Self-Arrest Skills Save Lives on Snow-Covered Slopes

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Purpose and Starting Position for Self-Arrest

A hiker walks on a snow slope with an ice axe to help her self-arrest if she falls. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

Crossing snow slopes on your early summer season hikes in the high country can be a risky activity and is common at several national parks, including Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Rainier National Park, among others. If you fall on a steep, snow-covered slope, you will accelerate quickly and could become injured by hitting debris on your downhill slide. And if your fall is out of control, natural obstacles in your path such as trees or cliffs could cause you a sudden -- and painful -- stop.

To avoid these potential problems, carry an ice axe with you, and know how to use it to stop yourself by using a technique called the self-arrest. The self-arrest involves planting your axe into the snow to stop a fall if you slip on a steep, snow-covered slope.

Watch my video demonstration of the self-arrest technique, and here’s a step-by-step method you can practice to perfect your own self-arrest skills:

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Grasp Axe With Pick Facing Backwards

A hiker holds an ice axe with the thumb under the adze and pick facing backwards. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

First, hold the axe in your uphill hand with the pick facing backwards while you walk.

Grasp the axe with your thumb on the inside, under the adze, and wrap your palm and other fingers over the pick near the shaft.

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Wrap Fingers Around Pick Near Shaft

A hiker holds an ice axe with fingers wrapped around the pick and on the shaft for control. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

Grasp the head of the axe firmly in your hand, and use a finger or two against the shaft to control the axe when needed.

A firm hold will ensure that you keep your tool if surprised by a slip, and this grip will help you position your axe correctly for the following steps.

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Turn on Your Backside With Feet Downhill

A hiker orients herself after falling by turning on her backside with her feet pointing downhill. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

If you slip and fall on a snow slope, orient yourself quickly by turning on your backside with your feet pointing downhill.

Taking fast action is very important because the longer you wait to act, the faster you will accelerate down the hill, and the harder it will be to stop.

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Roll Towards the Pick of Your Axe

A hiker initiates the self-arrest by rolling towards the pick of her ice axe. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

Initiate the self-arrest in one smooth motion by rolling towards the pick of your axe as you slide.

Commit to this action once you start it, and use the momentum you gain from rolling sideways to help you drive your axe into the snow.

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Plant the Pick Into the Slope

A hiker plants the pick of her axe into a snow slope to execute the self-arrest. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

Use some force to plant the pick of your axe into the slope just above shoulder level.

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Pull Your Body Close to the Pick

A hiker pulls herself closer to her planted axe with the shaft crossing her chest diagonally. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

When your pick catches in the snow, hold on tight to the head of the axe with your uphill hand and the shaft of the axe with your downhill hand.

Pull yourself closer to the axe. Let the shaft cross your chest diagonally as you position your body over it to help force the pick further into the snow.

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Kick Your Toes Into the Slope

A hiker kicks her toes into a snow slope to complete her self-arrest with an ice axe. Photo credit Franck Bocamy © Traci J. Macnamara.

Once you’ve nearly stopped, kick your toes vigorously into the slope to help. But beware: kicking your toes into the slope before you have your pick planted solidly could cause you to flip. So wait to kick until you have good purchase with your pick.

Once you’ve stopped, stomp a good platform into the snow before you stand up. Then kick steps into the snow slope to regain your position back uphill.

When you’re out in the high country this summer, check conditions with rangers at a park in your area. If they recommend that you carry an axe, take one with you and practice this skill.