Steep Snow Tutorial

Steep Snow Tutorial

This tutorial addresses steep snow travel where specific skills are necessary for safety. You must know these skills well or you will be a liability to yourself and your party


Steep Snow Tutorial

The Mountaineers  - Seattle Branch



This tutorial addresses steep snow travel where specific skills are necessary for safety.   You must know these skills well or you will be a liability to yourself and your party. Here are the most critical skills for each Section:


Most Critical Skills

1. Stow/Carrying Ice Ax

Carry with spike forward.

2. Preparation

Get ice ax and put on crampons BEFORE needed.

3. Footwork

Stay in BALANCE; kick steps whenever possible.

4. Crampons on hard snow

Keep feet flat.

5. Slope Assessment

What is the RUNOUT?

6. Prevent/Stop a Fall

FOOTWORK and BALANCE are most important.

7. Roped Belay

For very steep or badly runout slopes.

8. Self-Belay

To check slips – but imperfect.

9. Self-Arrest

To stop a fall – but imperfect .

10. Descend Steep Snow

Faster but riskier than ascending.

11. Glissading

KNOW that you have a safe runout,

REMOVE crampons.

12. Hard vs. Soft Snow

Hard snow is more difficult and faster. Don't be misled by training only in soft snow.

13. Items Not Covered

Hazard awareness is an important skill.

 1) Stowing/Carrying an Ice Ax

Stow on the pack with points covered, especially spike on longer axes.

Quick Stowing – between climber and pack, spike down - keep pick away from your neck. Can dangle from wrist strap or clip to harness or gear sling for occasional rock moves where hands must be free.

 2) Preparation

  • Put ski poles away – Ski poles are inadequate for self-belay or self-arrest.
  • Get out ice axThe ice ax is useless when on your pack.  Uncover pick and adze.
  • Attach leash to wrist or waist – essential to keep it with you if you temporarily lose your grip
  • Carrying Ice Ax – hold at balance point with spike forward to not jab person behind you.  Or use cane position for balance.
  • Put on gloves to protect hands from abrasion on snow. If you slip, abrasive snow will cut exposed knuckles, which may make you lose your grip on the ice ax. Have a pair of gloves handy at all times. In hot weather keep a pair close at hand at all times (not inside your pack). On slopes with uncertain runouts the gloves go on.
  • Put on crampons before they are needed on steep terrain. It is a lot easier on a flat rock than on a steep slope. Assure proper fit and secure attachment.

3) Footwork with and without crampons

  • Kick steps if possible when ascending.  Steps are the most secure means of ascending snow, and can be kicked with or without crampons.
  • Crampons generally make your boots less slippery.
  •       Even with the tripping possibility, crampons almost always add safety, even in softer snow. Willingly use them.  Be in no hurry to remove them.
  •       Loose and baggy clothing from the knee down will increase the tripping potential. Close-fitting gaiters are good.
  •       Many crampons come from the factory overly sharp. Razor sharp points are not recommended. Don't be afraid to round them off a bit.
  •        Consider using an anti-snow device.
  • Chop steps and handholds if necessary. Chopping steps is useful for short sections of hard snow. Chop from heel to toe.
  •  Learn to climb with good balance. Weight over your feet. Leaning-in is common with beginners.  It is a bad technique which causes your feet to break loose.
  •  Look for natural footholds in snow. In harder snow, sun-cups and rocks will make natural footholds.

4) Crampons for hard snow (flat-footing)

  • Crampons are often useful when snow is not hard with little regard to foot positioning.  When snow is hard, however, flat-footing is an essential technique.
  • Keep all points in contact with snow. This may not feel natural at first, but otherwise your crampons will break loose.
  • Stay in balance – don’t lean in, which makes it harder to keep feet flat.  A balanced stance positions the body so it is easier to keep the feet flat on the snow.
  • Let ankles flexthis helps keep all crampon points on the snow.
  • Exaggerate knee bend - this helps you stay balanced on steep terrain with ankles flexed.

5) Slope Assessment

  • What is the runout? Are there rocks, trees, or cliffs below the slope? If you are unsure because of you position or low visibility or for any reason then assume that the runout is not safe. Proceed or retreat with caution.
  • Because sliding on 30 degree snow is roughly equivalent to free-falling it’s easy to understand why arresting a slide on snow is unlikely. Rock climbers call it free soloing. No rope and no belay. They only do this when they are very experienced, very confident of their balance, and have carefully considered the consequences of a slip. Snow climbers should consider their un-belayed climbing equally carefully.
  • Being aware of snow slope runouts is critical when deciding when to take additional precautions to belay and anchor your rope team to the slope with anchors and a roped belay.

6) Preventing and Stopping Slips and Falls

  • There are three lines of defense.
  • Not slipping  - importance of footwork, staying balanced, using crampons as appropriate
  • Checking a slip – roped belay or self-belay
  • Self-arrest – The last ditch effort – a fight for survival!
  • Self-belay and self-arrest are not fully reliable - both have limitations. Rely primarily on footwork and balance.  The best way to stop a fall is to have no fall at all.
  • Use a roped belay for very steep slopes with bad runout.


