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Backpacker Magazine – June 2001

Skills For The Upwardly Mobile

Everything you need to know about hiking in the high country, from talus hopping to finding the right gear to dealing with wind and glaciers.

by: John Harlin

Crevasses make glacier travel hazardous because they're often hidden under snow and always difficult to exit. The general rule is to avoid crossing a glacier unless you've trained for crevasse rescue and can rope up with partners. The exception comes in late summer when snow has completely melted, making crevasses more obvious and easier to avoid. If you're not wearing crampons, walk on the hardest, darkest ice, where grit and gravel provide traction.

Seat and standing glissades are the great rewards of summer snowfields. For a seat glissade, put something slick and waterproof (like a raincover) under your butt, point your feet downhill, and go. Use your heels to brake and steer. The standing glissade offers more control. Place your feet flat on the snow, one slightly behind the other. Flex your knees and bend forward at your waist. Use your boot edges to turn and stop. An ice axe and self-arrest skills (see "Picks And Spikes") open new glissading horizons.

Snowy Sidehill
Before crossing snow patches, check the "runout"-the place you'd wind up if you slipped. Don't cross hard snow if there is a cliff or sharp talus below. Wait for the snow to soften in the afternoon. When you cross steep snow, kick firm steps, weight on the uphill edge of your boot, and test each new step for firmness before transferring your weight. Trekking poles will improve balance, as will an ice axe, which can be plunged into the snow for a secure handhold with every step. Moving the axe when your uphill foot is forward provides a more stable stance.

Safe Scrambling
Scrambling upward is safer and less awkward than climbing down, in part because your eyes lead your body, making holds easier to find. That's part of the reason people get stuck up high-they've climbed up through sections they later find too frightening or difficult to descend. The lesson: Look down while going up, imagining yourself coming back in a few hours. Don't like what you see? Then turn around before you get too high.

Gullies funnel falling rocks like pellets through a shotgun barrel. Avoid entering or passing below a gully when sun is melting snow or ice, loosening rocks above. Travel quickly, one at a time, and don't climb directly above or below companions-you could send a rock flying. If staggered climbing is impossible, walk close together so rocks loosened by one hiker don't have time to gain speed before striking those below. If a stone goes flying, holler "Rock!" to alert others. Wearing a helmet is wise.

Refers to slopes of smaller rocks and loose dirt. Soft scree is hard to go up ("two steps up and one step back"), but heaven to run down; it's also easy on the knees on descents. When hiking uphill, try to kick steps and create platforms for firm footing; on the downhills, plunge-step on your heels as you would on soft snow. For better traction on steep scree, zigzag downhill with your feet angled across the slope rather than pointing straight down.

Is a heap of rocks piled on a slope. Step directly on top of the boulders, moving slowly from one to another, always ready to hop to the next if the one you're standing on shifts or rolls. Choose lichen-covered rocks, since lichen is usually a sign of long-term stability.

At the edges and snouts of most glaciers are great piles of loose rock. Treat these like talus, but remember that there may be slippery ice under the rocks, making them prone to sliding.

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