Making a Point


Figure 1. Always maintain two points of contact while ascending.

Making a Point

Making a point — using and losing your ice axe

When you break it down, alpinism is all about swift improvisation in high-stakes situations, making sound decisions while a blizzard of manure blasts the proverbial fan. That said, there may be no situation more dire than slipping in a whiteout and careening down an icy, 55-degree snow slope, possibly without your axe.

However, remedying this dodgy situation may simply be a matter of foresight and practice. To rehearse the following maneuvers, seek out a steep snow slope with a safe runout (absolutely no obstacles and a broad, flat area in which to complete your slide). Leaving your crampons behind, begin launching yourself down the slope. Even if you fancy yourself a mountaineering legend or an aspiring Seven Summiteer, bone up on these techniques thoroughly and frequently until they become second nature. (Since crampons boast several lethal points, leaving them behind will make this drill a lot safer. Do, however, practice arresting as if you were wearing crampons by keeping your feet well up off the snow.)

Figure 2. Sans axe? Dig in your elbows and knees, but no feet please.

Stop before you start. On exposed terrain, maintain a heightened awareness level at all times, especially on the descent, when most mountaineering accidents unfold. Saunter like a cowboy with spurs and exaggerate the distance between each spiked boot to avoid catching a crampon on a gaiter. Always keep your axe in your uphill hand, maintain at least two points (feet and/or ice axe) of contact with the slope at all times, and move your axe only when you are in the balanced position (figure 1).

Stalling a roll. If an unexpected fall sends you tumbling into the void, snap open into a rigid starfish-type position. Throwing open your limbs will stall the roll and stabilize you either on your stomach or back so you can self-arrest.

Figure 3. If you’re without axe or crampons, make like a yogi and pose like a dog.

Sliding without sharps. If you’ve lost your axe and are sliding on your back, roll over onto your stomach with your feet downhill. Overlap your fingers just under your chin and use your arms to dam the snow. At the same time, increase friction by digging your elbows and knees (not your feet, as they may be attached to crampons when the real situation hits) into the snow. Spreading your legs will also capture snow, so be sure to keep your feet up (figure 2).

Sans spikes. If you tumble without your tool and are not shod in crampons, you can stop quickly by rolling from your back to your stomach and assuming the Downward Dog yoga posture, with your toes and palms of hands dug into the snow, and your waist elevated and bent at a 90-degree angle (figure 3).