Learning to self-arrest with an ice axe on St. Mary's Glacier, Colorado.

One thing  I’ve noticed is that with the adventures I’ve been going on lately is that it’s hard to cover everything in one single image as I tried to do on my old photoblog, or even in a series of images. It’s so much easier to do one collective post that supports multiple images with text in between, and so I’m switching to this WordPress blog instead which will be far more capable.

With that, let’s start off this inaugural post with my trip to St. Mary’s Glacier to learn about snow travel in the mountains of Colorado.

I’d been taking a course with the Colorado Mountain Club called the Wilderness Trekking School. After seeing their more advanced courses on High Altitude Mountaineering and eager ready to go explore new worlds here on earth, I immediately signed up on board to go out and learn how to survive and thrive in more demanding conditions outdoors.

One of the field days involved snow travel and learning how to navigate and build shelters in the snow, something which someone who grew up in Georgia has very little experience with. 🙂

We meet up at the CMC’s building in Golden, CO (where the beer Coors is made) and carpool over to St. Mary’s Glacier, a location where they usually like to bring students for this part of the course.

We hiked out to the mountain following some pretty flat terrain and through some wonderful twisted bristlecone pines you can see here.

Hiking to St. Mary's Glacier

Hiking to St. Mary's Glacier.

When we got to the more mountainous areas, our instructor Tim stopped us and started pointing out danger zones in the distance where avalanches were common. He showed us locations where people had died in avalanches in years past and thanks to the class we’d taken earlier that week, we were learning how to “read” mountains and learn where avalanches were likely to occur and were the safe spots and danger zones were.

Tim at St. Mary's

Our instructor, Tim, teaching us about the mountains.

There’s a frozen lake behind him and around this time of the year, in the spring, things were starting to thaw out and melt and it was dangerous for people to go out into the lake due to the chance of falling through the ice and into the frigid water. We marched on to the right from here and on up into the mountains.

Learning How to Walk Up a Snowy Mountain

One thing we learned right away is that it can be TOUGH to walk up a mountain in the snow! You gotta this special thing called a kick-step, where you kick your foot into the snow two or three times and make a foothold for yourself before stepping up.

The leader kickstepping his way up the mountain

The leader kickstepping his way up the mountain.

This also creates places for those behind you to step into and each person make the step a little bit better for the next person. The leader also has to do the most amount of work to kick the steps into the snow. When they get tired, they step aside and let the group go by, falling back to the back of the line. This shot was taken after I led for a while and the person behind me took the lead.

Now it turns out there’s also a trick for changing direction on really slippery, snowy, steep terrain.

What you wanna do to change directions is hold the top of the ice axe and drive the handle of your ice axe down into the snow.

Planting the ice axe to turn

Planting the ice axe to turn.

You then hold the top of the ice axe and kickstep yourself in a semicircle as you rotate around the ice axe. Why? Well what happens if you slip as you change directions on the side of a slippery steep mountain? What’s gonna stop you?

Catching yourself when turning with an ice axe

Catching yourself with an ice axe after you slip when turning.

Notice how one hand dropped down to the handle. The idea is that if you pull it by the top, you’ve got more leverage and might pull the axe out of the snow. If you grip it down closer to the base, you’ll have more stopping power to hold you in place.

Going up a little further, it’s time to stop for a pee break!

Mountains and a bristlecone pine as we make some yellow snow

Mountains and a Bristlecone Pine.

Not a bad view for making some yellow snow, eh? 😉

That’s a bristlecone pine which can easily grow to be hundreds of years old. You can see which direction the wind blows (blasts) by just looking at this windswept tree.

Self-arrest Without an Ice Axe

Alright… now let’s get into some of the cool stuff! What happens if you slip and start sliding down the mountain out of control? How do you stop before you fly off a cliff, smash into a boulder, or just stop in general?

That’s what we covered next. How to stop yourself during a slide. It’s called a self-arrest.

Sliding down on your back

Sliding down on your back.

We dropped our packs and our leaders demonstrated for us what how to self-arrest when you fall in the four main directions: feet first on your back (like a little kid going down on a slide), feet first on your belly (like going down a slide backwards), head first on your belly (like superman), or the craziest one.. head first on your back! This one is definitely the scariest because you’re totally vulnerable and can’t see where you’re going!

