Sliding “screamers” on steep snow are a common alpine accident. No one is immune. Back packers tumble down snow patches on mountain passes. Peak climbers slip, slide and experience dire outcomes. Ski mountaineers may spend most of their day snow climbing and must thus become masters of the up as well as the down.
Mike Zawaski’s new book “Snow Travel – Skills for Climbing, Hiking and Moving Across Snow” attempts to put it all under one set of covers — in detail. He does a good job.
“Snow Travel” begins with a short section outlining gear; dressing for success and staying properly hydrated. Such matter is covered in everything from general mountaineering books to Women’s Fitness magazine, so it’s good that by page 25 author Zawaski is already hitting on the specifics of the modern ice axe (which for some reason Oprah has not yet covered.)
Among the many aspects of the venerable ice ax, Zawaski covers the CEN ratings we were discussing in a recent blog post, as well as devoting plentiful words to the subject of leashes. Good to see him make the point that if you fall and lose control of your ax, leashes can be dangerous (can you say ‘vivisection?’), but are important to have in situations such as a crevasse plunge when losing your ax would leave you helpless. Perhaps his best tip? Have a leash that’s easy to remove and stow in a pocket, and use when the situation requires.
One error of omission in the “Snow Travel” gear section is a pro/con of aluminum vs. steel ice axe heads. I’ve had good success using aluminum axes over the years. Nonetheless, if you’ve ever pushed aluminum out of its envelope you know that with the wrong move you can twist the stuff into a pretzel faster than you can say “pass the salt.” Thus, it would have been nice to see a clear exposition of the sometimes considerable dilemma in choosing which type of ax to carry (just a few days ago someone was quizzing me on this exact subject).
Compared to the section about ice axes, Zawaski’s exposition of crampons is thorough. He does a good job of explaining why you do _not_ need crampons in many situations — a good thing because falling or tripping with crampons on is incredibly abusive to your body, so if kicking snow steps without them works it’s frequently good to leave them hung on your pack. Anti-balling plates are mentioned, but in a way that implies they’re just an option. In my view anti-balling plates are mandatory.
The climbing tips begin in Chapter 2, and are impressively complete. Zawaski does an almost too-long description of everything from the duck step to front pointing. All the techniques he explains should be second nature to an alpinist — so they’re worth the paper and ink. I have to wonder, however, is it (still) necessary to use French names for crampon and ice ax technique? Really, how many people on Mount Hood this spring are saying “whaaa, this pied marche’ is getting old, where is some vertical where we can pied troisieme?” Instead of:”I’m tired of walking flat ground in my crampons, can we start climbing soon and use the combo technique of front point with one foot while sidestepping with the other?”
The chapter covering climbing is where you might expect a lengthy section about rope work. Here the author shows his practical view of reality. He keeps it brief, and warns against roping up while climbing snow without anchors. Several tragic examples are offered to emphasize why stringing people together on a climb and not using belays or fixed lines is lame (everyone falls together–horribly).
To have included a chapter on how to safely rope during snow climbs might have been a good idea, but would perhaps would have introduced an element of complexity that’s not appropriate for this basic how-to book. Fact is, most snow climbers have neither the gear nor the desire to climb snow while hammering in 36 inch pickets, swapping leads, and otherwise doing what makes rope work function as a safety device rather than nothing more than making their Facebook photos look exciting. So I wouldn’t call leaving rope techniques out of the book a mistake; instead it seems to be a good way of tightening the presentation.
Chapter 3 brings us back to using “Your Ice Ax.” This part is pure gold. Go to any popular snow climb, and you’ll see all manner of ice axe use that could be improved — or is downright dangerous. Zawaski explains it all with clear photos and prose that should get nearly anyone dialed. Everything is covered, from how to stow on your pack (including twisting the axe to tighten up the pack loop) all the way to the classic and potentially lobotomizing method of throwing the ax down between your pack straps behind your neck.
Believe me, if you’ve never had formal training or studied ice ax use, you may be amazed at the nearly 30 pages of how to climb with an ice ax. You might even start speaking French.
Then it’s on to Chapter 4: “Descending.” Here at WildSnow HQ our favorite technique for the grand retreat (when not skiing) is face-in, with one or two tools used in the best way for whatever snow or ice conditions are encountered. Such “Messnering” takes a bit of getting used to. Once you’ve got it wired; super solid and efficient. Zawaski: “While considered a slow technique by many climbers [front point descending], with some practice you can become efficient and fast.”
Glissading is of course covered here. Indeed the glissade is a useful technique for getting down a mountain fast, with minimal energy expended. But the temptation to let gravity take over your destiny is the foundation for hundreds of hideous glissade accidents. Skis are one thing, but asking for control on snow using your boots and the spike of an ice ax can be trouble. The book states that the perfect glissade slope rarely exists so you “must take precautions.” I’d say so. The author’s list of caveats takes a whole page and should probably be printed in oversize red letters.
The “Self-Arresting” chapter is excellent, though perhaps overly detailed for something that MUST be learned by practice, not theory (due to it being acrobatic). Main thing here is Zawaski makes it clear that self arrest with an ice ax only works in ideal conditions. If your ax pick can’t penetrate the snow surface more than a paltry amount, the slope had better be lower angled or you need to “accept the risk, avoid the terrain… or use additional aids.” Good advice, especially in these times when fit snow climbers may end up clinging to the middle of a 50 degree shield of white ice, with one ax or a couple of Whippets scratching the surface, wondering if they should keep going. Answer, don’t get yourself in that situation in the first place, and if you do, know your rope skills.
So, back to ski mountaineering. Near the end of the book you’ll find a section covering “Additional Considerations for Skiers and Snowboarders.” Zawaski does a thorough job here with everything from using your skis as a climbing aid, to entering or removing skis in steep terrain. About the only things I noticed missing are the trick of tilting your ski to match your foot angle so it’s easier to enter tech bindings, and the usefulness of safety leashes to prevent a fly-away plank if you have to don skis in an awkward place.
Zawaski’s tome finishes with a lecture on “Hazards, and How to Avoid Them.” Here he transitions to something akin to a management consultant for a moment with a “Conscious Competence Matrix,” used for self evaluation. The Matrix begins with “Unconscious Incompetence,” what I consider the most tragic thing that can cause an accident, and ranges to the top level being “Unconscious Competence,” meaning you act in excellent fashion, sourced out of deep training. Combine this with “disciplined decision making” that inspires you to act on your skills instead of just thinking a about doing the right thing, and you’ve got the foundation for a high degree of safety in the sometimes incredibly dangerous alpine environment.
In all, “Snow Travel” is a book that is needed — especially so in these times of ski mountaineering’s rapid growth in popularity. It is the perfect gift for any aspiring alpinist, and an excellent review for old hands.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.