The earliest method of ascending steep ice was simply to cut steps. The invention of crampons reduced the need for step-cutting, but never eliminated it. Climbers still encounter sections of ice when they are not carrying crampons or face short ice problems that may not merit taking the time to put on crampons. A broken crampon, or an injured or inexperienced climber, may be reason enough to cut steps. Even if you're wearing crampons, you might welcome a slight step chipped out by the axe for added security or to serve as a small platform to rest on.

A stairway chopped up an ice slope will consist of steps cut diagonally up the hill or of "pigeonhole" steps cut straight up the slope. In either case, the steps are cut from a position of balance. The usual sequence is to cut two steps from a position of balance, place the axe for security, move up to a new position of balance, cut two more steps, and so on.

A single line of diagonal steps is usually cut up gentle slopes, while a double parallel line of diagonal steps is put in on moderate slopes where balance is more of a problem. Pigeonhole steps are used on steeper slopes.

To make diagonal steps in relatively soft ice, such as summer serac ice, stand in a position of balance with the axe in your outside (downhill) hand (fig. 14-10). Swing the axe from your shoulder, cutting with the adze and letting the weight of the axe do most of the work. On harder ice, this takes extra muscle, and two hands may be necessary. With successive swings, slice ice out of the step. The swings cut away from your body, starting at the heel-end of the new step and working toward the toe. Scoop out chunks of ice with the adze and use the adze and pick to finish the step. (On steeper sections, you can cut small fingerholds to use while you are cutting steps.)

On hard ice that fractures easily, swing the pick horizontally into the ice to define the bottom of the step so that vertical chopping doesn't destroy the

Climbing Picks Definition

foothold. If you jerk outward on the axe just as the pick penetrates the ice, the pick should chip out the ice successfully rather than sticking in it. Make the step slope slightly inward to help keep your boot from slipping out. On gentle slopes, it may be OK if it holds only a small part of the boot, but steps on steeper slopes should be roomy enough for the entire boot. Space the steps so they are convenient for all members of your party.

When you're ready to change the direction of a series of diagonal steps, chop a hold large enough for both feet as a secure position for turning and for switching hands on the axe. For all step-cutting, you must attach the ice axe to your wrist with a leash to help support your hard-working hand and to prevent loss of the axe if you drop it.

Pigeonhole steps for the direct ascent of steep ice are placed about shoulder-width apart and within easy stepping distance of each other (fig. 14-11). Each step functions as both a handhold and foothold, so each should be large enough to hold the front half of a boot and should have a small lip to serve as a handhold. Cut the step, then create the lip with small chops of the adze.

If you decide to chop steps down an ice slope, the easiest method is to cut ladder steps that descend straight down the hill (fig. 14-12). To cut two steps in sequence, start in a position of balance, facing down the slope. Chop two steps directly below the ones you are standing in. When they are ready, step down with the outside (downhill) foot, and then the inside (uphill) foot. To cut just one step at a time, again start in a position of balance. Cut the step for the outside (downhill) foot and move that foot down into the step. Then cut the step for the inside (uphill) foot and move that foot down into it.

The step-cutter works at a tiring, difficult job on a slippery surface, often in an exposed location,

and therefore usually needs to be belayed. The only way to be ready for that emergency when the skill of step-cutting can be a life-saver is to take the time once in a while to practice using your axe to chop steps.

Continue reading here: Climbing With Crampons

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  • Tellervo
    Is cutting steps hard when mountaineering?
    10 years ago