The Basics: Self Arrest On Snow Slopes

icepick13Any avid mountaineer is always up for a challenge. Be it a technical ridge, a talus scree field leading to the crux, or a cirque filled with snow it is important that we take any and every consideration to maintain our composure and our focus while trying to discern the safest route around or over the problem.

100806_136-johnckWhen in the later of these situations, hiking through snow, there are many precautions you can take that will hopefully end in you being able to self arrest and stop yourself from your slide to serious bodily injury or worse, death.  There are also several measures you can take to ensure you are crossing or descending a snow field safely and not endangering any others in your group.

The first step you can take to ensure your safety when mountaineering, climbing or ski touring, is know what you’re doing, and to have experience executing the drills, and using the tools necessary wen the moment calls for them. The second step would obviously be to have these tools. Always cary an ice axe and/or crampons when the possibility for traveling on snowpack exists.

Self Arrest: The idea behind self arrest is to stop yourself using friction when in a slide in a safe controlled situation, before picking up too much speed. Your biggest tool besides the ice axe is your awareness of your situation. It is often easy to become disoriented and enter a state of shock after a fall. The first seconds of decent are crucial to righting yourself on the slope, and bringing yourself to a halt. The faster you go, the less likely you are to be able to self arrest. Be sure to be aware of the different parts and functions of your basic ice axe before setting out to try any of the scenarios below.ea2035_iceaxeparts

There are four distinct scenarios to correct your fall with a self arrest; all of which which can save your life:

Head Uphill, face down: This is already the desired position to self-arrest. Get your body over the shaft of the ice axe and apply pressure down until you slow to a halt.

Head uphill on your back: This is an easy position to parlay into a propper position for self arrest. Roll toward the head of the axe and jab the pick into the snow. Always roll toard the axe head, not the spike, as doing the latter can wrench the axe from your hands

selfarrestHead downhill, face down: On a face first fall, you will have to swing your feet in the downhill direction. Do this by reaching downhill and off to the axe head side and get the pick into the snow to serve as a pivot to sing around. Be sure to never jab the spike into the snow and pivot on that end of the axe as the result would be the pick and adze of the axe crossing directly with your slide path risking your head and face.

Head downhill on your back: Hod the axe across your chest and jab pick into the snow , twist, then roll towards it. Do everything in your power to roll towards the axe head as it will help your legs to swing around and point downhill.

08_makeitreal-3Keep in mind that these techniques are for conditions where hard-packed snow exists on the upper layers. Spring conditions, wet or powdery snow will render your axe useless. Using your elbows, hands and heels to stop yourself in these conditions can often be the best scenario.

Here is a great video from the British Mountaineering Council which shows the different techniques mentioned above. Be sure to get out and try these techniques with friends in a controlled environment, and that practice makes perfect. The more you know about snow and whichever medium you are hiking over, the safer and more equipped you will be to handle and type of situation.

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