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November/December 2005

Essential National Park Skills: The Ultimate Park Pass

Write your own ticket to new adventures with these 10 territory-expanding skills.

©Marc Muench

The Park: Grand Canyon

The Skill: Descending steep trails

The New Hance Trail isn’t the only knee-busting descent from the South Rim to the Colorado River, but it is the nastiest. Dropping 5,000 feet in only 7.5 miles, it features rockslides, 4-foot drops onto sloping scree ledges, and narrow catwalks with sheer drops to either side. The payoff? A rarely seen side canyon of soaring red cliffs and tremendous sandstone towers. Use proper downhill technique, and you won’t have to empty half the ibuprofen bottle tonight.

Use poles Lean your weight into your hiking sticks as you land to take pressure off your joints and quads. On steep drop-offs, plant two poles in front and ease yourself down. Tighten your poles so they don’t collapse.

Stay in alignment Always step straight down, and try to land with your knees and ankles directly below your hips. This is the best way to prevent sprains, and it minimizes the chance of a slip.

Bend Always land with soft knees; it transfers much of the impact from your joints to your muscles. Think of bent knees as your personal shock absorbers.

Stretch If you feel a twinge in your knee, stop and stretch your hamstrings, quads, calves, and hips. Pliable muscles ease tension on ligaments, reducing the chance that you’ll need an anti-inflammatory later.

Don’t leap Jumping off a drop-off increases your chances of twisting an ankle or thrashing a knee. Step slowly, or sit and slide down.

Walk a zigzag On steep dirt trails, create mini switchbacks to reduce the impact on your joints.

©Greg Von Doersten

The Park: Grand Teton

The Skills: Self-belaying and self-arresting

Standing between you and the killer view atop 12,804-foot Middle Teton is the steep snow on the Southwest Couloir route. (Well, that, plus about 6,000 vertical feet of climbing.) Knowing how to self-belay will allow you to scale the several-hundred-foot couloir without worrying that a slip could turn into a serious fall; mastering self-arrest can save you if it does.


Hold the axe head in your gloved, uphill hand (adze forward). Use the axe as a third leg, placing it in sequence (i.e. plant, step, step, plant). Two points (both feet, or one foot and the axe) should always be secure before moving the third point. Sink the shaft straight down into the snow (not angled to the slope) deep enough to hold your weight if you fall (depth depends on snow firmness). If your feet slip, grab the shaft at the snow’s surface with your free hand, weighting the buried shaft rather than the part that’s above the snow. Kick your boot toes into the snow for stability. When you feel securely anchored by the axe, slowly stand up.


If you’re sliding on your stomach, grab the lower part of the shaft with your free hand and hold the axe diagonally across your chest with the axe head by your shoulder. Put all of your weight onto the axe pick, burying it in the snow while kicking your toes into the slope to stop your fall. If you’re sliding on your butt, do as above and grab the shaft’s lower part with your free hand, hold it diagonally across your chest with the axe head by your shoulder, and roll onto your stomach in the direction of the axe head (not toward the spike, or bottom of the shaft) to bury the pick.

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