Belaying in winter
When using the rope for security there are certain conditions that must be met. The cornerstone of the rope-work system, and your first priority, must be the anchors to which you are attached. The main anchors should be above the level of your waist and you should be tied tightly into them so that the force of a fall cannot pull you off the stance. If you are using more than one anchor, the usual situation, then you must be tied into them so that they share the load between them. You should also be tied on in such a way that if loaded you cannot be pulled off to one side. This means that the point of attachment to the slope, the belayer and the direction of pull of the rope should all be in a straight line.
The point of attachment to the slope, the belayer and the direction of pull of the rope should all be in a straight line
When setting up a belay it is important that it is strongest in the direction of maximum force. This is down and out from the slope - as a fall without runners, or runners which fail, is the maximum force that can be applied to a belay system. Leader falls onto runners where the force is in a generally upward direction will be less severe but it is best if the anchors can take a force in an upward as well as a downward direction. In some situations you should include an anchor point that will resist an upward force in the system.
In winter these principles are equally as important as they are in summer, although on snow you are more likely to slide rather than fall through space. However, protection in the form of running belays is likely to be less frequent so the forces involved can still be large due to the length of the fall. Add to this the difficulty of working in bad weather when everything is covered in snow and ice and you are wearing gloves or mitts, time which may be in short supply and a lack of obvious anchors means that in general winter is not the time to start your introduction to rope-work but rather a time to have a safe and efficient system of belaying and rope management.
Although winter conditions can make the use of rock anchors more difficult than in summer, they can also provide other ways of producing anchors.
The best type of anchor and the quickest to set up on are natural features such as rock spikes and flakes, chockstones and threads. These are used as in summer but need to be checked to ensure that they really are safe. Spikes and flakes should be cleared to below their base to see that they are part of the solid rock and not loose blocks sitting in the snow. Chockstones and threads also need to be inspected and tested to make sure that they are solid and not simply held in place by snow and ice. More usual however, are nuts which are used in the normal manner. The main problem is finding cracks to put them in.
Familiarity with the rock type you are on will help you decide where to look for placements, although it is equally important to know when to quit looking if a location is proving non-productive. It is best to start looking for anchors while you still have quite a lot of rope left (at least 10 metres) and it is seldom worth passing up an obvious belay even if there is more rope available. If nothing is obvious then you need to find suitable cracks and this means clearing the snow off as much rock as possible. To do this quickly, use your gloved hands or forearms, or your axe if the snow is harder. Once you've dug them out from the snow, you may need to scrape the cracks themselves to clear ice from the insides to ensure that the nut is fully seated against rock; especially if you are using camming devices.
Roped up in winter © Catherine Clavery
When deciding where to belay the main consideration is where you are likely to find the best anchors. Rock is the first choice for an anchor, so the usual spot will be at the side of a gully on the walls. This also has the advantage of putting the belayer where it may be possible to get some shelter. If the snow or ice is deep enough it is still better to be at the side of a gully and not out in the firing line. A good sitting stance will be colder but more secure than a standing one. Any stance should be directly below the anchor points and if you are using more than one anchor, the normal situation, the tie-in should be such that any load is shared between the anchors and not coming onto one of them before the others as this could lead to the anchors failing one after the other if shock loaded.
The other consideration is that your chosen belay method is safe and appropriate. If using a rock or an ice anchor then a belay device can be used as in summer. Ensure that your 'dead hand' always has space to lock off the device in a fall and your body or the rock does not block this movement. Very occasionally, if the rope is frozen or icy, it may be difficult to get it through a belay plate but generally it is the safest way to manage the rope.
When using a snow anchor it is better to use a body belay to allow a more controlled arrest in the event of a fall. If using a mechanical system such as a belay plate, in the event of a fall there will be a shock load on all parts of the system, especially if only a few runners are used. With a body belay, the belayer can control the speed of braking (and the shock on the system). This means that with a snow anchor and sliding fall the belayer can arrest the faller gradually and absorb much of the energy in friction as the rope runs round their body. This means less shock on the anchor and so it is a safer arrest.
When using a snow anchor it is better to use a body belay to allow a more controlled arrest in the event of a fall
If however, there is a chance of the faller hitting rock or going over a steep drop the belayer can stop the fall more quickly. At least with a waist belay you have a choice, whereas this is not the case with a belay device. When setting up a body belay it is important that the belayer ensures that their 'live hand' is on the same side as the leader; if the leader is on the wrong side and falls, then the rope could easily be stripped from the leader's back. One way to lessen the chance of this happening is to run the live rope through a karabiner clipped to the harness on the live rope side.
The sequence of actions for taking in using a body belay:
- The live hand pulls the rope up and the dead hand pulls forward.
- The dead hand stays forward and the live hand slides down the rope until it is further from the body.
- The live hand grips the dead rope lightly under the thumb so that the dead hand can be slid back to begin the next cycle.
The sequence of actions for taking in using a body belay: The live hand pulls the rope up and the dead hand pulls forward. The dead hand stays forward and the live hand slides down the rope until it is further from the body. The live hand grips the dead rope lightly under the thumb so that the dead hand can be slid back to begin the next cycle.
If, when using a body belay, you can find some good runners then it may be safer to shorten the pitch and change the runners into an anchor to get over the problem of holding an upward force on an anchor designed to take a downwards pull. With the live rope clipped through a karabiner on the harness the chance of the rope being stripped from the belayer's back is much reduced so it may then be safe enough to continue belaying as before.