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Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking, and Crossing Over Snow

By Mike Zawaski

A climber front points up the Dragon's Tail Couloir in Rocky Mountain National Park using the low dagger technique with his right hand and holding with a Black Diamond Whippet with his left. The slope angel is approximately 50 degrees. Photo by Mike Zawaski.Getting Started: Ascending

Before getting into the finer points of climbing snow, it is important to see the big picture. Unlike rock climbing, where the number and quality of hand and footholds is fixed, improving your steps and manufacturing protection placements is what snow climbing is all about. Falling while rock or ice climbing often has serious consequences, which is why people use ropes. On snow slopes climbers normally travel without ropes. This is due partly to the terrain itself, but also to the many options available for protection and for climbers to modify the snow to make it easier to climb. Stay safe by following this progression of ways to protect yourself while climbing.

1. Choose the correct technique for your feet and kick good steps. Good footwork is your first and most important line of security. Use your ax for balance only, not to hold your weight.

2. When your steps feel less secure (or the consequences of falling increase), use your ax as a third point of security by either jabbing the pick or the spike into the snow using one of the techniques outlined in Chapter 3, Using Your Ice Ax. Drive the pick or spike deep into the snow and keep a good grip so that if you slip, your upper body and ax prevent you from sliding.

3. When it becomes too difficult to kick steps, put on crampons. Use your ax as a point of balance or for support.

4. If crampons are not an option, or the section of firm snow is short, cut steps with your ice ax.

5. If your feet are sinking deeply and your ax is not able to gain purchase in unconsolidated snow on a steep slope, your primary concern may be an avalanche. Move to firmer (and preferably lower-angle) snow immediately.

6. If the area of snow you are attempting to cross is steeper than you are comfortable with and you do not have crampons, descend and find a different route. If some but not all members of your group feel uncomfortable climbing the slope, one option is to have those members belayed up the slope by a person who has climbed ahead and created an anchor.

7. Long, steep sections of frozen snow and ice usually require roped climbing techniques. If you have experience lead climbing, using a rope and lead climbing while you place protection in the snow and rocks is an option. Covering this skill is outside the scope of this book.

The previous skills should be used in a progression because employing a technique too early may slow you down and possibly make you less safe. For example, in soft snow on a low-angle slope you should be able to kick adequate steps and feel secure without needing to drive the entire shaft of your ax into the snow with each step. Using your ax in this manner is tiring, will slow you down, and may expose you to hazards higher on the mountain that would not have been an issue if you had reached the summit earlier in the day.

Good risk management involves considering both the probability and consequences of an accident. The probability means how likely a fall or other accident is; the consequences are the events following an accident. When you are just learning, the probability of falling is high, so you practice in a safe location where the consequences of falling are low. As you climb steeper slopes and bigger mountains, the consequences of falling will increase. To manage this risk you will need to improve your skills and employ many of the techniques listed above for protecting yourself.

This is how experienced climbers climb big mountains: by being fit, by continually improving their skills, by making good choices, and by practicing effective risk management.

Slope Ratings and Difficulty Levels

This book avoids providing any numerical rating system or comparative rating system (e.g., slope X will be harder to climb than slope Y) because no standardized system has been created for rating snow climbs. Slope angle is only one variable in determining the difficulty of a route and the conditions of snow vary dramatically. For example, ascending a 5-degree slope of frozen water without crampons may be more difficult than climbing a 50-degree snow slope.

Unlike rock, which rarely changes, the texture of the snow may (and usually does) vary dramatically during a single day, during a single season, and over the years. This is an important concept to remember when consulting guidebooks or other sources of information about the difficulty of a route. Slope angle is commonly used in guidebooks to describe difficulty. It is likely to be consistent with what is written in a guidebook (if the author measured it correctly), but a few important variations may exist. Early in the spring the snow may be difficult to climb because it is poorly consolidated; this makes kicking steps and self-arresting more difficult. Recent snowfall can also dramatically change the route. Cornices may last well into the summer and may be much larger or smaller than “normal,” making the last few meters of a route difficult or impassable.

As melting continues during the climbing season, sections of snow may melt out completely, requiring some rock climbing. Large gaps between the snow and the rock walls may make transitioning between the two impossible. If you are climbing a route from a glacier, the snow-bridge covering the moat or bergschrund may have melted, preventing you from even getting on the route.

Climbing As A Roped Team—Good Or Bad Idea?

A common error made by climbing groups has been to create a roped team, where members tie into the rope at even intervals and ascend/descend in a straight line. History has shown that a rope team that includes inexperienced climbers is likely to end in disaster if any members (especially the highest climber) fall and fail to self-arrest. During roped team travel, there is always the risk that a fallen climber will pull the other climbers off their feet and into an uncontrolled slide.

Two tragic examples of this occurred on glaciated peaks: on Ptarmigan Peak in Alaska in 1997 and on Mount Hood in Oregon in 2002. In both situations a member of a roped team fell and failed to self-arrest, pulling the other members down the slope. These situations became even worse when other roped teams climbing below were knocked down the mountain by the sliding teams. These giant tangles of ropes, axes, and people stopped only when they collided with a boulder field or fell into a crevasse after sliding hundreds of feet. Major injuries and fatalities occurred.

On a glacier, climbing as a roped team is a mandatory activity due to crevasse danger. A climber falling into a crevasse typically generates much less force on the other climbers than a climber sliding down a snow slope because the effect of the rope cutting into the snow over the lip of a crevasse increases the friction and decreases the acceleration of the falling climber.

Roping up on a steep slope is not recommended for beginning climbers or teams traveling in steep terrain with inexperienced members. If you are hoping to climb glaciated peaks, seek further instruction on roped travel and running belays. For steep slopes, consider belaying inexperienced climbers.


