Walk Softly and Carry a Big Pick

Down a Slippery Slope
By Francis P. Zera
  |  Gorp.com
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Mike Palmer climbing Coleman Glacier (Francis Zera Photography)

Mike Palmer is an accomplished mountaineer and climber, and the co-owner of the Cascade Crags climbing gym in Everett, Washington. He teaches mountaineering safety and climbing classes, and his shop serves as a resource for climbers and hikers. He, like most mountaineers who know their way around the Northwestern peaks, urges caution and preparedness when hiking or climbing in those areas.

The danger spots on terminal moraines and ice falls are fairly obvious to the trained eye, but traversing snowfields and open glaciers presents concealed pitfalls. Climbing in seracs requires technical ice-climbing skills and tools; glacier and snowfield travel adds a different set of requirements.

According to Palmer, seemingly innocent fun can be fatal on a glacier. "It's a pretty place, but very dangerous—a lot of people get hurt. They get on some hard, steep snow, fall off and aren't able to stop their slide, then get hurt when they hit the rocks at the bottom," he says. "A lot of people get killed slipping on snow slopes."

"I've seen parents and kids on Baker just playing on the glacier," reports Palmer. "I heard of a family, all dressed in jeans, glissading on a glacier, and one of the kids fell in and got wedged. It took a long time to get him out and he was pretty hypothermic when they finally [did]."

Necessary Skills
There is a long list of skills necessary for traveling across glaciers, and that list gets longer for those considering climbing in the seracs.

"In the Northwest, it's very easy to get on a glacier. People can hike up a trail and find themselves on a glacier without even realizing it," he notes. Most glaciers are marked on maps and trails. But, Palmer cautions, "When in doubt, assume you're on one if you don't know right where it starts."

Palmer believes that ice-ax arrest, or self-arrest—which involves using a mountaineering ax to stop sliding down an icy or snowy slope after a fall—is probably the most important skill you can have on a glacier.

"Ice-ax arrest takes a lot of practice; it's got to be good and it's got to be quick. If you don't stop yourself in the first thirty feet, you're going to be in trouble," he says. "You've got to practice it every year."

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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