Climbing alpine snow and ice

Robin Revest is a french alpinist and mountain guide. Well known for his ascents with Helias Millerioux, is also a perfect pedagog on all terrains. Here he’s giving some advices to climb on alpine snow and ice.

Given the amount of snow in the mountains at the start of this summer season, it is quite likely that we’ll have good conditions on the snow and ice routes in the Alps, at least for as long as the temperatures stay reasonable.

Certain climbing and safety techniques are fundamental for these types of routes. Here are some basic guidelines that might be of use to you this summer!

1- Preparing for the route

For me, this step is very important to ensuring a successful ascent. Gather information from whatever useful sources you can, including the hut, the mountain information office, the internet, and friends.

For snow and ice routes, pay special attention to the following points:

– How is the approach? Are there many open crevasses on the glacier? Will you need skis or snowshoes?

How is the bergschrund? What are the snow conditions? Is there fresh snow, ice, or are the conditions very dry? Is the difficulty of the route appropriate for your ability?

– What will the weather be like the night before, at what altitude will the snow freeze at night?

– Keep in mind how the face is exposed and what time the route goes into the sun.

The conditions will vary more drastically if the route goes into the sun at daybreak than if it stays in the shade for most of the day.

Thorough advance preparation will help you answer all of these questions, and in most cases an early morning start, while the snow is still frozen, is one of the best ways to ensure your safety.

2 – Special equipment

– Crampons equipped with anti-balling plates, ice axes, ice screws, deadmen, V-thread hook, gloves, helmet, dry-treated rope, crevasse fall rescue kit, 7 mm cordelette, 25 to 40L pack, depending on the route.

©Elisabeth Revol

An alpine route on snow or ice can be broken down into several stages:

3 – The glacier approach

The fundamental rule is to rope up fairly far apart (10 to 15 meters between climbers) and to keep the rope tight. It goes without saying that you should be well versed in crevasse rescue techniques. Always carry your ice axe in your hand even if the terrain is flat.

4 – Crossing the bergschrund

©Giovanni Rossi

The bergschrund marks the end of the approach and the beginning of the climb. Choose the best possible place to cross it. The leader is belayed and builds an anchor as soon as possible, which can be difficult, especially in deep snow when there isn’t any ice or rock. You’ll often need to build an anchor with a deadman or ice screws (the preferable solution). The leader then belays up his second(s).

If the anchor is bombproof, the leader can belay directly off it. If this is not the case, the leader should clip into the anchor and belay off of him or herself, without redirecting the rope through the anchor.

5 – Climbing snow: how to hold your ice axe.

Your ice axe is an indispensable tool. You’ll generally carry it in cane position. As soon as the slope steepens, you’ll use it in middle dagger (gripping the top of the shaft, pick in the snow) or in piolet traction position (gripping the handle of the shaft, pick in the snow or ice).

6 – Using crampons

Crampons are another one of alpinists’ best friends! You’ll adapt the position of your crampons depending on the steepness of the slope. On slopes up to 40°, you’ll often use flat-footed crampon technique. Slopes around 60° will require front pointing technique.

7 – Modes of progression

Protection and belaying are often tricky on snow routes. You’ll need to constantly adjust the rope length between climbers depending on the terrain.


– On easy snow routes and classic couloirs: the climbers progress simultaneously, short roping. This way if the second stumbles, the leader can quickly stop the fall. The leader has an enormous responsibility. In these kinds of situations, safety depends on the alpinists themselves and their ability to progress without falling.

– On snow and steep ice routes: as soon as the terrain prevents you from progressing safely while short roping, you’ll need to break the climbing down into belayed pitches.

8 – Anchors and protection on snow and ice:

– Deadmen: these are often used to build an anchor on a snow route. A deadman can be made from an ice axe, a backpack, or even a plastic bag. Generally you’ll use your ice axe; a straight-shafted axe works the best. The axe should be placed flat and perpendicular to the direction of pull, at a depth of at least 40 cm. In most cases, the leader clips into the anchor and belays the second off his or her body in order to be able to absorb the shock of a fall dynamically.

– Ice screws: they are generally available in three different sizes (13, 17 and 21 cm). You’ll want to carry at least two. It is important to have different sized screws. They should be screwed in all the way to the head of the screw and perpendicular to the ice.

– V-threads or Abalakovs: Abalakovs get their name from their inventor. To make a V-thread, place two ice screws (minimum 17 cm long) that come together at an angle of 90°. Thread a cordelette into the resulting hole, snagging the end of it with the V-thread hook in order to pull it all the way through. Knot the two ends of the cordelette together to create a loop. V-threads are generally used to rappel when the route is not equipped with fixed anchors.


Snow routes are emblematic of the high alpine environment. They bring to mind snowy summits, dizzying couloirs, and heavily corniced ridges. These were often the first routes established by pioneering alpinists seeking to reach coveted summits. Today, in spite of their monotony, they remain a fabulous way to discover a beautiful peak or make a ski mountaineering descent. Snow routes only exist up to a certain steepness; on steeper terrain you encounter alpine gullies and ice climbs.

In the Alps there are a multitude of routes like these, of all levels of difficulty. Here are a couple of ideas, listed according to their difficulty:

– F (easy): Gran Paradiso (Italy), Roche Faurio (Oisans)

– PD (minor difficulties): Mont Blanc traverse

– D (difficult): Whymper couloir on the Aiguille Verte, Kuffner ridge on Mont Maudit, north couloir of the Coup de Sabre (Oisans), Couturier couloir

– TD (very difficult): Grand Pilier d’Angle, alpine ice gullies on the south face of Mont Blanc, the Ginat on the north face of the Droites.

To wrap things up, I’d like to share a little anecdote from my earlier alpine climbing days that makes me smile now when I think back on it. On a sunny summer day in July, my friend Hélias and I set out from Courmayeur at around 8 a.m. to climb the Grand Pilier d’Angle. It was hot, very hot. The snow had already softened and during the approach we sank in up to our shins. Various red flags should have warned us, “Hey guys, this is a little bit of a late start, isn’t it?!”

In spite of everything we continued on, not feeling nearly as clever when we found ourselves beneath the seracs of the Poire at noon!

The ascent itself was pleasant nonetheless, since the sun had gone off the face and the snow had hardened. We finally made our way up the Peuterey ridge to the summit of Mont Blanc after a very long day!

Today, I don’t think I would tackle this route in the same way, but in any case it was an interesting experience. On that day we learned the importance of getting an early start…



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