To descend gently sloping ice, simply face directly downhill, bend the knees slightly, and walk firmly downward {pied marche). Plant all bottom crampon points into the icc with each step. Hold the axe in the cane position {piolet canne).

As the descent angle steepens, bend your knees more and spread them apart, with body weight over your feet so all crampon points bite securely (fig. 14-31). Thigh muscles do the bulk of the work. For greater security, plant the axe perpendicular to the slope in the cross-body position (piolet ramasse), as shown in figure 14-32.

Fig. 14-30. Traversing vertical ice

Tree Climbing Position

Fig. 14-31. Flat-footing on descent, with ice axe in cane position (piolet canne)

Fig. 14-32. Flat-footing on descent, with ice axe in the cross-body position (piolet ramasse)

Fig. 14-30. Traversing vertical ice

For the next level of security, use the axe in the support position (piolet appui), as shown in figure 14-33. Here's how to do it: grasp the axe near the middle of the shaft and hold it beside you as you descend. The axe head points uphill, with the pick down and the spike downhill.

As the slope steepens, switch the axe to the bannister position (piolet rampe), as shown in figure 14-34. To do this, grasp the axe near the end of the shaft. Swing the axe to plant the pick as far below as possible. Walk downward, sliding your hand along the shaft toward the head of the axe. It's important to maintain a slight outward pull on the shaft to keep the pick locked in the ice. Keep moving down until you are below the axe head.

Fig. 14-33. Flat-footing on descent, with ice axe in the support position (piolet appui)

Then push the shaft against the ice to help release the pick, and replant the axe farther down.

On a slope too steep to safely descend facing outward, turn sideways and descend diagonally. Your footwork changes to the same flat-foot technique used to ascend diagonally. Use the axe in the anchor position (piolet ancre), as shown in figure

Ice Axe Anchor

Fig. ยก4-34. Flat-footing on descent, with ice axe in the bannister position (piolet rampe)

14-35. With your outside arm, swing the axe out in front and plant the pick in the ice, take hold of the head with the other hand in the self-arrest grasp, and then flat-foot diagonally down below the axe. The shaft rotates as you pass below it.


It's often tiring and ineffective to try front-pointing down a gentle to moderate slope. A climber tends to be bent over, facing the moderate slope, and to vacillate between flat-foot and front-point technique.

On steep slopes, front-point and hand-tool techniques are generally the same for going down as for going up. But just as on rock, downclimbing is more difficult. There is a tendency to step too low, which keeps the heel too high, so front points may

shear out or fail to penetrate in the first place. It's awkward to plant the ice tools because they must be placed closer to your body, so you lose the power of a good full swing. You don't get a good view of the route on a descent (although descending on a slight diagonal will help).

Climbers don't often front-point a descent, but it's still a valuable skill for occasions such as retreating from a route. Downclimbing ability also builds confidence in ascending.


Ice climbers often descend on rappel, sliding down a doubled rope attached through an anchor, just as in rock climbing. They use natural anchors whenever possible, of course, because snow flukes or other manufactured anchors used for rappelling usually must be left behind, a costly way to go.

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  • simone
    How to protect knees when descending mountaneering?
    8 years ago
  • Cosimo Chubb
    How to hold ice axe when descending?
    8 years ago

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