Timing and Route Finding

More than any other consideration, when and under what conditions you do a snow climb determine how difficult and/or insecure the ascent will be. For instance, a prolonged warm spell followed by a hard frost will turn a hillside of bottomless mush into a delightful slope of crisp névé, which in the morning may be too hard to climb without crampons, but which will yield perfect steps at 10:00 A.M., after an hour's exposure to the sun. In another hour the snow may rapidly regress to its former sloppy midday state, requiring three or four times the effort and time. Learn to predict when such "windows of opportunity" exist in the mountains and develop this skill at prediction through thoughtful observation. Capitalizing on your mistakes imparts the deepest knowledge.

Just as important as when you climb is where you climb. On any given day conditions will vary greatly from one aspect of a mountain to another. You may travel on good windpack on the lower East Ridge, flounder through three feet of dangerous sugar snow as you traverse out beneath the North Face, which may offer a path up the edges of spindrift-gouged avalanche runnels, and finally reach the consolidated snow on the southern slopes—perhaps softened just enough to allow a wonderful sliding descent back to camp at 1:00 P.M.

Each facet of the mountain also contains a multitude of subtle conditions, less dramatically variable than those found on opposite sides of the hill, but just as important to the climber. You will learn to

identify the slight difference in opacity of the thicker wind crust that just bears your weight, or the firm avalanche debris beneath a mantle of new snow.


In both hard and soft snow it is often necessary to kick steps. In hard snow a small platform to stand on is "sawed" into the slope with a forward thrust of the edge of the boot. In soft snow, kicking directly into the snow—sometimes with a tamping motion or two (or six or eight in very soft snow)—will yield a big step that shouldn't give way under body weight.

Self-Be/ay with Ice Axe

Unroped snow climbing is often safe, with the expectation that the support of the ice axe shaft, shoved as deeply as possible into the snow as a self-belay before each step, will be adequate to catch a slip before it turns into a fall.

Left: Piokt i that h both handi oh th* head of the OX», lhaft plunged into the snow fffoto. Mm* MfM

Above and apposite page: To wtf-afrejl, drag your pfcfc.,,

Some people are adamant that the pick should point away from the body, thus making injury in a slip less likely and giving a more comfortable grip with the wide adze in the palm of the hand. Others insist the correct way is exactly the opposite, with the adze pointing forward. Their reasoning is that a self-arrest can be applied more quickly if the self-belay should fail. 1 do not fee! strongly either way, but tend most often to point the pick forward because 1 find the adze provides a more comfortable support.


Using the ice axe self-belay and kicking good steps, you will rarely find yourself in an uncontrolled fall on snow. But such falls do happen, so the technique of self-arresting with the pick of the ice axe was developed to stop them.

For practice, you must find a slope with snow firm enough to slide on, and a good run-out. Obviously a slope above a drop-off or one that ends in a field of boulders is not the right place to learn. Do not wear crampons, as you could snag one and break your ankle. If, in a real fall, you are wearing crampons, bend your legs at the knees and keep your feet away from the snow. Although a fall can leave

115 ▼ Moving on Snowy Terrain

,,, swing your lower body below you, away from the pick...

... roll onto the shaft, controlling the pick at just above shoulder level...

* * * honth your weight over the shaft and dig In yon toes. (Photos: Mark Wilford)

you in any position, even upside-down and backwards (about which more later), begin by trying to stop yourself from a position where your feet are pointing downhill and you are lying on your back. With one hand grasp the axe very near the spike, the shaft diagonally across your chest, the fingers of your other hand curled over the head of the axe, and your thumb wrapped around between the adze and the shaft. If your left hand is near the spike and your right hand is holding the head, let yourself slide a little and roll to your right, toward the pick of the axe. As you roll over onto the pick, gradually insert it into the snow to stop your slide. If the pick of the axe is in your left hand, roll to the left, If you roll toward the spike, it may catch in the snow as you roll, which will almost certainly wrench the axe from your hands. To keep the spike from catching as you apply braking force, pull up on it as you hunch your weight onto the pick. You can also dig the toes of your boots in for extra stopping power.

Once you have the skill to stop yourself at greater speeds from this basic position, try ever more exotic falls, always remembering the basic principles of rolling toward the pick and controlling the spike. The illustrations show the sequence for stopping an upside-down and backward fall. First, try to sit up a bit and drag the pick into the snow at about waist level. This provides a kind of pivot around which your feet can swing. At the same time, begin to roll toward the pick with your upper body. This eventually puts you in a position to effect a classic arrest.

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