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Winter Camping: Navigation

Learn to figure out where you are (even in a whiteout) and prevent, or stop, a snowy fall.

Your ice axe is a ticket to vertical adventure and more interesting backcountry landscapes. Learn how to use it.

Steep, snow-filled couloirs are no place to lose your footing–not when a fall could send you hurtling toward cliffs or talus piles at high speed. Before venturing out, master the art of self-belay (to prevent) and self-arrest (to stop) a snowy slide.

Hold the axe head in your uphill hand (adze forward) and use it as a third leg, planting the spike into the slope after every two steps. Make sure two points (both feet, or one foot and the axe) are secure before moving the third point. Sink the shaft straight down into the snow, deep enough to hold your weight if you fall: Icy slopes may require several thrusts of the axe to sink it sufficiently. If your feet slip, grab the shaft at snow level with your free hand, weighting the buried portion rather than the part remaining above the snow. Kick your toes into the slope to regain purchase and, gripping the axe as an anchor, slowly stand up.

If you’re not already sliding on your stomach, you’ll want to get that way. But first, position the axe diagonally across your chest, gripping the shaft with your free hand and holding the head with your other hand, near your shoulder; roll in the direction of the pick (not toward the spike) to flip onto your belly. Throw all of your weight onto the axe pick, gouging it into the slope while kicking your toes into the snow.

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