So the main thing to do is rotate your body around so that you get into the self-arrest position? What is that, you ask? It looks like this:

How to self-arrest without an ice axe

How to self-arrest without an ice axe.

The main things are to get your feet down into the snow and start applying pressure and to clasp your hands together and start plowing snow into your arms so that it all bunches up behind your hands. Keep your butt off the ground and there ya go: how to self-arrest without an ice axe.

One important point we learned.. if you’re wearing crampons (metal spike shoes that strap onto the bottom of your boots and give you traction when walking on ice or snow) is to actually NOT drive them into the ground! The reason is that they will stop you almost INSTANTLY. You may think that’s a good thing and what you want, but not only is there a good chance that you’ll twist your ankle or perhaps even hit a rock and really mess up your leg, but the sheer stopping power well send you flying up into the air and tumbling down the mountain, putting you into a worse predicament than before. If you’re wearing crampons, you’re supposed to bend your knees and keep your feet up in the air, using your knees to stop yourself into the soles of your feet.

So once we learned the basic self-arrest position, we practiced that and then learned how to get to the self-arrest depending upon what position we fell in.

If you fell face first on your belly, for example, basically you just stick one arm out to the side and spin around on your belly so that your feet are going first.

Sliding down face-first

Sliding down face-first.

I had fun with this one, getting a running start to get some speed and practically diving down the mountain. 😀 My instructor had me go slower next time… heh

Now my favorite one was what happens if you’re on a mountain and somehow fall backwards down the mountain, head first. I really liked this one so I had a friend snap some shots of me as I went down.

Me sliding backwards head-first down a mountain. Weee!!

Me sliding backwards head-first down a mountain. Weee!! (Shot by Charlie)

What do you do if you wind up in this position? You gotta both spin around AND roll over to get into the self-arrest position. The proper way to do that is pick a side, drive one arm down into the snow to create friction, and spin your body and pull your legs back so that your feet wind up behind you.

Me getting into the self-arrest position when sliding head-first on my back (Shot by Charlie)

Me getting into the self-arrest position when sliding head-first on my back (Shot by Charlie)

Here Comes the Blizzard!

When we were out there, another layer of snow started to dump down on us and the inches started adding up quickly.

Here’s my camera after sitting in the snow for literally just a few minutes…

Camera in the snow

Camera in the snow.

Our packs started getting covered as well… 🙂

Packs in the snow

Packs in the snow.

There were people who came up the mountain with us, hikers, skiiers, and snowboarders. They hiked/snowshoed up to the top then switched footgear and down they went!

Skiers going down the mountain

Skiers going down the mountain.

In the picture above you guys doing some traditional alpine skiing. It turns out there’s a variety of different types of skiing… In the next image, you can see a guy telemark skiing. Notice how his knee is bent and he’s kneeling down. With telemark skis, your heel isn’t locked to the ski so you can ski differently than if your boot is basically locked down to the ski.

Telemark skiier

Telemark skier.

If you look closely in this image, it may be hard to see but off in the distance on the hill there is another group learning self-arrests. They’re on the right side of the image, a series of dots on the lower part of the hill, just over the near ridgeline.

Anyways, now that we had a chance to practice self-arresting without an ice axe, it was time to pick up the bad boys and see how much of a difference they made… Without an ice axe, it can easily take a good 10 feet to stop. With an ice axe, we discovered it was typical to stop in a foot to a foot and a half. Big difference!

Ice Axes

Let’s go over the anatomy of an ice axe real quick… none of this I knew before. 🙂

Ice axe

Ice axe (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The metal on top has two ends.

The long pointy end (1) is the pick. The pick is really useful for self-arrests. This is what you drive down into the snow to stop yourself. You also use this end when ice climbing. You can drive it into the ice and pull yourself up with it.

The flat horizontal end (3) is called the adze. We didn’t use this end so we had it covered with cardboard (for padding) and wrapped in duct tape. The adze you can use to chop steps into the snow when the snow is really hard.

The long pole (6) is the shaft. It allows you to use the ice axe as a walking stick or to be gripped to chop with the pick or adze. The recommended length of the shaft varies. When you’re going uphill for example, you’ll want something a little shorter and when going downhill you want something a little longer. If you have a longer shaft, if you drive the spike at the bottom of the shaft down into the snow (as when turning, described above), you get a longer hold in the snow, giving you better support.

