The Russian Ice Hammock
July 26, 2019
I posted a photo last week on Instagram, of Vanessa, who sat inside a tent on the North-East face of the Droites. In the photo, the tent appears to be held in check on an impossible pitch, by nothing but a flimsy piece of green nylon. What’s holding the tent in place is a very obscure and specialist piece of kit called an ice hammock. Whenever I share this picture I always get questions, such as, “did you steal this idea from Nick Bullock?”, Nick who also used the ice hammock. The problem with Instagram is there’s little room for any real depth or clarity, and so I thought I’d try and share what I know here instead.
A Short, Personal History Of The Russian Ice Hammock
I first heard about the Russian ice hammock about fifteen years ago, after the German climber Robert Steiner (and the translator of Psychovertical), went on a big wall trip to the Russian-Chinese border with a Russian team. On that trip, they used wall tents rather than portaledges, using ice hammocks to build up platforms on ice fields. I’d always been interested in the ‘Russian way’, having used Russian aiders on the Lafaille route in 2002 (before they became cult bits of aid exotica), but through Robert, I learned about strange hardware like rock fifis, removable bolts, and different strategies, like climbing in bigger teams and non-western styles of hierarchy (sometimes each person on a Russian team has a defined job, such as hauling or leading, with one overall leader). I’d met a Russian team when I soloed the Reticent and really liked their style of climbing, which seemed very safe and project focused (it was about the team, not the individual). After this, I switched to a very Russian approach to big wall climbing, which helped on the Troll Wall, Queen Maud Land, and with things like a 10-day winter ascent of the Nose with three novice climbers, where they also led 70% of the route and survived a big winter storm.
The Russian hammock concept really intrigued me, because although I’m viewed as an aid climber, I view myself as an alpine climber, and suffered many really terrible sitting bivvies before my portaledge softness. In the past, I’d played around with things like hammocks, but only to keep you in place on a ledge, but had also come to view the use of tents as amazingly valuable in terms of survival. I had pitched tents in some really wacky spots, on chockstones, on snow mushrooms, on knife-edged ridges, but the possibilities the ice hammock offered seemed transformational for the weight.
I made my first Russian hammock when I went to try the Harlin route on the Eiger for a second time, this time with Paul Ramsden. The first time I’d tried to solo it, and had taken a portaledge like Ueli Steck had when he did the Young Spider. But hauling this up the bottom 1000 feet had been exhausting, so much so that I was too wasted once I got to the first band to continue. But being up there for a week had shown me the Eiger was a perfect place to use an ice hammock, and so I’d made one for my attempt with Paul. I think we’d actually talked about the idea before when we tried climbing the Messner Pillar on the Droites in the Winter of ’04 (Paul, apart from being a dark horse, is a real innovative thinker and gear tinkerer), where we’d ended up pitching the tent twice in really crazy spots. That trip with Paul on the Eiger didn’t go anywhere (like most such trips), but Paul made his own hammock afterwards (I think he’s on mark III at the moment), and used it to great effect when climbing with Nick Bullock (although I think Nick probably thinks it’s just soft and cheating).
Around this time Mark Richey wrote a letter to Alpinist about inventing the ice hammock for an attempt on the South Face of Saser Kangri II, but also knowledge although he invented it, the idea came from the Russians
(typical yank ; ), but then all these ideas tend to pollinate anyway, so who cares (often, when writing about techniques in my book Higher Education, people would complain they were not be referenced as the inventor of something, but would then tell you they’d got the idea from someone else anyway).
Since then the use of hammocks crops up now and then, with a New Zealand team using them two years ago to good effect, but it tends to be something you either know or you don’t.
What Is An Ice Hammock?
