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Snow travel gear dilema

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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Aug 03, 2017 12:26 pm

The ice axe jammed into the snow works on really steep snow, less so on lower angles. It provides a "handhold", so you have three points of contact while standing, and two points of contact while moving. I guess I never considered in self belay. You do have to take it out of the snow momentarily in order to move. If you fall when it is out of the snow, you theoretically could self-arrest.

Trekking poles provide four points of contact, leaving three when you move. This works well on lower angle snow, particularly if you hare wearing crampons.

The problem I have with the ice-axe "plant" is that it is a technique primarily done on steep harder snow. I have used this a lot climbing with day pack. It is much harder to self-arrest with a fully loaded backpack. I am not sure I would attempt a slope that steep while backpacking, regardless of having an ice axe or not. Plus self-arrest with crampons is very tricky.

If you use these higher level techniques, you need to practice a lot, and refresh every year to the point where your recation in a fall is immediate and instinctual. This is not something most backpacker would do. Therefore, I am of the opinion that most backpackers should forget the ice axe as it may just give them a false sense of security.

The most dangerous snow climbing and the zone where most accidents happen, is at that point where you transition from unroped to roped climbing. Deciding when a rope and belay is needed is a matter of experience and the ability to "read" the snow. Personlly, I do not play around in that zone anymore.



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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby Shawn » Thu Aug 03, 2017 7:31 pm

There are some good points made in this article (many of which reflect what WD has said). I think the strongest point is the pie chart showing "causes of snow travel accidents".

http://publications.americanalpineclub. ... w-Climbing

Last week I used the "self belay" technique expecting it to be secure given my circumstances (55 degree angle or so), but in the warm sun the axe would pull out horizontally. Hence. I think the best advice as it relates to using the axe to self arrest, is to not fall to begin with. Once you fall, all bets are off.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby Wandering Daisy » Fri Aug 04, 2017 7:43 am

Good information Shawn. My only concern with that article is that it is specific to climbing (all photos show climbers with small day packs). Backpacking is another matter. If you are going to haul a pack up stuff as steep as they show in that article, you need to specifically practice those techniques WITH a pack on your back. To me the most important piece of information is that crampons are for very specific conditions, otherwise can be more dangerous than not using them.

My personal dilema this year is that I am so totally dependent on my trekking poles to get across high flowing streams, so I cannot just delete the trekking poles to take an ice axe. Ice axe, trekking poles and crampons add up to a lot of extra weight on a long trip where the ice axe would only be needed occassionally. I guess I could just stay home and float on my tube in the pool sipping beer until the snow melts!
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby longri » Fri Aug 04, 2017 9:59 am

Climbers often have large packs too. The techniques are the same, regardless of load. It's just harder and potentially more dangerous with a big pack.

Daisy, your earlier point about backpackers being less likely to be properly trained and/or practiced at using an ice axe effectively is a different issue. Climbing or backpacking, a person should know what they're doing when there is a possibility of injury or death. The pie chart in that article doesn't go into that dimension. Why did those people slip/fall/fail to arrest? In each case it's likely due to some combination of inexperience and poor judgement.

Self-belay, as that article pointed out, is the first line of defense, along with effective footwork. It isn't a 100% safeguard of course. The security depends on snow conditions and the amount of time/effort the climber decides is worth expending setting the axe each movement. And you have to remove the axe to place it again, leaving an opening for a slip. But it's still usually more secure than no self-belay.

I wouldn't trust just ski poles in a situation with very serious fall potential. I trust them when the risk of injury is less significant, usually on more moderate slopes where leaning over to plant an axe would be awkward and where a pole self-arrest has a better chance of working.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby simonov » Fri Aug 04, 2017 11:09 am

I noticed that on summit day on Rainier I was carrying a full pack, except I left my sleeping bag and most of my food back at the shelter at Camp Muir. Otherwise, it was everything I brought up from Paradise.

Almost all the stuff carried by climbers (including the ropes and harness, etc) is gear you hope you will never need, but you don't dare leave behind.

