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Learning how to use an ice axe
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ROBERT TANGEN
(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Always start on knees? on 05/13/2011 20:33:33 MDT Print View

Re: "I teach a technique that works with or without crampons. You roll onto the axe with your knees bent and feet in the air, than actively pull-up on the axe shaft while leaning hard on the head. You stay in that position until you slow down to a very slow speed, than you forcefully kick your feet in for your final stop."
I'm no expert, but I've heard that once you start sliding down a steep snow slope, you can build up to rocket speed almost instantaneously, and I would guess that always starting on the knees has these problems:
1. The knees are slicker than boot toes.
2. You can't slam your knees into the slope with the same force that you can kick into the slope.
Hence, by always starting with the knees, you can speed out of control before you even start to slow down.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Always start on knees? on 05/13/2011 20:44:23 MDT Print View

"I'm no expert, but I've heard that once you start sliding down a steep snow slope, you can build up to rocket speed almost instantaneously"

Yes. On some slopes, it is totally predictable, and on other slopes, totally unpredictable. The natural tendency is for there to be more fast ice up high, and then more slow snow down lower. So, once you have your speed judged up high, it decreases as you get lower. It lulls you into a false sense of security.

However, terrain features can leave one part of the slope shaded, so its surface texture is completely different from anything above or below. That can come as a huge surprise when you hit it and your speed suddenly increases.

--B.G.--

Brian Austin
(footeab) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Learning how to use an ice axe on 05/13/2011 20:56:40 MDT Print View

You don't need a class or instructor for self arrest. All they will tell you is what we just told you and then march you out there and tell you to do it.

Don't wear crampons while practicing self arrest.

ALWAYS practice self arrest with your FEET RAISED though. You can flip With or Without crampons on if your heel catches.

First practice session should be in SOFT snow, followed by slightly icy. Wear full set of clothes that can take the abrasion. DO NOT go out there in your ultralight wind/rain pants/jacket combo! Unless you like buying new of course.

Practice letting speed build in all positions and on your back head first down and then stopping(bring helmet). Start low angle and practice up to 45 degrees, though 45 degrees is near impossible to find. This will beat into folks heads that on anything above sustained 35 degree slopes, actually STOPPING is VERY near impossible and therefore practicing to NEVER SLIP is your #1 priority. Most beginners think 30 degrees is 45 or more and 45 is 90. For all practical purposes 45 is 90 as you slip on 45 you are goners unless one catches it in the first second.

You(beginner) will also quickly realize that for most conditions that the beginner finds themselves in, you use the adze end of your ice axe for stopping and not the pick. Learn to be very wary of the pick end as it can open the side of your cheek fairly easily. Its far more important to get your hands situated and axe in position first then push all of your weight onto the head of the ice axe. Trying to self arrest with only 1 hand on the axe is entertaining and adrenaline pumping at first but not the way to do it.

Wear gloves as well. You will rip your hands up in the ice particles when practicing if done for any length of time.

Make sure everyone sunglasses have a neck safety strap on them. Actually I wonder how many folks lose their sunglasses every year because they don't have such a strap on their glasses while on snow.

As for crampon practice; Just beat into everyones head that they MUST step WIDER, KNEES apart. Also one must make LARGER steps that are NOT inline with each other. If you walk with cramons on 'in-line' you can(will) jam the front points into your calf, snag your gaiter/pant leg, tripping yourself and sending you barreling down the hill with laughter trailing your progress entertaining your climbing friends.

Please do it on a sunny day. You will thank yourself.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Always start on knees? on 05/13/2011 21:05:11 MDT Print View

"I'm no expert, but I've heard that once you start sliding down a steep snow slope, you can build up to rocket speed almost instantaneously,"

It depends on the texture of the snow, Robert. If the snow is soft, or at least not brittle hard(what we used to call styrofoam), you have a lot more time to achieve a good self arrest. If the snow is styrofoam, or you're on ice, you've got one chance to quickly set that pick and stop yourself because in a matter of seconds you'll be going so fast that even if you do manage to set the pick, the ice ax will be ripped out of your hands and you will probably suffer a dislocated shoulder when the tether goes taut. Depending on the length of the slope and the run out, that may well be the least of your worries. When I was climbing, the axiom was simply: Don't fall. If you're roped up as part of a team, things are still pretty sketchy on steep, hard snow, or ice. Everything depends on your partner going into solid self arrest very quickly, before he/she get pulled off balance and joins the ride.

