Page 1 of 3

Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Tue Jun 29, 2010 10:14 pm
by EpicSteve
With the big snowpack this year, it strikes me that a lot of people who don't normally like to hike on snow may find themselves doing it. Every now and then, I hear about people getting serously injured or killed due to lack of experience and/or poor decisions regarding snow travel in the backcountry. So I thought it would be good to start a thread with a few pointers/reminders about snow travel. Obviously, this thread is no substitute for proper training! But my hope is that it will intrigue and motivate the less experienced to go get the proper training ASAP. Or at least start reading up on it.

First things first: Proper footwear is a must! Forget about tennis shoes and sandals. Light hiking shoes are about as light as I'd want to go, but if you're going to be on anything steep, you'd better be wearing boots that are stiff enough to kick steps into the snow. Then again, if you're going to be on anything steep, you should probably consider taking a mountaineering course first. In the meantime, if you encounter steep snow, turning back would be a very good idea. If you're going to spend much time on the snow, gaiters will be much appreciated too. A shorter, lighter weight pair is usually adequate in the summer.

It's good to be aware that snow melts fastest next to protruding objects and over streams. Deceptively thin snow bridges over streams can be EXTREMELY hazardous! Likewise, watch for thin, undercut lips of snow next to boulders, logs, tree trunks, etc. Be wary of punching through the snow cover into a hole between rocks when crossing snow-covered talus. When traveling on snow over any type of terrain, it's generally safer to stay on raised areas and away from depressions.

Having said all that, I actually love traveling over snow. I think it's a blast. Especially glissading! But any time you're crossing a steep snow slope with a potentially unsafe "runout" (the landing zone, should you slip and not be able to stop), you'd better be carrying an ice axe and know how to use it. (Reading about it doesn't count - you have to practice!) Trekking poles will help you avoid slipping, but if you do slip, they won't help you stop. An ice axe is the essential tool for that. Don't underestimate the speed at which you'll rocket down a slope toward those sharp rocks or that cliff edge if you slip! This of course depends on the snow condtions, but I know an experienced mountaineer who was a bit too cavelier about glissading one day and ended up with broken bones, a collapsed lung, and a helicopter ride to the nearest hospital as a result.

Remember too that cornices will form over cliff edges, depending on the direction of prevailing wind. You may think you're walking on snow over solid ground when in fact, there's nothing but an airy drop under the snow. When cornices eventually collapse as the weather warms, the fracture line is sometimes well back from the actual edge of the cliff beneath the snow. So you may be twenty feet from the edge and still not be safe if the cornice is big enough. The lure of walking along the top of a ridge where it's less steep may actually put you in more danger than traversing the windward side of the ridge, slightly below the crest.

When I was a young teenager, I read the book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills and my knowledge skyrocketed. It was a great primer for the Basic Mountaineering course I took shortly afterward. The book was no substitute for supervised instruction and practice, but it was WAY better than nothing!

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Wed Jun 30, 2010 8:26 am
by Wandering Daisy
There is technique to walking on snow that makes it easier. You get a better foot placement if you firmly stomp or kick a step and then pause a second to let the snow set in your shoe tred. Then transfer your weight to the forward foot. Do not push off the back foot, as this just will cause you to slip. This technique works really great with the "rest step". You slowly but steadily proceed through snow. If the snow is soft, it is best to firmly plant your foot- you are going to sink anyway. If in a group and you are sinking in, take turns breaking trail. Each person after the first also should carefully step in the same spot and improve the foot step. The last person has it easy and can rest, taking turn up front later. It is good to switch about every 15-30 minutes.

Snow often is crusty in the early morning. It can be downright icy! It usually takes an hour or two of sunlight to soften the top inch. As summer progresses, the remaining snow become harder and more icy. Sun-cups can become huge- several feet high. Generally in early season by 1-2 PM the snow is quite soft - so travel is easier in the morning.

