Glissading is one of the joyous bonuses of mountain climbing, offering the fastest, easiest, and most exhilarating way down many snow slopes for a climber on foot. It's an alternative to walking or plunge-stepping, for use on slopes where you can keep your speed under control. There are three principal methods of glissading. Which one you use will depend on how hard and steep the slope is, how safe the runout is at the bottom of the hill, and how good you are at glissading.
The sitting glissade (fig. 12-25a) is the easiest to learn and works on soft snow where you would bog down if you tried a standing glissade. You'll get the slickest and driest ride by wearing coated-nylon rain pants. For the sitting glissade, simply sit in the snow and let 'er rip, holding the axe in self-arrest position as you slide downhill. The standard posture is to sit fairly erect, knees bent and boot soles planing along the surface. However, to get started and maintain momentum in snow that
is quite soft, it helps to stretch out your legs, spreading body weight over a greater area.
Run the spike of the axe, like a rudder, along the snow on one side of you. Putting pressure on the spike helps reduce speed and thwarts any tendency of your body to pivot head-downward. The standard posture, with knees bent and feet flat, also reduces speed. This posture is the most helpful in uncomfortable conditions: when the snow is crusted or firmly consolidated, pitted with icy ruts or small suncups, or dotted with rocks or shrubs. It provides more stability and control than with your legs straight out in front, and it helps minimize wear and tear on your bottom.
To stop, use the spike to slow down, then dig in your heels—but not at high speed or a somersault may be the result. For an emergency stop, simply self-arrest by rolling into position toward the side opposite the spike. (The indispensable technique of self-arrest will be explained in the next section of this chapter).
Turns are almost impossible in a sitting glissade. The spike, dragged as a rudder and assisted by body contortions, can exert a change in direction of a few degrees at most. The best way to get around an obstruction is to stop, walk sideways to a point that is not directly above the obstacle, and take off again.
The standing glissade (fig. 12-25b) is the best one, if you know how to do it and conditions arc right. This position offers the earliest look at hazards of the route, is the most maneuverable, and saves your clothes from wetness and abrasion. The standing glissade is most effective on a firm base with a softer layer on top. The softer the snow, the steeper the slope needed to maintain speed. You can do a standing glissade down slopes of harder snow, but these will usually be at lower angles and with a safe runout. Slopes at very low angles can be skated, if the snow is firm.
Correct standing glissade technique is very similar to downhill skiing. The position is a semi-crouch over the feet with bent knees and outspread arms. The feet can be together or spread, as needed for stability, with one foot advanced slightly to further improve stability and prevent nose dives. Increase speed by bringing the feet closer together and leaning farther forward over the feet. Slow down and stop any number of ways: stand up and dig in the heels; turn the feet sideways and edge; crouch and drag the ice-axe spike as in the crouching glissade (described next); or perform a turn similar to skiing in which you rotate the shoulders, upper body, and knees in the direction of the turn and roll the knees and ankles in the same direction to rock the feet onto boot edges.
Transition areas, where the snow texture changes, are tricky. If you hit softer, slower snow, your head and torso will suddenly be outpacing your legs, so move one boot forward for stability. If you hit harder, faster snow or ice below the surface, lean well forward to prevent a slip. Keep speed under control by regular braking and traversing.
The crouching glissade (fig. 12-25c) is done
much like the standing glissade, except the climber holds the axe in the self-arrest position to one side of the body, sits back, and drags the spike in the snow. It's slower than a standing glissade and easier to learn. With three points of contact, it is also more stable. However, turning is more difficult, as is controlling speed with edging.
As in much of mountaineering, efficiency in glissading takes a smooth blend of several techniques. In particular, climbers who lack finesse in the standing glissade often use a combination: breaking into a plunge step to control speed, stepping off in a new direction rather than making a ski-style turn, and skating to maintain momentum as the slope angle lessens.
Glissading can be hazardous. Glissade only when there is a safe runout, close enough that if you slide out of control, you won't be injured before reaching it. Unless there is a view of the entire run, the first person down must use extreme caution and stop frequently to look ahead. The biggest risk is losing control at such high speed that self-arrest is not possible. This is most likely to happen on the best glissading slope, one with firm snow. Maintain control of speed.
Adjust equipment before beginning the descent, and stow crampons and other hardware in the pack. Don't try a sitting glissade while wearing crampons, because it's too easy to catch a point in the snow. Wear mittens, even on a warm day; snow is so cold and abrasive it can chill and flay the hands until they lose control of the axe.
Sometimes in soft snow, a glissader accidentally sets off a mass of surface snow, which slides down the slope with the glissader aboard. These are really small avalanches, known as avalanche cushions. The trick is to decide if it's a cushion safe to ride or if it is about to become a serious avalanche. If the moving snow is more than a few inches deep, self-arrest won't work because the ice-axe pick can't penetrate to the layer below. Sometimes the spike can be driven deep enough to slow, though probably not stop, the glissader. Unless you're sure the cushion is safe and your speed is under control, get off. Just roll sideways a few feet out of the path of the moving snow, then self-arrest.
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