Crampons and Axes and Ropes... Oh My!

(5/25/05) This year's severe winter left a huge snow pack on our local peaks, Jacinto, Gorgonio, & Baldy. The snow does not appear to be disappearing anytime soon. With a long list of peak climbs ahead, it made a lot of sense to sign up for a one-day snow skills course.

Jimm and I signed up for the Sierra Mountain Center Snow Skills one-day course, which a Whitney Portal Message Board posting recommended. This course was offered last weekend near Mammoth Lakes, California and is intended for backcountry hikers who wish to learn skills needed to safely cross mountain snow fields and passes.

I must admit that I was a little intimidated (and maybe perhaps ever so slightly turned on) by all the ropes, harnesses, helmets, ATC devices, ice axes, crampons, belay devices, and other technical equipment. By the end of the day though, I gained enough knowledge and confidence to take on a snow covered mountain any day.

We learned various methods of properly ascending and descending snow slopes with and without crampons, using an ice axe for balance and self belay. Of course, the brand new non-refundable Kahtoola aluminum crampons I bought from an outdoor retailer were not adequate for the course (another lesson in research before you buy). Fortunately, the instructor had a pair of nice Grivel crampons to lend me that day. I did follow Sierra Mountain Center's advice in purchasing the Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe, instead of the lighter Black Diamond Raven Pro, which was again contrary to an outdoor retail salesperson's advice. Our masterful instructor, Eric Cohen, told us an example of how the lighter aluminum axe heads can break right off under certain ice conditions.

During the course I used crampons for the first time. I was amazed at how much traction they provided and can easily understand why they are needed while hiking icy slopes. We stumbled across some sloshy snow where the crampons were more of a hindrance, than useful. Its important to know when to put them on and when to take them off.

I especially appreciated the concept of using the ice axe for self belay while ascending or descending snow slopes. This technique involved using the ice axe like a hiking pole and sinking the axe handle deep enough into the snow to prevent you from sliding down the mountain in case your feet where to slip out from under you. I'm guessing from reading various online message postings that many folks may focus too much on the last resort -- self-arrest, rather than the techniques used to prevent ever having to use self-arrest, such as using an ice axe for self-belay. Self arrest are techniques used to stop your slide or fall down a slope if you are already in the process of sliding down the mountain.

Practicing self arrest was quite an experience. We did it on our backs feet down, on our stomachs head down, and on our backs head down. I had trouble learning how to self arrest using an ice axe sliding down on my back upside down. I was a little embarrassed, but hey, I'd rather mess up here in class than on the trail. Fortunately, we had ropes attached to our harnesses. Otherwise, I would have slid all the way to Mexico.

We learned some interesting methods for creating anchors in the snow to hold the ropes while ascending or descending slopes. We were shown how to use various belay devices such as an ATC device. We also learned how to tie a few knots. Lastly, we learned to glissade (a controlled slide) on our butts using an ice axe as a brake, and also glissade standing up as if skiing.

I am so glad I took the course. The course really helped to demystify hiking on snow. I highly recommend the course to anyone anticipating snow on the steep mountain trails. Eric, the instructor was great, the seven in the class were friendly and fun, the weather was perfect, and the scenery was amazing.

One of the best parts of the trip was a tip on a great deli at a Mobil Station (of all places) in Lee Vining. Featured in a Cooking Channel show, it is definitely a must-stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Special thanks to Jimm for some of the photos and use of his camera.