Sun-cups can be your friend or enemy. On steep slopes they really facilitate travel providing flat steps. Murphy's Law of Sun-cups -- they are never the right size or spacing! On flat ground sun-cups are a pain. Steping on the highs is easier but risky because you can easily slip and twist an ankle. The more tedious but safer method is to step in the low spots. I usually do a combination of each since different muscles are stressed for each method.

Trekking poles make all the difference in the world.

And if you do posthole up to your crotch, it is sometimes easier just to take off your pack and then get up.

DO NOT use an ice axe or crampons unless you have CONSIDERABLE experience. This means learning how to use these tools correctly and much practice. Even with experience, self-arresting wtih a full pack on is not easy and sometimes not even possible. Self-arrest does not always work. Each snow condition and type requires different arrest techniques. One of the most difficult mountaineering judgement calls is when it its time to rope up on snow.

Those of us who grew up in snow country have the advantage of playing on snow as children and being a lot more comfortable with snow. It also helps to get into some snow sports when not backpacking. Cross country skiing or snowshoeing are great ways to get a bit more familiar with snow.

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Wed Jun 30, 2010 8:33 am
I think boots may give a false sense of security to beginners.I think hiking poles and an ice axe aremuch more critical/important and what people need when snow crossing.I recently went up to kearsarge pass and the last 600ft or so was a snow covered incline with a straight drop into big pothole lake.I was wearing running shoes but had a hiking stick.What worried me was not having an axe.

pics:" onclick=";return false;

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Wed Jun 30, 2010 10:34 am
by SSSdave
I've been a hardcore alpine skier all my adult life and that has provided me considerable experience dealing with walking on snow. Advanced skiers like this person sometimes have to boot it up to areas off groomed ski trails in order to take more difficult runs. Especially for those of us chasing winter powder, or backcountry booting up steep slopes for spring corn snow. One thing to emphasize is there is a huge range of snow conditions and terrain situations providing a considerable range of difficulties and solutions and gear for dealing with conditions. The most obvious dangers are areas that are steep and icy. Plan routes over such areas by looking at topos to discern what time of day particular exposures a route crosses ought to be most softened up and walkable. Don't be the impatient fool when steeps are still firm. Sometimes that may require waiting for hours.

When one falls on steep slopes it is absolutely critical to self arrest instantly upon hitting the snow, something that is second nature to expert skiers. Otherwise once one's body starts moving downhill accellerating due to gravity, and stopping becomes increasingly difficult, then hopeless. The best time to self arrest is as soon as possible upon any falling. So when walking across steep areas, have your claws out like a scared ready cat with a plan to dig something hard like a trekking pole or whatever into the snow. Of course have your pack unbuckled so as not to be dragged down without a prayer. A link to a story of my going across one of the Sierra's more notorious snow crossings: ... 11-06.html" onclick=";return false;

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Wed Jun 30, 2010 8:24 pm
by copeg
Great thread and great info. Here's a few obvious, not so obvious, and don't do that's that may or may not have already been metioned:
  • - Winter differs considerable from the snow of spring. On average spring snow can be quite predictable - icy in the morning and softening through the day (this also depends upon aspect to the sun and tree cover). This means slipping/cursing in the morning, tolerable by mid-morning, and postholing/cursing after lunch.

    - Its been said already, but always good to reiterate that steep snow requires ice axe, crampons, and knowledge of both.

    - On more than one occasion I've found myself knee deep in snow wearing tennis shoes, and its not something I'd recommend. :crybaby:

    - Sometimes crevices that cause nasty postholes from rocks or fallen trees can be determined by bumps/lines in the snow - the surrounding areas the areas the areas to worry about. These many times harbor empty spaces and cause nasty postholes...step well.

    - Hiking poles = :D

    - When kick stepping, I always try to carve the footstep angled into the slope, where slipping just slips me into the foothold rather than out.

    - Stream/creaks and rivers - on average (and in spring) run lower in the AM rather than the PM.

    - Water bottles/canteens/thermos' are slippery, one wrong move and... :tear:

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Wed Jun 30, 2010 10:28 pm
Great thread. I'm sticking it to the top. Cheers.

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Thu Jul 01, 2010 5:17 pm
by EpicSteve
I was looking forward to seeing what others would add to this thread and sure enough, many excellent points have been made here!

