[pct-l] Regarding Snow Conditions, Ice Axes, and thru hikers

ned at pacificcrestcustombuilders.com ned at pacificcrestcustombuilders.com
Fri Jan 9 13:57:33 CST 2009

It has been our experience in teaching snow camping and travel to summer hikers and, especially, thru hikers, that the concept of unstable terrain, notably soft or icy snow or a pack that is ready to slide, is foreign to them.

Take a dry-trail hiker or the thru who is cranking out the miles. They are used to the normal, dry, 18-24" footbed where their only concerns are rocks, roots, mud, and sand (of course there are more, but what they're worried about is predictable foot stability). They are not used to thinking about what's under their feet or the conditions that may exist even 2-8 feet down below dirt level. It is, simply, that lack of knowledge and practice that gets them into trouble. 

Snow travelers need to be aware of the conditions the snow may present and know what they look like before they hit the snow.

On snow the story is different. Here are some of the conditions and concerns you need to be aware of:

    New Snow--the issue here is the major effort it takes to wade through it. If you have a ways to go, you may                         fatigue quickly. Second, the air is usually colder so use gloves. Third, the snow will stick to you and                     it is highly likely you will get wet. Carry and use gaitors. You don't want to deal with either frostbite                     or hypothermia. Fourth, if there was more than a foot of the new stuff and you are on a 20-40 degree
                    slope, you need to think about avalanche possibilities, especially if the snow layer under the new is                     hard or icy allowing the weight of the new to slide. Fifth, stay away from tree trunks, buried trees,                         logs, and rocks as they can catch or twist your foot and you can fall into voids.
                    --you also have to look up! Beware of snow falling off branches above ("idiot-makers"). 

    Crusty Snow--the concern here is the false security you get because you may be able to walk on it depending                     on the thickness and strength of the crust, your weight, and the temperature of the surface (time of
                    day). If the crust is thick and hard after many days of melting and freezing, walking on it is a breeze
                    in the morning and you can make a few miles before the sun warms it and you start sinking, then 
                    "post-holing." While the surface is still hard it may be slippery. This is when you might consider 
                    traction devices as aids. 

                        Regarding Traction Devices:
                            Crampons are entirely foreign to summer hikers and can cause major injuries if not practiced
                            with. It is our belief that the thru hiker will do just fine in a lug-soled boot without any traction
                            device assist if they simply time their day to correspond with surface snow conditions that will
                            allow a little "sink." Time your climbs accordingly. Go straight up. Do south-facing ascents in
                            the morning sun; don't do south-facing descents in the afternoon. We do not trust any traction
                            device, when used on a traversing slope, that isn't rigidly mounted onto the boot or could roll 
                            under your shoe. They may work great on the flat, but put your pack on and check them out 
                            on a 30 degree slope before you trust your life to them! Screws in trail runners we have no 
                            experience with, but, then, we don't trust runners on ice, thus use boots.

                            This is when your legs or leg suddenly breaks through the crust and plummets with you                                     attached into the softer snow below. You may post-hole up to your groin. The action usually
                            causes you to lurch forward or sideways and since you are top heavy, you may suffer a "head-
                            plant," causing further injury or laughter. After even a short while of this unpredictable struggle
                            with flailing and cursing, can get you seriously fatigued and cut up (remember, ice at the top 
                            of the hole). The most dangerous situations of this are near creeks and on descents. When 
                            you hear water running beneath the snow, test it with your pole ahead to see if the snow is                                 thick and strong enough to walk over, lest you fall into the creek. The same goes for slippery 
                            drops into and climbs out of creek beds-a simple post-hole could send you into the drink.
                            Steep descents around mid-day in the sun can be hazardous, as well. Because of the risk of
                            avalanches, you do not want to set off a slab by traversing across the snow field since doing
                            so creates the fault line that triggers it. So, if you sense the conditions are right for this, you
                            will want to descend straight down (the same reason for going straight up). The post-holing
                            danger, here, is when you step forward and down a foot or two, you may have sufficient force 
                            to break through the crust and post with every step. What happens, now, is your leg is stuck
                            in the snow at the knee, say, while your body is bending at the waist and headed downhill! If
                            your leg comes out of the post, you better have your axe ready to stop your slide and if your
                            leg doesn't, it could get seriously hurt. Know the conditions of the snow pack you are walking
                            on to minimize trouble. Recognize what they look like before you proceed. Practice!

Surface Ice--This stuff isn't as obvious as you'd think. Here are the keys: Watch for changes in the surface 
                    conditions ahead. If you suspect hard or icy surfaces, go around, walk slowly and carefully,
                    or use your traction device and have your axe at the ready-not on the back of your pack. I                                     repeat, if you suspect slippery conditions and you are on a slope, stop, get your axe out, 
                    test the surface ahead, then proceed with caution. Depending on the time of day and the 
                    exposure to the sun, ice isn't always in the shade.

                        Ice Axes and such devices:
                            Carrying an axe is no good if you haven't practiced with it. It is a tool that can save your life if
                            you know how to use it. Yes, you can learn once you get there, but do it before you need it.
                            The most important thing is to recognize when you'll need it so it will be in your hand before
                            you slip. Watch the conditions ahead. Make good foot platforms and test them before you 
                            put all your weight on them. On ascents, use the axe shaft as an anchor uphill to pull 
                            yourself up or on the traverse in the uphill hand sunk in the same manner and for the same 
                            Now, to axe or not to axe? Black Diamond makes a superb pole/axe combination that works 
                            great for hikers. When walking on snow in boots it is imperative that you maintain your 
                            balance at all times, thus the need for a pole with a sufficient-sized snow basket. In your 
                            other hand can be the Black Diamond "Whippet." This solves the problem of the axe not 
                            deployed when needed as the Whippet is always at the ready. 


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