In going down, just like going up, technique is determined mainly by the hardness and angle of the snow. In soft snow on a moderate slope, simply face outward and walk down. With harder snow or a steeper angle, use the plunge step (fig. 12-23).

The plunge step is a confident, aggressive move. Face outward, step assertively away from the slope and land solidly on your heel with your leg vertical, transferring weight solidly to the new position. No timid steps allowed. Avoid leaning back into the slope, which could result in a glancing blow, less secure steps, and perhaps an unplanned glissade. Plunge-stepping can be secure with steps that hold only the heel of the boot, but most climbers do not trust steps more shallow than that.

When plunge-stepping, keep the knees bent a bit, not locked, to maintain control of balance. The

degree of bending depends on the angle of the slope (the steeper the slope, the greater the bend) and the firmness of the surface (the harder the snow, the greater the bend). With bent knees, a forward lean is also needed to help with balance. An aggressive stride creates a deep step, so be careful in very soft snow that a plunging leg isn't injured by being buried so deep it can't be yanked back out as you take the next step.

The plunge-stepping climber holds the ice axe in one hand in either the self-arrest or self-belay grasp, with the spike close to the surface, well forward and ready to plant in the snow. You can spread and move the other arm for balance. Some climbers hold the axe in both hands in the full self-arrest position—one hand on the head, the other near the end of the shaft—but this allows less movement of the arms to maintain balance.

At some point, on harder or steeper snow, this style of plunge-stepping will not feel secure. Then it's necessary to plant the axe as low as possible in a self-belay before each move and advance the feet in a sort of crouched, modified plunge step (fig. 12-24).

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