlife such as ibex, chamois and marmots.

If you want to ‘do it yourself’ then it could be worth completing an Alpine Skills Course. This will give you the skills to be independent on your glacier trek or in tackling introductory alpine peaks.

Glacier trekking is a great way for walkers to access some pretty amazing alpine scenery without having to be a mountaineer or climber per se. In next month’s article I will be delving into the world of Via Ferrata or ‘Iron Ways’ for adventurous trekkers with a head for heights.

Olly Allen