I was also trained that if crampons are necessary, then so is an ice axe. I know that isn't always true but it's a good rule of thumb that I have always followed.
Nunc est bibendum.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby CAMERONM » Sun Mar 18, 2018 11:07 pm

I was on a lot of snow off-trail all summer starting July 12. The questions are hard to answer because of the variables: amount and steepness of snow, and how soft it is. My thinking so far, in the context of off-trail spring conditions with backpack:

-I really like good traction, for security and for sure-footed speed, so if there is any chance of snow, I will at least take the microspikes. I only wear trail-runners; the heavy boot thing is just not going to happen. I am looking forward to trying out the new ultra-light Vargos this season to see how they can fit into the spectrum of possibilities.
-I appreciated the crampons and axe in some very steep situations to do some serious kick-stepping, going diagonally up the hill with the axe for self-belay. Nice to have the axe there for potential self-arrest, but for me its main comfort was belay. In a few situations, using just poles with the crampons would have felt way too risky for me.
-In most spring snow situations, the microspikes were good enough on the icy mornings, or even for some kick-stepping in the softer snow. They easily handle 90% of situations- in spring.
-In September I backed off climbing one steep snowy pass. I only had the micro-spikes, but I am not sure if swapping the mico-spikes for crampons would have been reassuring enough without the axe. The snow was unpredictable; it had a frozen top crust but every fifth step my foot would break through the top and the snow beneath it was softer, plunging my foot downhill each time at least 18" inches. Even with an axe it would have been unnerving, but much more acceptable.
-I took a Camp Corsa Nanotech axe which is a rated aluminum axe with steel tips. To the degree that one can really self-arrest on steep spring soft snow, I think even something like a Suluk, which is a non-rated super-lightweight titanium axe, would be adequate.

I had many miles to travel and was not in the mood to play around and get all wet to test self-arresting in all situations this last summer, but I do intend to do some practice runs later this coming spring.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby Harlen » Mon Mar 19, 2018 8:58 am

Great post, thanks Daisy. Daisy, Cameron, have you (or anyone else) experimented with the Whippet?" I wonder if that would be a compromise in the situations Daisy mentions when the ice axe may not be needed. I imagine they are somewhat heavy, but for winter ski-mountaineering, they may be just the thing for scary steep traverses where the ability to self arrest could be critical, and the ice axe impractical. I wonder if the additional weight of the Whippet might comparable to the weight of a ski pole with a probe inside? I haven't carried the probe-poles yet since I'm usually alone, but I can see a time when I might be desperately probing for "Bear," or even Frank, though he is quite old already.
How would the Whippet serve as a ski pole? Thanks.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby Wandering Daisy » Mon Mar 19, 2018 10:33 am

Hobbes is the Whippet expert here; you may want to send him a PM. I have never used one.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby longri » Mon Mar 19, 2018 10:51 am

I've also never used a Whippet. It's one of those "in between" tools, not optimized as either an axe or a pole. It's heavier, there is some potential for self-impalement, and it isn't a substitute for an ice axe when things get trickier. On the other hand it is marginally lighter than a light ice ace and it's right there on your ski pole. If you know the conditions you're going to encounter then you can figure out in advance which tool will work best.

I duct taped my aluminum ice axe to one of my poles one time when attempting to descend a couloir I knew was possibly beyond my skiing abilities. In that case a Whippet would have been more convenient and probably about as effective.
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Re: Snow travel gear dilema

Postby CAMERONM » Mon Mar 19, 2018 3:19 pm

No experience with the whippet. I am certainly curious about them but they look dangerous to me!
Besides, one of the main conclusions I had from last summer was that on the steep slopes I mainly appreciated the axe shaft for belay. With a whippet you are using the pole for balance and have the whippet pick for arrest. With the axe shaft I hope to avoid sliding down the hill at all.
Yes there are conditions where the snow might be too soft and the shaft will give way. But in those conditions, I can imagine any pick just slicing through the snow and not offering much stopping power. So I don't know, hence the dilemma of this post.
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