As Seen In: USA Today, Discovery Channel, US News & World Report

Traveling on Ice

Movement Over Ice

Ice is found in many areas of mountains when snow is present, and during the summer months also where perennial snowpack exists. Many times an ice area will be downslope of a snowfield and sometimes the ice pack itself will be lightly covered with snow. Even if using an ice ax and or crampons, movement will still be difficult without proper training.

Use Of Ice Ax And Crampons

Movement over snow and ice is almost impossible without an ice ax and or crampons.

a.Ice Ax. When walking on snow or ice, the ice ax can be used as a third point of contact. When the terrain steepens, there are a number of ways to use the ice ax for snow or ice climbing. Some positions are more effective than others, depending on the intended result. You may find other ways to hold and use the ax, as long the security remains in effect.

(1) Cane Position. The ice ax can be used on gentle slopes as a walking stick or cane (Figure 10-2). The ax is held by the head with the spike down and the pick facing to the rear in preparation for self-arrest. When moving up or down gentle slopes the ice ax is placed in front as the third point of contact, and the climber moves toward it. When traversing, the ax is held on the uphill side, in preparation for a self-arrest.

Figure 10-2. Using the ice ax in the cane position.

Figure 10-2. Using the ice ax in the cane position.

(2) Cross Body Position or Port Arms Position. On steeper slopes the ax can be used in the port arms position, or cross body position (Figure 10-3). It is carried across the chest, upslope hand on the shaft, spike towards the slope. The head of the ax is held away from the slope with the pick to the rear in preparation for self-arrest. Ensure the leash is connected to the upslope hand, which allows the ax to be used in the hammer position on the upslope side of the climber. The spike, in this case, is used as an aid for maintaining balance.

Figure 10-3. Ice ax in the cross body or port arms position.

Figure 10-3. Ice ax in the cross body or port arms position.

(3) Anchor Position. As the slope continues to steepen, the ax may be used in the anchor position (Figure 10-4). The head is held in the upslope hand and the pick is driven into the slope. The spike is held in the downhill hand and pulled slightly away from the slope to increase the "bite" of the pick into the ice. If the climber is wearing a harness, the pick can be deeply inserted in the ice or hard snow and the ax leash could be connected to the tie-in point on the harness for an anchor (ensure the ax is placed for the intended direction of pull).

Figure 10-4. Ice ax in the anchor position.

Figure 10-4. Ice ax in the anchor position.

(4) Push-Hold Position. Another variation on steep slopes is the push-hold position (Figure 10-5). The hand is placed on the shaft of the ax just below the head with the pick forward. The pick is driven into the slope at shoulder height. The hand is then placed on the top of the ax head for use as a handhold.

Figure 10-5. Ice ax in the push-hold position.

Figure 10-5. Ice ax in the push-hold position.

(5) Dagger Position. The dagger position is used on steep slopes to place a handhold above shoulder height (Figure 10-6). The hand grasps the head of the ax with the pick forward and the shaft hanging down. The ax is driven into the surface in a stabbing action. The hand is then placed on the ax head for use as a handhold.

Figure 10-6. Ice ax in the dagger position.

Figure 10-6. Ice ax in the dagger position.

(6) Hammer Position. The hammer position will set the pick deepest in any snow or ice condition (Figure 10-7). The ax is used like a hammer with the pick being driven into the slope. On vertical or near-vertical sections, two axes used in the hammer position will often be required.

Figure 10-7. Ice ax in the hammer position.

Figure 10-7. Ice ax in the hammer position.

b. Crampons. Walking in crampons is not complicated but it does present difficulties. When walking in crampons, the same principles are used as in mountain walking, except that when a leg is advanced it is swung in a slight arc around the fixed foot to avoid locking the crampons or catching them in clothing or flesh. The trousers should be bloused to prevent catching on crampons. All straps should be secured to prevent stepping on them and, potentially, causing a fall. The buckles should be located on the outside of each foot when the crampons are secured to prevent snagging. Remember, when the crampon snags on the pants or boots, a tear or cut usually results, and sometimes involves the skin on your leg and or a serious fall.

(1) Two methods of ascent are used on slopes: traversing and straight up.

(a) A traverse on ice or snow looks much like any mountain walking traverse, except that the ankles are rolled so that the crampons are placed flat on the surface (Figure 10-8). On snow the points penetrate easily; on ice the foot must be pressed or stamped firmly to obtain maximum penetration. At the turning points of a traverse, direction is changed with the uphill foot as in mountain walking.

