The Abalakov Thread

These notes are intended to assist the climber who has already gained considerable knowledge of rock climbing and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to progress into the crazy world of climbing frozen water. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way. Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead!

(1906-1992) was born in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, and started climbing on the famed Krasnoyarsk Pillars. In 1930 he and two equally inexperienced companions made a daring ascent of Dyak-Tau (5198m) in the Bezebi District of the Caucasus, after several other more experienced members of the team they were supposed to meet had perished on Elbrus. He went on to make equally difficult ascents of Lenin Peak (7134m) and Mt Trapetsia (6050m) in the Pamirs as well as the four peaks of the Bezenghi Wall in the Caucasus. He was granted the title of Honoured Master of Alpinism and appointed head of two mountaineering schools. In 1931 he was part of a team that made the first ascent of Khan-Tengri (7010m) in the Tien Shan but lost 7 fingers and half his foot from frostbite as a result. This event turned his mind towards mountain safety, and, after serving in the war against Germany, and becoming a top class alpine skiier, for most of the rest of his life he was head of a laboratory at the Central Physical Cultural Research Institute. He wrote around 40 books, including an autobiography The Call of the Mountains.

There are few simple inventions that have a resounding effect on a sport. In mountaineering, the introduction of nut protection was one, the Whillans harness and the Sticht belay plate two more. For winter climbers, the crampon and the drooped pick have been major milestones, but in the world of ice climbing nothing perhaps has had such a far reaching effect from so straightforward and cheap a concept as the Abalakov thread.

Vitaly Abalakov was a leading Russian mountaineer and inventor (and noted hard man) who took a particular interest in mountaineering safety. It is thought that he invented his eponymous thread in the 1950s or '60s, but such was the poor communication between mountaineers in the USSR and the West at that time that it was not until around 1990 that leading Canadian and American climbers started using them in preference to carrying lengths of aluminium tube to hammer into the ice.

Nowadays the Abalakov thread is one of the essential tools of the icefall climber's trade. Simply and quickly constructed, it can enable a rapid and safe retreat back to the ground in conditions that would previously have almost certainly entailed an epic.

The basic requirments to make an Abalakov thread are :

A long (20-22cm), sharp, wind-in Ice Screw

At least 1 metre of "Tat" ie 5 or 6mm nylon cord or 12mm nylon tape

An Abalakov Threading Device - either commercially produced or home made

A sharp Knife to cut to cut the tat with

  1. Pick an area of hard solid ice.
  2. Clear the ice surface of any loose snow and/or cruddy ice.
  3. Insert a long wind-in ice screw horizontally from one side at an angle of about 45 - 50 º (Photo 1).
  4. Wind out the screw and warm it with your hands, then blow out the ice core (Photo 2).
  5. Use the ice screw to measure off a suitable distance for the second hole - ca 15 to 20cm (Photo 3).
  6. Wind the ice screw in to make a second hole at a similar but opposite angle to the first so that the two holes join right at their far ends (Dig A). To judge the angle of the second hole correctly it is helpful to insert your threader in the first hole (Photo 4). You should end up with the two holes meeting and forming a V in the ice (Diag B).

6. Poke a length (1 metre or so) of "tat" (5mm or 6mm nylon cord, or 10 - 16mm nylon tape) into one hole and use your Abalakov Threader to draw it out through the other hole (Photo 5 and Diag C). There are many commercial threaders on the market, but a perfectly acceptable one can be made out of a wire coat hanger. It is worth carrying lengths of tat, a threader and a sharp knife on a karabiner on the back of your harness so that it is quickly to hand in emergencies.

7. Tie the cord or tape in a loop using a tape knot, double fisherman's knot, or overhand knot as appropriate to the material (Photo 6 and Diag D).

You now have an abseil or belay loop, but as always it is sensible to be cautious, and placing a back up ice screw or other gear for the first person down is highly recommended.

Abalakovs can also be used as runners but should be threaded with a proper sling in this case - extra narrow ones like Mammut 8mm Dyneema Contact Slings are ideal.

In good ice Abalakovs are remarkably solid; a few trial runs at ground level will soon convince you of this.

Reference: Vitali Abalakov by Nikolai Khorunzhy (Climber & Rambler October 1974)

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