I agree 100% that boots can provide a false sense of security and so can an ice axe. There are indeed conditions where an axe will not allow you to arrest your fall. When I brought up footwear first, I was thinking more of hikers who have never traveled on snow before, encountering a moderate slope and not realizing that kicking steps would be needed and overly flexible footwear does not work well for that task. I was also thinking of general comfort issues like dry feet and good tread. DAVELA makes a great point though: When crossing a slope where a slip would be dangerous, an ice axe (and again, the knowledge and practice to use it effectively and safely) is much more essential than a pair of stiff boots.

SSSdave made a great point about constantly being poised for self-arrest and beginning the arrest IMMEDIATELY after realizing that you're sliding down the slope. The rate at which your fall accelerates can be utterly shocking and you don't want to learn this the hard way.

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Wed Jul 07, 2010 8:38 am
by sierramel
A decent ice axe is pretty handy for chopping steps.

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Sun Jul 11, 2010 6:46 pm
by homeranch
A couple of things to think about.
Some years ago a backpacker attempted to cross a snowy pass in the spring. Hard snow, he fell, slid and busted himself up pretty good but not fatally. He laid there, ate all his food, and died of starvation weeks later, no one passed by to rescue him.

Keep that in mind.

Do not glissade. My friend Doug has been telling me that for years. I glissade. You shouldn't. lots of big injuries occur from glissades. You lose it and begin flipping, and you have major problems and trauma.

If you do not have an ice axe, you may be better off. If you have not practiced self arrest in different conditions, you are likely to rip your liver out, or, have the ice axe ripped from you, and off you go.

If you do not have an ice axe, at least carry a stout stick. as you slide, you drag the stick, keeps your feet downhill from your head, which is good. Especially when the rocks and trees come at you.

Snow melts away from boulders, you can step, and fall into that space between the boulder and the snow, even if the boulder was completely covered. Worse, you can fall half way and break your Femur, that really sucks.

Pick your travel time for that brief hour between rock hard snow and soft breakable snow.

Do not travel below, or above your partner(s)

Travel with everyone off perpendicular to others. You do not want to be either a missile aimed at your partner, nor a target for his boots.

And there you go.

Re: Snow Travel for the Inexperienced

Posted: Mon Jul 12, 2010 10:57 am
by SSSdave
Surprising no one has mentioned how awkward and miserable traveling through melting spring snow in forests can be. Get the idea few of you have experienced what I'm talking about. Sort of the same unpleasantness one experiences going through a field of suncups. These conditions don't happen in higher timberline areas or dense forests but rather in more open forests that often dominate many regions of mid elevation Sierra. What happens is areas beneath trees are shady so receive much less sun than spots just outside the shade so there is unequal melting of the snowpack creating very uneven snow surfaces that are difficult to walk in. Typically considerable slope angles of hard icy snow just at the edge of where tree shadows are. Unless night time air temperatures have been so warm that it can overcome the mass of cold in the snow pack and soften up the surface it is likely to be firm. Usually even with nighttime temps in the 40s, the snow beyond a quarter inch depth is likely to be hard by sunrise because of the volume of snow of a several feet deep snowpack will overcome warmer air temperatures. Same thing one finds at ski resorts.

One is most likely to find these conditions in late spring, mid May to mid June. By the end of June forests are likely to have melted out enough that one can wind a route away from trees that is reasonably flat. One can wait till temperatures warm up during a given day, but often areas beneath trees that are always shady remain rather firm all day. A major reason I rather dislike hiking with a full pack in boots in snow even though I have alot of experience doing so. Note san pack I do enjoy playing on snow fields while backpacking like boot skiing or sledding with others tobaggan style on one of the blue plastic sheets.

There are other issues others have mentioned like punching through into streams. A related one is punching through shallow depths of snow above several foot depths of hollow brush the snow pack was only atop. Punch through the snow and suddenly your down in a big dark hole. Most likely to encounter such a situation on south facing slopes where brush is common. Some potential to get stuck and not be able to be able to move.