Figure 10-8. Correct and incorrect crampon technique.

Figure 10-8. Correct and incorrect crampon technique.

(b) A straight up method is for relatively short pitches, since it is more tiring than a traverse. The climber faces directly up the slope and walks straight uphill. As the slope steepens, the herringbone step is used to maintain the flatfoot technique. For short steep pitches, the climber may also face downslope, squatting so the legs almost form a 90-degree angle at the knees, driving the spike of the ice ax into the slope at hip level, and then moving the feet up to the ax. By repeating these steps, the ax and crampon combination can be used to climb short, steep pitches without resorting to step cutting. This method can be tiring. The technique is similar to the crab position used for climbing on slab rock and can also be used for short descents.

(2) A technique known as "front-pointing" may be used for moving straight uphill (Figure 10-9). It is especially useful on steep terrain, in combination with the ice ax in the push-hold, dagger, or hammer position. Front-pointing is easiest with the use of more rigid mountain boots and rigid crampons. The technique is similar to doing calf raises on the tips of the toes and is much more tiring than flat-footing.

(a) The technique starts with the feet approximately shoulder width apart. When a step is taken the climber places the front points of the crampons into the ice with the toe of the boot pointing straight into the slope.

(b) When the front points have bitten into the ice the heel of the boot is lowered slightly so that the first set of vertical points can also bite. The body is kept erect, with the weight centered over the feet as in climbing on rock.

Figure 10-9. Front-pointing with crampons.

Figure 10-9. Front-pointing with crampons.

c. Vertical Ice. When a climb on ice reaches the 60- to 70-degree angle, two ice axes may be helpful, and will become necessary as the angle approaches 90 degrees. The same basic climbing techniques described in Chapter 6 should be applied. If leashes of the correct length and fit are attached to both axes, it may be possible to hang completely from the axes while moving the feet.

d. Descending with Crampons and Ice Ax. Whenever possible, descend straight down the fall line. As the slope steepens, gradually turn sideways; on steeper slopes, bend at the waist and knees as if sitting, keeping the feet flat to engage all vertical crampon points and keep the weight over the feet as in descending rock slab (Figures 10-10 and 10-11). On steep terrain, assume a cross body or port arms position with the ax, and traverse. The crab position or front-pointing may also be used for descending. Regardless of the technique used, always ensure the points of the crampons are inserted in the snow or ice and take short, deliberate steps to minimize the chance of tripping and falling down the slope.

Figure 10-10. Flat-footing in the crab position.

Figure 10-10. Flat-footing in the crab position.

Figure 10-11. Use of ice ax in descent.

Figure 10-11. Use of ice ax in descent.

e. Normal Progression. The use of the ice ax and crampons follows a simple, logical progression. The techniques can be used in any combination, dictated by the terrain and skill of the individual. A typical progression could be as follows:

(1) Crampons. Use crampons in the following situations:

  • Walking as on flat ground.
  • Herringbone step straight up the slope.
  • Traverse with feet flat.
  • Backing up the slope (crab position).
  • Front-pointing.
  • (2) Ice Ax. Use the ice ax in these situations:

  • Cane position on flat ground.
  • Cane position on uphill side as slope steepens.
  • Port arms position with spike on uphill side.
  • Anchor position with pick on uphill side.
  • Push-hold position using front-pointing technique.
  • Dagger position using front-pointing technique.
  • Hammer position using front-pointing technique.
  • e. Climbing Sequence. Using most of these positions, a single ax can be "climbed" in steps to move upslope on low-angle to near vertical terrain (Figure 10-12). Begin by positioning the feet in a secure stance and placing the ax in the hammer position as high as possible. Slowly and carefully move the feet to higher positions alternately, and move the hand up the ax shaft. Repeat this until the hand is on top of the head of the ax. Remove the ax and place it at a higher position and begin again.

    Figure 10-12. Climbing sequence.

    Figure 10-12. Climbing sequence.

    f. Step Cutting. Step cutting is an extremely valuable technique that is a required skill for any military mountaineer (Figure 10-13). Using cut steps can save valuable time that would be spent in donning crampons for short stretches of ice and can, in some cases, save the weight of the crampons altogether. Steps may also have to be cut by the lead team to enable a unit without proper equipment to negotiate snow- or ice-covered terrain. As units continue to move up areas where steps have been cut they should continue to improve each step. In ascending, steps may be cut straight up the slope, although a traverse will normally be adopted. In descending, a traverse is also the preferred method. When changing direction, a step large enough for both feet and crampons must be made. Once the step is formed, the adze is best used to further shape and clean the step.