Edited to include: Another thing to remember is that in the real world you will be wearing a pack, which complicates things considerably. It is not so easy to do the moves required to align yourself face up, on your belly, with 15, 20, 25# on your back. So practicw with your pack on, if for no other reason than to learn what you'll be dealing with in the field. At that point the reason for the axiom "don't fall" becomes even clearer.

Edited by ouzel on 05/13/2011 21:11:50 MDT.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Always start on knees? on 05/13/2011 22:25:22 MDT Print View

"Another thing to remember is that in the real world you will be wearing a pack, which complicates things considerably."

It complicates things a bit, but it can also be good protection. If you have a pack on your back, you can lean back on it with your shoulders to force it into the snow face, so it can help you control your speed. Plus, it will take some of the beating that would go onto your back or shoulders ordinarily. If the pack gets loose, then you have a different problem. I always wanted to get my pack cinched on extra tight before I made a descent.

--B.G.--

Douglas Ray
(dirtbagclimber)

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Using your feet in self-arrest... on 05/14/2011 10:05:01 MDT Print View

In response to question about arresting with your feet down vs. your knees. Without crampons on kicking your feet down will definitely help you stop quicker, particularly in hard snow conditions where you will be sliding fast.

This may be an area where mountaineering and "backpacking with an ice-axe" are different. When you are pursuing a summit and you know you will be climbing steep snow you pretty much always have crampons with you. If conditions and terrain are such that you would be able to slide very fast you will probably be wearing them, because they will make your climbing much more secure. This might not be the case for a backpacker who takes an ice-axe along in the early season to get through whatever conditions they find for a relatively small part of there trip, and the weight of crampons being prohibitive for the small amount of time that they might be used.

The process of snow-climbing for a mountaineer is typically that they learn the techniques described above, and than practice them for many hour on many slopes that are less than 45 degrees and not terribly icy. They tend to develop more technique for stopping slips from becoming true falls. The self-belay technique, often modified by getting one good foot placement in the process (If your planted foot breaks loose while taking a step, you can often kick the other foot in before your torso hits the slope). In harder conditions where the axe can't really plunge, one can climb with the pick towards the slope and deliberately fall onto the axe so it digs in immediately. In really deep, soft, snow, the only hope of stopping a fall would be to plunge the shaft and get your weight over it. Fortunately in such conditions you don't accelerate very quickly so you have time for such manoeuvres. Climbing snow often involves a fair amount of sliding and sinking as you compress it enough to hold you in some fashion, so you get to where you can think and employ a variety of techniques, and stopping a fall becomes an extension of all your climbing technique often involving all four limbs in whatever form they are equipped, always trying to stop moving as quickly as possible.

They sometimes climb steeper slopes in hard conditions (where self-arrest would be impossible) and learn to dagger with the ice-axe and front-point with crampons. This is often learned roped until the climber becomes confident to solo up to 60 degree alpine ice.

At that point the climber will be very comfortable with feeling out and trusting steps and crampon placements, enough so that they will no longer be concerned about falling when on a <45 degree slope in snow one can kick any sort of a step in. Hence you often see mountaineers crossing such a slope with just poles, and climbing with a short technical tool that would be lousy to self-arrest with. Advanced mountaineers realistically would only end-up preforming a classic self-arrest manoeuvre in stopping a crevass fall on a glacier, or catching the fall of a client they were roped to when guiding. In any other conditions where self-arrest would work, they will never reach the point of needing it.

I read a lot of controversy on the internet that I think is the difference between the basic technique and the techniques actually employed by climbers most of the time. The more advanced technique is preferable in every way, but I think that you have to learn the basic self-arrest technique so that you have a back-up for your learning process. I suppose it is also an issue that those who don't pursue mountaineering avidly may not get enough exposure to develop all of those advanced techniques.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: Always start on knees? on 05/14/2011 17:32:56 MDT Print View

"It complicates things a bit, but it can also be good protection. If you have a pack on your back, you can lean back on it with your shoulders to force it into the snow face, so it can help you control your speed. Plus, it will take some of the beating that would go onto your back or shoulders ordinarily."

Not on hard snow, or ice.