An ice hammock is an oblong piece of lightweight nylon, a little longer than the length of your mountain tent, sometimes with reinforcing tapes sewn in (like a sea anchor). On each corner, you have a reinforced clip loop, as well as loops spaced along its edges (the hammock can do double duty as a tarp, stretcher, ground cloth etc). The hammock is designed to hold the spoil, snow, ice and even rocks, as you chop out a ledge, doubling the size of the real estate you have to pitch a tent (the Russians are master ledge builders due to the fact that in the past they climbed in larger teams and often spent weeks on a route). This means you can go from a bum cheek ledge, where you cannot sleep and are battered by spindrift, to being warm and cosy in a small mountain tent (a mountain tent adds weight to your pack, but you can use a lighter sleeping bag to offset that, plus your survivability is vastly increased).
Setting Up A Hammock
There are many ways to do this, but you need to start with two anchors, usually, ice screws, set just about the level which your ledge is being cut, and a little wider apart from the length of your tent (in a sunny position ice screws can melt out, so ice threads would be better if it’s a long term bivvy).
How you attach the hammock depends on whether you’re improvising, using slings and cordelette, or you’ve already fixed cord to the hammock, to make things easier. I’ll cover the latter here as you can improvise from that information.
You now attach the inside clip loops via their own 4 mm releasable tension cords (tie an MMO) to the screws. The ideal is that the inside edge creates a scoop, but not a bath, as it’s good to minimise the amount of fabric between the snowpack and the snow in the hammock, as this stops it from bonding. Creating more of a scoop means the weight is not solely born by the hammock.
Now attach the outside corners to create the scoop, 5 mm cord tied off again with MMO knots, adjusting it as you fill the hammock.
Now begin filling up the hammock as you dig, pulling ice and snow into the hammock from around the ledge as well. To begin with, you’ll have to hold the hammock open, but as soon as it begins to fill it will stay open and catch the spoil.
An alternative, as digging a ledge isn’t always easy with the hammock in place, is to dig the ledge first, then attach the hammock, and then dig some more, filling the hammock as you dig on.
The hammock itself will bow out somewhat, but when you’re digging be careful not to stand or pull on the edges, as the loading needs to be as centralised as possible, so the load is transferred into the mountain, not into the flimsy hammock.
Once you have a liveable space try pitching your tent (a good mountain tent will have a solid clip loop, so it can be moved around safely). What you’ll find is that the outside corners of the tent will probably hang over the edge, but the sleeping space is solid underneath. It would be possible to build a hammock that created a ledge that held 100% of the tent, but it would need to be about 30% bigger and would take 30% longer to set up (an ice hammock tends to be used in pretty extreme situations, late at night, on very steep ground etc, so comfort is a relative term).
Once the hammock is filled I find the contents tend to compress together, creating a wedge that is more self-supporting, the idea being to have the back of the hammock low enough that the wedge bonds with the snowpack (an old Russian ice hammock bivvy, left after the ascent of the Russian Direct on the Eiger, remained in place for months, confusing many who thought it was a ski jump).
When it comes to leaving the bivvy, simply untie the MMO knots and release the hammock (if you clove hitch it on it’s almost impossible to get the weight off without emptying the hammock first), whipping it out from under the snow (the snow will either collapse down the face or stay in place).
Having cord that runs all around the front edge of the hammock (3 mm nylon cord or some kind of lighter Kevlar/Dyneema cord), allows some of the strain to be taken off the fabric, as does using a cordelette at each end, clipping it off to various clip points.
Ice Hammock Precautions
Whenever you sleep in a mountain tent perched to the side of a mountain you should always treat it as if you were on an open ledge on the mountain. This means everything needs to be secured, most of all yourself, but also your boots, stove, food etc. If in the middle of the night you get swept off the ledge (ledge collapses, avalanche), you need to make sure not only do you not die in that moment (you’re tied in), but you don’t die later on either (you’ve lost your boots, stove, all your food). This means everything needs to be clipped to something, including sleeping bags and mats. Having very large lightweight stuff sacks with a full-strength clip loop each (I’m a big fan of Fish bags), and stowing as much as you can in your clipped in rucksacks at the tent door helps.
In the past, I’ve carried a Camp string hammock on steep routes where I knew bivvies would be tough, and I think you could probably rig something up using one of these as long as you could fill it with large enough blocks of snow first, which might not be good enough for a tent, but could give you a little more comfort on an open bivvy.