    (1) Snow. On slopes of firm snow and soft ice, steps may be cut by swinging the ax in a near-vertical plane, using the inside corner of the adze for cutting. The step should be fashioned so that it slopes slightly inward and is big enough to admit the entire foot. Steps used for resting or for turning must be larger.

    (2) Ice. Hard ice requires that the pick of the ax be used. Begin by directing a line of blows at right angles to the slope to make a fracture line along the base of the intended step. This technique will reduce the chance of an unwanted fracture in the ice breaking out the entire step. Next, chop above the fracture line to fashion the step. When using the pick it should be given an outward jerk as it is placed to prevent it from sticking in the ice.

    (3) Step Cutting in a Traverse. When cutting steps in a traverse, the preferred cutting sequence is to cut one step at an arm's length from the highest step already cut, then cut one between those two. Cutting ahead one step then cutting an intermediate step keeps all of the steps relatively close to one another and maintains a suitable interval that all personnel can use.

    (4) Handholds. If handholds are cut, they should be smaller than footholds, and angled more.

    Figure 10-13. Step cutting and handhold cutting.

    Figure 10-13. Step cutting and handhold cutting.

    g. Self-Arrest. The large number of climbers injured or killed while climbing on snow and ice can be attributed to two major failings on the part of the climber: climbing unroped, and a lack of knowledge and experience in the techniques necessary to stop, or arrest, a fall (Figure 10-14). A climber should always carry an ice ax when climbing on steep snow or ice; if a fall occurs, he must retain possession and control of his ice ax if he is to successfully arrest the fall. During movement on steep ice, the ax pick will be in the ice solidly before the body is moved, which should prevent a fall of any significance (this is a self belay not a self-arrest).

    CAUTION

    Self-arrest requires the ax pick to gradually dig in to slow the descent. Self-arrest is difficult on steep ice because the ice ax pick instantly "bites" into the ice, possibly resulting in either arm or shoulder injury, or the ax is deflected immediately upon contact.

    Figure 10-14. Self-arrest technique.

    Figure 10-14. Self-arrest technique.

    Figure 10-14. Self-arrest technique (continued).

    Figure 10-14. Self-arrest technique (continued).

    (1) A climber who has fallen may roll or spin; if this happens, the climber must first gain control of his body, whether it is with his ice ax or simply by brute force. Once the roll or spin has been controlled, the climber will find himself in one of four positions.

  • Head upslope, stomach on the slope, and feet pointed downslope.
  • Head upslope, back to the slope, and feet pointed downslope.
  • Head downslope, stomach on the slope, and feet pointed upslope.
  • Head downslope, back to the slope, and feet pointed upslope.
  • (2) To place the body in position to arrest from the four basic fall positions the following must be accomplished.

    (a) In the first position, the body is in proper relation to the slope for an arrest.

    (b) In the second position, the body must first be rotated from face up to face down on the slope. This is accomplished by rolling the body toward the head of the ax.

    (c) In the third position, the pick of the ice ax is placed upslope and used as a pivot to bring the body into proper position.

    (d) In the fourth position, the head of the ax must be driven into the snow to the climber's side. This will cause the body to rotate into a head up, stomach down position.

    (3) The final position when the arrest of the fall is completed should be with the head upslope, stomach on the slope, with the feet pointed downslope. If crampons are not worn, the toe of the boots may be dug into the slope to help arrest the fall. The ax is held diagonally across the chest, with the head of the ax by one shoulder and the spike near the opposite hip. One hand grasps the head of the ax, with the pick pointed into the slope, while the other hand is on the shaft near the spike, lifting up on it to prevent the spike from digging into the slope.

    Note: If crampons are worn, the feet must be raised to prevent the crampons from digging into the snow or ice too quickly. This could cause the climber to tumble and also, could severely injure his ankles and legs.

    (4) When a fall occurs, the climber should immediately grasp the ax with both hands and hold it firmly as described above. Once sufficient control of the body is attained, the climber drives the pick of the ice ax into the slope, increasing the pressure until the fall is arrested. Raising the spike end of the shaft increases the biting action of the pick. It is critical that control of the ice ax be maintained at all times.

    Back to Movement Over Snow And Ice




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