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10. Descending on Snow

In this video we look at descent techniques on snow. Investing time to become comfortable and efficient while descending snow helps you become faster on big mountain routes. People who ski or snowboard are likely familiar with a key component of the technique: keeping a confident, athletic position, which feels as if you’re leaning slightly downhill.

There are 3 methods that we will discuss in this video for descending snow:

1. Plunge Step
2. Side Step
3. Front Pointing

The decision of which step to use while descending on snow will depend on 3 factors:

1. Firmness of the snow
2. Steepness of the snow
3. Consequence or runout below the section you are descending

Any of these steps can be applied whether or not you are wearing crampons.

Plunge Step – If the snow is soft, the plunge step is often the fastest way to descend a slope—unless of course you are on skis or a snowboard.

The body position:

1. The hips and shoulders are facing square down the fall line.
2. The knees are bent, and your nose is over your toes.
3. The heel is the first part of the boot that makes contact with the snow.
4. The ice axe is best held in the “self arrest” grip (pick backwards), out to the side of the body. For more on this see our video on “Ice Axe Positions”.

For the plunge step, commit downhill, with your body weight forward, hands forward, leg straight but not bent, and toes up. As we say: “put your nose over your toes, and your toes to the sky.” Let your body weight do the work, instead of stomping downhill and wasting energy. As you drop onto your downhill heel, the rigid shank in your boot will help slice into the snow and create a platform.

Staying loose and confident allows you to be more balanced and reactive to variable snow conditions. When folks are timid and less aggressive with the plunge, they tend to lean back—but this makes it harder to slice a platform with your heel, and invariably the climber will slip. If you slip or trip forward it is, counterintuitively, often easier to recover on your feet. If you slip backwards, you’ll likely end up needing to self arrest. And hopefully the snow is soft enough for you to arrest your fall.

As noted above in point #4, the “self arrest grip” for the plunge step is with one hand on the axe and the pick facing backwards. This facilitates fast transition into self arrest. If you carry the axe with the pick forward, you would then have to change your grip position if you trip and fall. Self arrest grip eliminates this maneuver, allowing you to drop immediately into self arrest. This pick backwards position is a more conservative way to travel, as compared to pick forward. Pick forward facilitates travel on a dry glacier (no snow, blue ice), where you might tilt your pick forward to bump up and over brief, steep sections of glacial ice.

Side Step – The side step is less efficient than the plunge step, but it is often more secure. The side step is a sort of sideways shuffle down the slope.

The body position:

1. The hips and shoulders are facing sideways, perpendicular to the fall line.
2. The knees are bent, and your nose is over your toes.
3. The uphill edge of your boot should slice like a knife into the snow.
4. The ice axe is in the uphill hand, and usually in the the one-handed, pick backwards (i.e. self arrest) position.

Move your lower foot down the slope and then bring the uphill foot down to meet it before moving your axe. The ice axe should be firmly planted while moving your feet.

It is important not to cross your legs while doing the sideways step: this is an easy way to tangle your crampons up in your pants or catch something and trip.

Front Pointing – The front pointing method is the most secure but also a slower way of descending snow. This may be most efficient in steeper terrain, or on firmer snow where the plunge step or side step would be insecure or even dangerous.

Let’s clarify the use of the term “efficiency” here. Previously it implied that efficiency always means fast, and that’s definitely not the case. Efficient means making consistent, safe progress. For example, the front point technique may be slower than the plunge step, but the most efficient in certain cases because the plunge step would be dangerous/reckless, result in a slip/fall and possibly injury—and that is definitely less efficient in the big picture.

Body position for Front Pointing:

1. The hips and shoulders face uphill.
2. The legs are straight, body vertical
3. The front of the boot is kicked into the snow.
4. The ice axe is in the uphill hand. You may use a pick-forward grip (such as the dagger grip, see video) if the terrain is very steep or the snow is too firm to plunge the shaft into the snow.

While it may feel comforting or more secure to face into the slope, this method takes more time and energy, and should only be used if the other two methods are inappropriate for the terrain or conditions.

Technical descents are also used to descend on snow, such as rappelling from v-threads or snow bollards, as well as belayed descents, glissades, and self arrests. These advanced techniques are explained in our additional video tutorials.

We hope you found this video helpful. Feel free to comment below with questions or thoughts!

 

Please remember, climbing is inherently dangerous. Climb at your own risk.

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