Self-arrest is the lifesaving technique of using the ice axe to stop your own uncontrolled slide down a snow slope. It's used when you slip on the snow without a self-belay or when your self-belay fails. If you are unroped, it offers your only chance to stop the slide. It's the single most important snow-climbing skill, one you should continue to practice as long as you climb so that it remains an automatic response to a fall.
The technique also serves to brace you solidly in the snow if you have to hold the fall of a rope-mate. Therefore a climber's own life and those of fellow climbers could hinge on self-arrest skills. Every climber must be proficient and reliable at self-arrest, learned through practice on increasingly steep and hard snow with a safe runout.
Strength obviously helps in self-arrest, but knowing the correct methods is more important than simple muscle power.
The first rule of self-arrest is: act fast. Good self-arrest form may be aesthetically satisfying, but fast is better than pretty when instantaneous action is critical. From the self-arrest position, get the ice-axe pick in as hard and as quickly as possible, before you've accelerated to an unstoppable speed.
Here's what you should look like as you complete a successful self-arrest, lying face down in the snow, head uphill, with the ice axe beneath you (fig. 12-26, last panel):
The hands hold the axe in a solid grip, one hand in the self-arrest grasp with thumb under the adze and fingers over the pick, the other hand on the shaft just above the spike.
The pick is pressed into the snow just above your shoulder so that the adze is near the angle formed by neck and shoulder.
The shaft crosses your chest diagonally and is held close to the opposite hip. Gripping the shaft near the end prevents that hand from acting as a pivot around which the spike can swing to jab the thigh. (A short axe is held the same way, although the spike will not reach the opposite hip.)
The chest and shoulder are pressed strongly down on the ice-axe shaft.
The spine is arched slightly away from the snow. This arch is critical; it places the bulk of your weight on the axe head and on your toes or knees, the points that dig into the snow to force a stop. Pull up on the end of the shaft, which starts the arch and rolls weight toward the shoulder by the axe head. (Note: the arch can be carried to excess by those unwilling to get their chest and face down into the snow.)
The knees are against the surface, helping slow the fall in soft snow. On harder surfaces, where they have little stopping power, they help stabilize your body position.
The legs are stiff and spread apart, toes digging in. But if you have crampons on, keep them above the snow until you've nearly come to a halt. A crampon point could catch on hard snow or ice and flip you over backward.
Fig. 12-26. Correct self-arrest technique, head uphill, on your hack
The position you find yourself thrown into when you fall determines how you self-arrest. You'll likely be sliding in one of four positions: head uphill or head downhill and, in either case, face down or on your back. The immediate goal is to get your body into the only usable self-arrest position: with your head uphill and your face down. And the first move toward that goal is to grasp the axe in both hands, one hand on the axe head in the self-arrest grasp and the other at the base of the shaft. From that point, here is how to handle each of the four situations:
Head uphill, face down: You're already in the desired self-arrest position. All you have to do is get your body over the axe shaft, as described above.
Head uphill, on your back: This isn't much more difficult than the first version. Roll toward the head of the axe and jab the pick into the snow at your side as you roll over onto your stomach (fig. 12-26). If the axe head is on the right, roll to the right. If it's on the left, roll to the left. Beware of rolling the other way, toward the spike, which could jam the spike in the snow before the pick and wrench the axe from your hands (fig. 12-27).
Head downhill, face down: self-arrest from
Fig. 12-26. Correct self-arrest technique, head uphill, on your hack
head-first falls is more difficult because the feet have to first be swung downhill. In this face-down predicament, reach downhill and off to the axe-head side and get the pick into the snow to serve as a pivot to swing the body around. Work to help swing the legs around so they are pointing downhill (fig. 12-28). Never jab the spike into the snow and pivot on that end of the axe. That would bring the pick and adze of the axe across your slide path and on a collision course with your chest and face.
Head downhill, on your back: Hold the axe across your torso and slide the pick into the snow, then twist and roll toward it (fig. 12-29). Once again, the pick placed to the side serves as a pivot point. But merely planting the pick won't bring you around to the final self-arrest position. You must work at rolling your chest toward the axe head at the same time as you help your legs to swing around and point downhill. A sitting-up motion helps the roll.
Variations: In the loose snow of winter and early spring, the pick may not be able to reach compact snow, making the usual self-arrest useless. The best brakes in this case are feet and knees and elbows, widely spaced and deeply pressed into the snow. In this case the greatest drag potential of
the axe lies not in the pick but in the shaft, thrust vertically into the slope or dragged in the self-ar-rest position. Pivoting is usually unnecessary on a headfirst fall because you stop before you can get turned around.
A final reminder: Act fast! How fast you get into the arrest position is the key to success. On hard snow, a quick stab at the slope with the pick or spike, or even boot heels, may stop a fall before it gets started. Arrest on extremely hard snow is very difficult if not impossible, but always give it an intense try, even if you're belayed on a rope. Occasionally, in the first instant of a fall, the pick lodges in a crevice or behind a hump and stops the action even on a very steep slope.
Self-arrest stops a fall by friction of axe and body against snow. When the slope is too steep or slippery—"too fast"—even the most skillful technique won't stop the slide. Acceleration can be so rapid on hard snow that the first instant of fall is the whole story. The climber rockets into the air and crashes back to the unyielding surface with stunning impact, completely losing uphill-downhill orientation.
Fig. 12-28. Self-arrest technique, head downhill, face down
Even successful arrests require at least a little time, during which the climber slides some distance. Therefore the effectiveness of the self-arrest is limited by the climber's speed of reaction and I the steepness and length of the slope.
If all initial efforts at self-arrest are unsuccessful, don't give up. Keep fighting. Self-arrest might work in softer snow or at a lower angle farther down the slope. Even if you don't stop, the attempt may slow you down and help prevent rolling, tumbling, and bouncing. It may also help keep you sliding feet first, the best position if you end up hitting rocks or trees. And if you are roped to other climbers, anything you can do to slow your fall increases the chance that their self-arrests or belays will hold.
Keep alert at all times to the limits of self-arrest. If a slope seems too fast or too short, or members of a climbing party doubt their strength or skill, use one of the techniques of roped protection outlined later in this chapter.
Self-belay is preventive; self-arrest is a recovery measure. Some climbers who learned self-arrest as the primary security technique on snow fear too much emphasis on self-belay. But the purposes of the two techniques are different and you need them both. Where the axe can be planted securely, self-belay is usually all that is needed, so any fall is prevented in the first place. If self-belay fails, you can then self-arrest.
While self-belaying on a climb, keep alert to changes in snow conditions that make the belays insecure. If the snow on a steep slope is so hard that axe placement might not hold a slip, it may be best to change to the self-arrest grasp, ready to instantly self-arrest. Of course, under these conditions, a self-arrest will also be very difficult. Even with the self-arrest grasp, you can continue to make self-belay placements, though they will be a little more difficult because your palm will no longer be on the flat, comfortable top of the adze.
One important skill comes into play if you are using the self-belay grasp and slip into a fall. You must be able to instantly flip the ice axe from the self-belay grasp to a self-arrest grasp. Grab the shaft of the axe just above the spike, then change the hand to the self-arrest grasp—and arrest. This takes practice. If you don't have the skill or confi dence to do it, then it will be safer to do your self-belays holding the axe head in the self-arrest grasp.
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