Friday, June 10, 2011

Snow Climbing Techniques: The Stomper Belay

You pull up over the final crest and you're off the steep terrain.  Time to build a belay.  But what to do? What would be the fastest and effective?

One very quick technique is the stomper belay, also known as the carabiner/ice-axe belay.  This technique takes mere moments to employ and is very effective in places where it is easy and safe to stand.

To set-up this belay, stomp your ice axe into the snow. Clip a carabiner to the head of the axe and then clip the rope to the carabiner.  Step on top of the axe to hold it in and then belay off your body using a hip belay, a shoulder belay or a device off your harness.

In the following photo, IFMGA guide and AAI lead guide trainer, Mike Powers, demonstrates a stomper belay on low-angle snow for a guide training.  Note that he is using a hip belay, with the rope to the climber redirected off the top of the ice axe.

In this second photo, Mike demonstrates a stomper belay with a shoulder belay.  Shoulder belays are almost never as effective as hip belays and indeed, it is a bit painful to hold a fall on a shoulder belay with a stomper belay, whereas one barely feels it when set-up on a hip belay.

The stomper belay is very effective when it comes to belaying high-angle snow from a low-angle position.  In other words if you're on rolly terrain or at the top of the technical climbing, this technique is appropriate.  It is not appropriate to do a stomper belay in the middle of a high angle section.  This is primarily because the leader would not have a lot of security while standing in such terrain.  A hip belay from a snow seat, or a sitting axe belay would be more appropriate.

One note of caution, the rope should always be clipped cleanly through a carabiner on the head of the axe.  The rope should NEVER be set-up on the carabiner as a munter-hitch.  There was a major accident in Canada when this was done inappropriately, and the rope ran from the climber to a munter-hitch on the head of the axe and then up to the hip-belay.  And unfortunately, there were fatalities as a result of this mistake.

As with any new technique, it's good to practice in terrain where there are no consequences.  Try the stomper belay with a partner on low angle terrain.  Have your partner take mock falls and see how it feels.  Try each of the different belay styles, off the hip, off the shoulder and off the harness and see what works best for you.

The stomper belay is a very nice little technique to have in your toolbox.  When used correctly it is fast, efficient and very effective...

--Jason D. Martin


Johan said...

Hi Jason,

Could you elaboriate a little on why a munter hitch is so inappropriate in this situation? What were the approximate details of the accident?

The two reasons I can think up are 1) it slows down the belayers ability to take in rope, causing the followers to fall great distances, and 2) the friction of the munter hitch means that the belayer is putting a decent amount of tug into the ice-axe beneath their feet, which could destabilize them.

But those are just conjectures, and I'm curious if there's something about this that I've missed. Any further clarification would be much appreciated, keep up the great work with this blog!

American Alpine Institute said...

The biggest problem is that when the weight is redirected it is on the leader's body. When it is directly on the ice axe, it is directly on the ice axe. If the snow isn't very good and there is a munter attached to it, then the ice axe will pull out and the anchor will fail.

I know the accident took place during a Canadian guides training, but little more than that...


American Alpine Institute said...

A couple of other things:

1) Always make sure that the person climbing is below you. This shouldn't be brain surgery, but this is a belay technique for a follower.

2) Additionally, it was pointed out to me that I didn't say where to clip the rope on the axe. You should clip the carabiner to the head of the axe for this technique.


Johan said...

Thanks for the clarification Jason, very good point that I wasn't considering. I guess one should think of the carabiner as a directional for where you would get pulled on a fall.

And completely agree with your latter two points...!