On glacier and serac routefinding

On glacier and serac routefinding

March 19, 2018

It’s the time of the year when winter turns to spring in the Coast. This season’s deep snowpack makes for relatively stable snow. High pressures (finally) have not been accompanied by destabilizing inversions or arctic outflows and travel to alpine is easier with longer daylight hours

Easier alpine and glacier travel does NOT necessarily equate to good routefinding. This was illustrated on Mar 19, 2018 as 17 or more people hit Slalok Mountain to ski the Stonecrop face. Some chose to skin up the Matier Glacier. At about 3pm that day a piece of the Matier Glacier fell. The resulting serac fall caused an avalanche taking out a large chunk of skintrack that some parties had set which exposed them to said serac-fall.

Video by Andrea Wing (reposted with permission)

Matier Glacier from Joffre Lake – each chunk is the size of a building

Skier going by Matier Icefall for reference


Public service announcement. Getting up to the Matier Glacier will take a fair amount of time. During that time you want to minimize overhead hazard. A hanging icefall on a glacier is overhead hazard. This is why skinning up under hanging glaciers is not a good idea. Hanging around under icefalls during mid-day heating does not improve your chances.

Routefinding is a complex topic that I will not pretend to deal with in this screed. Generally speaking, because uphill travel on skins is relatively slow, for a relatively long period of time you will be exposed to a variety of hazards, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t.

Let’s look at the Matier Glacier approach problem.

Google Earth snapshot. Neither the blue nor red solid route is particularly good as they’re both subject to overhead hazard. The best would be the red-arrow route

Matier Glacier route from late April

Photo Nicole Barrette- taken before the serac released at approximately 2.30pm

Photo Nicole Barrette taken when the serac released, The red arrows don’t have icefall exposure. The blue solid route does.


As for the route up, we go straight up the moraine (ridges are, relatively speaking, better protection than flats or concavities) then angle lookers left to be away from serac fall. Lookers left is exposed to wetslides but you can mitigate that by moving fast and going early. The further lookers left one heads the less exposed to seracfall. But you have to hold a traverse which can be painful. More thoughts on this routefinding exercise

  1. Seracs can fall anytime. They don’t fall often so it’s kind of cool that it was video’ed and witnessed by so many. But cold weather, warm weather, during night or day doesn’t really matter to glacier serac ice-falls. They fall when they damn well please.Chalk up one point for staying on lookers left
  2. The same applies to cornices. They tend to fail during prolonged warm spells but also have a nasty habit of failing during cold spells. But you looked up the ridgelines of Joffre on lookers left and used your eyesight to tell you that there’s no cornice hazard there right? Chalk up another point for staying on lookers left
  3. The Joffre wall on lookers’ left faces S and SE so there’s wet-slide hazard. Likely you’ll see evidence of that. But wet-slides tend to be caused by solar effect. You can mitigate this by travelling quickly during times when there’s little or less solar effect. So get up early and move quickly.

Skintrack up the Matier glacier avoiding hanging icefall put in when there was minimal solar effect.


The good news on all of this. There were no involvements reported.
Another piece of good news is that if you happen to be skinning under an icefall that decides to collapse and you get hit it’ll be a quick painless death.

If anything I’ve said here is news to you, then you likely have lots of company given how many suicide skintracks under, over and exposed to known producers one sees these days. Consider some further reading on route-finding whether on glaciers or otherwise. Or take a course (AST-2 has it as one of their components) or better yet go in with your friends and hire a guide for a day to give you the low-down instead

Happy travels.

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