I was working on our legacy material today and realized we should do something every summer with our snow safety content. Last year we published a review of Snow Travel:Skills. Below is a bit I wrote some time ago for beginners, pass it on, perhaps save a life.
Be you a ski mountaineer or a classic alpinist, you will climb steep snow. With good tools and technique, steep “nieve” or powder can be easy and fun, but the downside, literally, looms. Slip or trip — you’ll take a nasty or even deadly fall in places that seem quite secure. What is more, protecting snow climbing with a rope is at best tedious, at worst dangerous. Instead, snow climbing is often protected with nothing more than your own technique and personal tools.
No discussion of safe snow climbing and steep skiing would be complete without a review of the self arrest — the time honored method for stopping such falls.
For snow climbers and mountain skiers the self arrest has four forms. These depend on gear. While climbing, you’ll need to know how to self arrest with your ice ax. While skiing, you can use specialized self arrest grips on your ski poles. These are MUCH less effective than an ice axe, yet skiing while holding an ice ax is awkward, so arrest grips can be useful. One trick I’ve used is to strap my axe to a pole using a couple of lashing straps. Still awkward, but at least it’s there in your hand.
Regarding arrest while skiing, one thing should be clear. If you fall while already moving downhill at speed, on steep hard snow, you will not be able to self arrest. Period. I’ve observed a lot of false confidence by people in this situation, speeding down steep couloirs with an axe in one hand, or Black Diamond Whippet self arrest ski pole grips at the ready. I repeat, if you fall while skiing at speed on a steep slope you will slide and tumble — and most probably will not stop. Instead you’ll take a 60mph plus brutal fall that will at the least injure you. Thus, the old adage of extreme skiers still holds: falling is not an option.
If you have ski poles, but no arrest grips or ice ax, you can perform a self arrest with your pole tips. This is awkward and ineffective. Lastly, if you have nothing, you can try to arrest with your hands and boot toes. This is bogus — but good to practice so you know why you need a tool for an effective arrest.
A successful self arrest is a skilled acrobatic maneuver. You must practice until it becomes instinct. If you’re new to the game, a snow climbing class is your best bet for learning. If you’re an expert you should practice periodically.
Self arrest has one other important aspect: whether you’re climbing or skiing, wear non-skid clothing. Slick nylon can turn a small slip into a deadly sliding fall. Wool blend ski pants are nonskid but sadly are not commonly available. Soft shell type fabrics help but are slicker than you’d assume. Cordura nylon is better than slicker nylons but still slippery. Experienced snow climbers and backcountry skiers have a name for slick nylon shell pants: “death pants.” Unfortunately, style these days seem to dictate skiing in full shell garments even in warm spring temperatures. I’d advise using clothing that’s more practical, cooler and less likely to cause what is hopefully called a “slide for life.”
Thus, especially in the spring when snow can be icy or slick “summer goo,” leave the shell pants and jacket in the pack or at home. Instead, the best outer layer is any type of classic softshell.
It’s immeasurably safer and more efficient to climb snow with crampons and ice ax, or with crampons and ski poles when the angle is low enough this to be done safely. Make crampons and ice ax standard items in your kit if snow climbing is remotely possible. The same goes for the excellent ski crampons available for ski touring bindings.
Crampon technique for snow is simple. Walk with a normal gait for low-angle work, make traverses and switchbacks (French stepping). Steeper terrain requires more technique: balancing on your front points or using a series of traverses to keep your feet flat or a combination of the above. Again, “snow school” with a guide service is a good way to learn snow climbing.
Crampons give you security, but conversely they also cause falls. One noxious occurrence, known as “snow balling,” happens when snow sticks to your boot soles. It gets so thick that your crampon points won’t bite. Some models of crampons have a plastic sheet that helps prevent snow balling. Silicon spray helps. Sometimes nothing works and you must whack the snow off your crampons before every step. A sharp rap with your axe is the technique. Tedious. The other common trip-up occurs when your crampon catches your other leg’s clothing or crampon strap. Prevent this with a careful gait and heavy fabric gaiters which a crampon point is less likely to penetrate (and nix the baggy pants, which are silly when crampons are involved). Many snow climbers (myself included) dull their crampons slightly to make them less likely to catch on clothing, but this makes them less sure on ice.
Which ice ax to choose for ski mountaineering? Unless you plan on climbing steep couloirs at over 40 degrees, or ice climbing, use one of the super-lightweight axes now available. Length is a personal preference; but since you’ll have ski poles for low angled terrain, a shorter ax will suffice. The lightest ice axes have aluminum heads. These are only suitable for low to mid-angle snow climbing. If you expect any ice or steeper terrain, use an ax with a steel head. Most climbers use some sort of wrist loop with their ice ax. Personal preference for this varies — find what works for you and stick with it. When your ice ax is stowed on your pack, place protectors on the tip, adz, and spike to prevent injury to you and others. You can buy such protectors, or wrap the sharps with duct tape.
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.