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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.

Using an ice axe

  • Self-arrest. You can stop a slide with your axe. The basics: Hold the head in one hand with your thumb under the adz and the pick end facing the snow. With your other hand, hold the shaft near the end. Press the pick into the snow by laying on the shaft as you hold it diagonally under your chest. At the same time, dig your toes into the snow (unless you’re wearing crampons). Practice where there’s a safe runout.
  • Self-belay. Hold the axe by its head in your uphill hand and walk with it like a cane. When the slope gets steep and you don’t trust your feet to maintain their grip, start pushing the shaft deeper into the snow. Stand with your uphill foot forward (a more balanced position) when you move the axe to its next placement. If you slip, plunge the shaft into the snow and hang on.
  • Chop steps. If the snow is too firm to kick good steps and you haven’t brought crampons, cut footholds with the adz end of the axe. Stand in the balanced position (uphill foot forward), hold the axe near its end, and swing with a straight arm. Try to cut two steps from one balance position, then move into the new set of steps while using the axe in the self-belay position.

Using crampons

With crampons and other traction devices, you can traverse snow and ice almost as easily as if the ground were bare. Key points to remember:

Lift your legs slightly higher than normal so the spikes don’t snag and trip you up.

  • Make sure your feet are flat against the snow so that all the spikes bite with each footfall.
  • Prevent snow from “balling up” between crampon points by occasionally knocking your ice axe against the side of your foot.
  • Always check and double-check bindings before walking.

Gear Checks

When the going gets steep, these tried-and-true equipment adjustments will make hiking easier and more comfortable.

  • When hiking or scrambling uphill, loosen any pack straps that inhibit your ability to twist and turn or step high. For instance, the “stabilizer straps” on the sides of your hipbelt are prime candidates for loosening, as are shoulder straps and load-lifters.
  • When going downhill, pull your pack’s hipbelt and stabilizer straps comfortably snug to prevent your load from shifting.
  • When hiking downhill, lace your boots snugly for optimal support and stability, and to avoid jamming your toes.
  • Loosen the upper laces on tall, stiff boots so your ankle can flex fully forward and to relieve strain on the Achilles tendon.
  • Shorten trekking poles when going uphill, and lengthen them for descents.

A “length” rule of thumb: Your elbow should be bent at about 90 degrees when you plant a pole. When ascending very steep terrain, or on sidehills, hold the uphill pole in the middle of the shaft so you don’t need to make adjustments continually. Wrap strips of duct tape around the shaft for a

better grip.

Peak Protection

The Leave No Trace Ethic

Environmental ethics are especially important when you’re crossing untrammeled high country. Here are some Leave No Trace guidelines for keeping terrain as fresh as a mountain daisy.

  • Walk on existing trails whenever possible. Otherwise, try to walk on rocks. In meadows and on tundra, disperse your impact so that no two people in your party step on the same flower.
  • Pick tent sites that can withstand your impact: ideally, rock, snow, gravel, or packed dirt. Lacking these, choose a grassy meadow that will recover quickly.
  • Camp at least 200 feet from water. Exception: when an obviously trampled or officially sanctioned site is nearer to water.
  • Try to leave your campsite looking better than it did when you arrived. If it’s a heavily used site with an existing fire ring, leave the fire ring-you’ll concentrate use in that spot and preserve surrounding terrain. If it’s a barely used ring, scatter the rocks and pick up any trash.
  • Use pit toilets when you find them, or dig a cathole at least 200 feet from water sources. Cover the hole, and pack out toilet paper.
  • Set up your stove on bare rock slabs. Kitchen areas get heavy use-make sure your comings and goings don’t cause erosion. Clean your dishes at least 100 feet from water. Leave the soap at home, strain particulates (carry them out), and pour dishwater into a cathole.
  • Observe local campfire regulations. Fires are strongly discouraged in the high country and should not be built where wood is in short supply. Carry a gas stove for cooking.
  • Don’t build cairns to mark the way. They are unnatural in the wild and disturb other people’s joy of exploration.
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