Snow Deflector: Extending The Concept
The problem with a lot of bivvies where you’d used an ice hammock, big snow and ice faces, is that you tend to get a lot of spindrift. If you have a traditional wall tent, which is wedge-shaped, this isn’t too big a problem, as the wedge deflects the snow, but the opposite is true of a mountain tent. The shape of a mountain tent means snow always collects on the inside, between the tent and the mountain, even if you try and dig in a little first, the snow ending up crushing the tent (and maybe breaking the poles), pushing you off the ledge, or stopping you being able to vent the door. Even if at best non of these occur, the buildup of snow will mean there is very little room in the tent to do anything (it’s like a big fat guy is laying against the inside wall, which, when death is laying on the other, means you’ve got very little room to move). One way to overcome this is to attach a silicone nylon tarp across the top of the tent to create that wedge shape, clipping off the bottom to the tent’s corner webbing, or into the ice hammock. You will still get some snow between the wall and the tent, but only a fraction, the majority being deflected off.
When setting up a tarp you need to make sure the tarp is tensioned super tight to the anchors to stop it flapping and disintegrating (if caught in some really bad weather, you should run your climbing rope over the tarp to keep it in check).
The DIY Hammock
The biggest problem for the potential ice hammock customer is that no one actually makes one, and you can only ask people like Aiguille in the UK or krukonogi in Russia to make one as a custom order to your own specs. This means that for most people, you’re going to have to get your sewing machine out. But don’t worry, it’s actually about the easiest sewing project you could undertake.
There is no real pattern to follow here, and there is a huge amount of room to tweak, improve and innovate (an oblong is maybe not the right shape, and seeing as what you’re making is like a sail, but for snow, not air, maybe you could start there?), but seeing as I live in a country free of snow, and can’t just nip out, this is just a bootstrap design (what I know comes from having broken the ones I made, and talking to people like Paul Ramsden who’s just as nerdy as I am).
One thing to understand is although this is a lightweight product, it is holding a heavyweight load, perhaps a ton or more of snow initially, as well as two people, or a high percentage of that load. And so what I’m writing here is a guide only, and it would be easy to improve on this, making it better, lighter, cheaper etc.
Paul Ramsden used very lightweight Dyneema Cuben cloth (so light - 18 g/sq metre - that the word ‘light’ seems overly heavy), but also expensive ($30 a metre), but is the best option for any hardcore user (coming out at a finished price of about £200). For Paul, climbing new routes on 7,000-metre peaks makes the outlay a no brainer. Not wanting to commit to such an investment for an untested design, I used cheap lightweight ripstop nylon, as it was intended only for emergency use really. This material wasn’t really strong enough, and one corner ripped out after two bivvies (lesson: the corners always need reinforcing). For a big wall project, I’d probably use a lightweight 200 denier Cordura style fabric (often labelled as texturised nylon).
Webbing And Reinforcements
Paul Ramsden used 25 mm kevlar tape (used to reinforce fibreglass), which is very light and strong, but again, more expensive than nylon tape (Aramid tape would also be ideal and might be cheaper). Reinforcing at the edges is perhaps best done by folding the fabric three or four times, with the tape crisscrossing the fabric, like a parachute anchor, and terminating into sewn clip loops.
Cord wise, some 4 mm Aramid or Dyneema would be ideal, tying 1-metre lengths into the inside and 2-metre lengths on the outside.
One way you could get more strength would be to build the hammock as you would sail, and make it out of longitudinal panels (with felled seams), the seams themselves providing the strength. If you were really ambitious, you could even try a radial pattern.
Another alternative would be to make the back section scooped and out of cheaper silicone nylon, and the front and reinforcing patches out of Cuben cloth. But perhaps if you’re putting that much thought into it, you have an unhealthy obsession with suffering, as really a Russian ice hammock is just another tool of torture, only a little less blunt than all the rest.