A climber working her way up Skywalker Couloir on South Arapahoe Peak, Indian Peaks, Colorado. Photo by Mike Zawaski.  Climbing Techniques

Techniques for kicking steps and using an ice ax originated mostly in Europe, and the names of the techniques tend to be of French origin. Over time, English translations and more descriptive titles have also evolved. In reality, there is no simple set of climbing terms in English that translate to the terms in French. This is partially because different techniques are not always used in isolation; they are blended with others to create new techniques. This book uses a descriptive approach and includes the French terms that North Americans commonly use. All the terms commonly used will be mentioned, but to keep things simple, each technique will be referred to using only one name.

The French system for naming a technique begins with telling you whether this technique is for your feet or your ax. The French word for ice ax is piolet. Techniques involving your ax are preceded by this word. Techniques for the feet are preceded by the word pied, which means foot. See Tables 2-1 and 3-1in Snow Travel - - for the English and French (including pronunciations) terms with a photo of each.

The Basics of Kicking Steps

Kicking good steps is your primary mode of protection when climbing snow and arguably the most important skill presented in this book. Kicking steps means using your boots, without crampons, to create small platforms for your feet to rest on. The decision-making process for deciding which step to use can be summarized in two sentences:

1. Use the least amount of energy to kick your steps, but also use the right step to stay stable enough to avoid falling.

2. Follow the shortest path along your route, but balance this by choosing a safe route and not tiring yourself out.

The following techniques for using your feet to ascend have no hierarchy. Walking technique, sidestepping, front-pointing, and duck step are the four basic steps. Some variations are included, but these steps are not mutually exclusive; they blend together. As you become more proficient, you will see how the walking technique merges with any of the next three. Front-pointing blends with the duck step, then becomes a side-step. You will also choose the right step for one foot independently of what the other is doing. Continually pay attention as you climb to determine if a particular step is (or was) correct for your situation.

There are two basic approaches to kicking steps. On softer snow, kick your level foot into the snow, creating a cavity for you to stand in. This is easier if you are wearing rigid-soled boots. The second approach, and the one requiring the best technique, is to kick (or saw) a small platform for the sole of your boot to rest on. Your goal with each kick is to create a platform that has enough surface area so that you feel comfortable standing on it. How much of your boot edge should rest on the snow is personal preference. On firm snow with rigid boots experienced climbers may cut an area only a centimeter deep; less experienced climbers will want a larger step. In softer snow, it is probably best to have at least a quarter to a third of the surface area of your boot on the platform.

To make sense of why some techniques may work better than others for kicking steps, it is worth considering how snow or other mediums behave when you hit them. Consider these examples that may be closer to home. Why is it easier to split a round of wood by axing it closer to the edge than in the middle? Why is it easier to break apart a slab of ice on the sidewalk when you start from the edge than the center? The answer is that all these materials split more easily when you provide a location for the broken material to go; and being near the edge requires a smaller amount of material to be broken in order to completely separate it from the main body. This is why kicking steps is easier when the snow is featured and also why you swing your foot into the slope at an angle (sidestepping or duck stepping—see below) instead of kicking straight into the snow when front-pointing; the snow you kick can be dislodged from the slope instead of being compressed into the slope.

Apply these fundamentals when kicking steps:

■ Swing your leg more from the knee than the hip.

■ Kick like you mean it! Firm snow is not for tiptoeing around. Good steps take real effort.

■ In heavily featured snow, kick your foot into narrow ridges to knock away enough snow for a platform or merely step on a natural foothold.

■ In less featured snow, aim your foot toward an existing depression because the snow is at a lower angle than the rest of the slope.

■ Kick your foot as few times as possible per step, ideally only once. It is not unheard of to kick four times or more, but this will decrease speed and increase fatigue.

■ Continually assess the snow and attempt to predict its hardness. Reflect on how easy or difficult it was to kick your steps in relation to what the snow looked like. By surveying the snow you can make microroutefinding decisions so that you kick your foot in the best possible location. The firmness of the snow can vary dramatically with each step, especially if the snow is in the sun. Move to the side and try a new direction if the snow is too soft or too hard.

In softer snow, your foot may slip down or compress the snow below your foot as you make a step. This can scare people not used to kicking steps. After a while you will recognize the difference between the snow safely settling and being on the verge of falling.

When traveling in a group over difficult terrain, have the strongest members near the front so that they share the job of creating steps large enough for members at the rear. Be sure that the distance between steps is comfortable for all members of the party.

Every person in a group should kick his or her foot to improve the step. Kicking your foot, even if it is to only scrape away at where your sole will go, improves your grip. Steps can become slick and tilted downhill very quickly. You know you are doing it right when you are kicking snow into the legs of the person in front of you.

Snow bouldering in the melted out zone next to a large boulder is a great way to improve your skills for climbing steep snow. Photo by Stacy Wolff.

Improving Your skills with Minimal risk of injury

Consider improving your snow climbing skills the same way you improved your rock or ice climbing skills. Find a snow “cliff” at the base of a mountain where you can set up a top rope or do some snow “bouldering” in a location with a safe runout and no avalanche or rockfall danger above.

Short but steep sections of snow commonly form in the late spring and early summer near large boulders and at the base of rock walls when the heat from the rocks melts out a large pocket of snow around it. These features may last well into the fall season when the snow becomes very firm. If using a top rope, set your anchor at least five feet back from the edge so you can safely practice climbing over the lip.
Practice climbing up and down without an ice ax, with one ice ax, and with two ice axes. In the fall (and occasionally in the summer when the snow freezes solid), practice the same skills but with crampons as well. Practice cutting steps up and down.

This is an excerpt (Chapter 2) from Mike Zawaski's book Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking, and Crossing Over Snow. Learn more about the book here.

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