The head of the axe (2) is the top where the pick, adze, and shaft meet. This part we often use as a handle when walking. Some people will even pad an insulate the head because not only will you be putting pressure down on the head as you walk, it can also get really cold and holding a metallic object for hours on end in freezing cold temperatures can cause frostbite, even with thick gloves!

Finally there’s the leash (5). This is the long wrist strap that keeps you tethered to the ice axe. You definitely don’t wanna lose it! There’s also debate on how long this should be. If it’s longer, you can easily switch the axe from one hand to the other (you want to keep the axe on your uphill hand so that if you slip, you can more quickly stop your body. It’s already uphill from you. If the axe is downhill from you,  you have to slide past it, hopefully not injure yourself as you pass it, and stop yourself once your body passes the ice axe.) So having a longer leash lets you easily shift the axe from one hand to the other without changing which wrist the axe is tethered to. The downside of a longer leash is that if you lose control and start falling down, it takes longer to reel the axe back in if you’re not holding it and use it to stop yourself. You accelerate really quickly on slick terrain and stopping as quickly as possible is important, especially if you’re zipping down towards rocks or the edge of a cliff! So a shorter leash will help you there. Some mountaineers will actually tether the leash to their hip straps, that way they can have a shorter leash and still use them in either hand. A nice compromise. Our leashes were much longer than the one pictured above. Rather than sliding up and down the shaft, they were tied to the head and long enough to run down the length of the shaft so we could hold the axe near the spike at the bottom if necessary to drive the pick into the snow/ice.

Self-Arresting With an Ice Axe

One of the most useful capabilities of ice axes is the ability to stop yourself if you start sliding down a mountain. The idea is basically to aggressively drive the pick down into the snow with one hand while holding the bottom of the shaft with your other hand for control.

How to hold an ice axe to self-arrest

How to hold an ice axe to self-arrest.

When you start going down, you’re going to want to wind up on your belly, feet downhill, and pick down into the snow.

Self-arrest with an ice axe

Self-arrest with an ice axe.

The pick is your main stopping power here and so you really wanna drive it down. I had my friend take a shot of me doing a self-arrest with an ice axe just because it looks so fricken’ cool. 😉 Facebook picture!!

Ariel self-arresting with an ice axe.

My friend Charlie, the guy in our group who took pictures of me as I went down, wanted some pictures of himself as well so he posed in the snow as I snapped a few shots of him.

Charlie in the snow

Charlie in the snow.

Walking with an Ice Axe

Your ice axe can be used like a walking stick. The idea is you hold it by the head at the top and allow the spike at the bottom to go down into the snow.

Ascending with an ice axe

Ascending with an ice axe.

Pretty straightforward. You do have two options though.. Should your pick point forwards or backwards?

Well generally speaking you want the pick backwards. Why? Well let’s say you slip and need to self-arrest. Having the pick point out the back of your hand lets you quickly go into a self-arrest.

The downside to carrying it this way is most of your hand rests along the narrow section of the head of the axe, along the length of the pick. This kinda cuts into your hand a bit so one option is to point the pick forwards and let your hand rest along the wider half of the head, the adze. This is much more comfortable. The adze doesn’t work nearly as well for self-arresting as the pick, and so generally you’d do this when walking on flatter terrain where the likelihood of slipping is minimal. When there’s a good chance of slipping and needing to self-arrest, point the pick back, as shown above.

As a side note, we discovered that picks made by the company Black Diamond offers a nice compromise. They widen the top of the head where your hand would rest when you walk with the axe in self-arrest position. This makes the axe much more comfortable to lean on, giving your hand more surface area to rest upon.

Whew! So yeah.. fun stuff! We also covered snow shelters towards the end there, building a trench to sleep in if necessary and also demonstrating how to make a simple hole in the snow as a basic shelter. Digging down we also found this really interesting type of snow called sugar snow. It’s basically like a bunch of frozen little icey ball-bearings, not powdery snow or sheets of ice. This is melted snow that refreezes and when new layers of snow land on top of it, it creates an unstable foundation that commonly leads to avalanches.

Now that that’s done, let’s dig our packs out of the snow and head on out.

Snow-covered pack

Snow-covered pack.

This was the last thing I wanted to do while in Colorado before heading out. Now that this is done, it’s time to get packed up and head on west towards California!!

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