Standing at the top of a steep snow couloir and looking at a few thousand more feet of descent can be crushing after a difficult day of climbing, especially when conditions are getting bad and it’s time to bail. The angle is too steep for safe glissading, there’s no rock to build a safe rappel anchor, and pitching out a downclimb would take too long, so what do you do? Luckily, the answer is right under your feet. Although snow might seem like an unlikely material for a reliable anchor, a snow bollard in the right conditions can be completely solid. It’s a great all-purpose anchor when all you’ve got is snow, and it can be used as a crevasse rescue anchor. The guidelines below will help you recognize appropriate snow conditions and give you the techniques necessary to build one of these alpine anchors to get down safely and quickly.
Step One: Check the snow
Hard-packed and névé snow are the best conditions for building a snow bollard (snow that’s the same consistency as mashed potatoes is good too), because the snow is already consolidated and strong. If it is medium softness or powdery, the snowpack might be deep enough to dig down to more compacted snow. If the snow conditions are at all questionable (too loose), find an alternative descent method. Find the most consistently packed snow in the best spot for descent. For softer snow, you’ll need an area about 10 feet wide; for harder snow, you’ll need four to five feet. Use your ice axe as a measuring tool.
Step Two: Start digging
Using the adze of your ice axe, dig into the snow in the shape of a horseshoe (fig. 1), cutting slightly inward at the bottom of the trench all the way around the horseshoe shape. This should create a lip at the top like a mushroom that will prevent the rope from moving up and off the bollard. Cut down six to eight inches from the top of the lip. Even with softer snow conditions, the depth is not as important as the overall diameter of the bollard, because the concept relies on the snow inside the horseshoe shape for its strength. However, if the top layers of snow continue to slough off, keep digging to get to a more consolidated layer.
Step Three: Place the rope and back it up
Wrap your rope around the top of the bollard and give the rope a few pulls on both sides to set it in position. As is practice with any rappel anchor, the first person to go down should have a backup in place, then if the anchor is solid by itself, the last person to rappel can remove the backup. Place a picket or dig a deadman (see step five for more info) above the peak of the horseshoe and clip it to your rope with a sling that will put the backup in a position that’s far enough away from the bollard that it won’t compromise the outside edge and cause the bollard to collapse.
Step Four: Give it a test pull
With your backup in place, give the bollard a test pull at a downward angle to make sure it doesn’t cut into the snow. Once you’re sure the bollard will stay, start your rappel, keeping the rope at a low angle in the beginning to prevent it from moving up and off the bollard. Send the heaviest climber first to ensure that the bollard will hold and you won’t need the backup.
Step Five: Remove your backup
The final person should remove the backup and rappel. If for any reason you still don’t feel comfortable, you will have to leave some gear. Instead of leaving an expensive picket, dig a hole a few feet deep and place a stuff sack filled with packed snow or rocks in it. Tie a sling or webbing around the middle and clip a long sling to it, put snow back on top and pack it down, then clip the sling to the rope. This technique is called a deadman. Be sure to practice these methods in a risk-free environment before putting them to use on your next alpine adventure.