7) Roped Belay

  • Similarities to rock belays - Commands and rope handling
  • Differences with rock belays
  •       Protection and anchors
  •             Picket (vertical or buried horizontally in soft snow), flukebollard
  •             Ax (vertical or buried horizontally in soft snow)
  •             Buried pack/rocks/sticks also make good anchors in soft snow
  •             Buried anchors in soft snow – have sling at mid-point (stronger, safer) and come out horizontally through a slot – not up!
  • Sitting-in-the-snow hip belay (rope running around you) – feet dug-in well
  • Boot-ax and carabiner-ax (better) are quick and useful belays

8) Self-Belay with Ice Ax – Ascending & Traversing

  • Self-belay is the critical safeguard used when ascending (and descending) snow. The one-hand (cane) and two-handed (stake) positions with the spike well-driven into the snow are the most secure.
  • Plant the shaft of the ax deeply into the snow, sometimes with two hands and sometimes quite forcefully. A firm grip will be necessary to check a slip. It’s important to understand the limitations of self belay. It is not a real belay. You must hang on to the ax. Also while you move the ax to the next position you will be without a belay.
  • If the snow is hard and the ax shaft can only be driven halfway or less, hold on to the shaft just above the snow. Not as large a handhold as the head of the ax, but less leverage. If the snow is so hard that the ax shaft can’t be placed to a secure depth, it’s recommended to have your crampons on and consider roping up. The ice ax pick can also offer a secure handhold.
  • Transition your ice ax technique as conditions change. These transitions should create secure self-belays as the slope increases or the snow hardens.
  • Cane position (One handed) - You may have to push several times to get good penetration. Use an existing ice ax hole if one is available.
  • Stake position (Two handed) - Excellent on steep snow – very secure.
  • Other useful techniques for steeper/harder snow (see Mountaineering, The Freedom of The Hills, pp.408-9)
  • Low dagger position – hold ax by adze and push pick into snow to aid balance
  • Anchor position – hold ax shaft near spike and swing pick in as high as comfortable – provides a better handhold than low dagger

9) Self-Arrest

  • Arrest immediately and aggressively – before speed increases. Once you bounce or somersault, self-arrest becomes nearly impossible.  Only at field trips are students allowed to build up speed before self-arresting. On hard snow you must self-arrest the instant you slip.  Otherwise, speed may increase too fast to arrest.
  • Use your feet to self-arrest, with or without crampons.  You stand a much better chance of a successful arrest when using your feet and wearing crampons.
  • heavy pack makes arrest more difficult - take additional precautions.

10) Descending Steep Snow

Some special techniques, but footwork, balance and self-belay are still most important.  

  • Plan the descent
  • Consider snow conditions.  
  • Anticipate the snow and route conditions. In late spring and early summer the snow is usually good for plunge stepping. In mid-summer the snow may have soft and hard layers. By late summer, the snow may be so hard that plunge stepping is difficult.
  • Slopeaspect, and time of day
  • Expect hard snow in the morning or on shadowed or north-facing slopes.
  • Expect softer snow in the afternoon or on sunlit or south-facing slopes.
  • Run-out - use extra caution if rocks or cliffs are below or you can’t see what is below.
  • Consider setting up a roped belay if the party desires one.
  • Traversing may avoid hazards or steep sections of a descent.
  •  Decide if crampons needed. Balance the security of crampons with the risk of snow balling-up under them. Snow conditions will dictate this decision. Many of the anti-snow-balling plates are very effective and should be considered. Remember: never glissade while wearing crampons.
  • Choose facing in or facing out - Facing in will provide greater security, but travel may be slower. Facing in is useful on short, steep sections, exposed areas with no run-out, and when visibility is poor. Facing out is faster, but the potential to lose control on steeper slopes is greater; and self-arrest is more difficult.
  • Put on gloves - Protect your hands – this will help you hold onto the ice ax during a self-arrest.
  • Gravity and momentum work against you much more so than when ascending. Additional care is necessary for descending snow.
  • Plunge stepping - facing out
  • Lead with the heel; toe up
  • Plunge the heel into the snow.
  • Step aggressively - you must kick into the slope to make a secure step in harder snow.
  • Lean forward on slightly bent knees.  If you lean back your feet may slip out from under you. Keeping a slightly bent knee improves balance and reduces the risk of knee injury if you should break through soft snow.

Sense snow conditions and anticipate trouble

  • Feel for sub layers and anticipate your foot sliding out from under you if you hit a hard sub layer. Try to find better snow conditions to either side.
  • Be prepared to self-belay or self arrest.
  • Some climbers hold the ice ax in a cross-body position so they can immediately self-arrest.
  • Plunge stepping can be with or without crampons.

Self-belay - facing out

--more difficult than when facing in.

  • Plunge step deliberately, bending the knees more as the slope gets steeper.
  • Place ice ax low for self-belay - Plant the ax firmly and low so you can move past it while staying in balance. Note that if you slip and cannot self-belay, the ice ax shaft may end up pointing uphill, which will require reaching up to grab it for self arrest.

Self-belay - facing in

  • Plant ice ax firmly - Drive in the spike for an effective self-belay. Sometimes this takes a couple of tries. If you slip, grab the shaft at the snow line with one hand while holding onto the head with the other. Most of the weight is applied at the snow line; the hand on the head prevents the ice ax from levering out by putting weight on the head and pushing down.
  • Use existing holes to save energy
  • Each person can improve the holes by driving them deeper.
  • Use stake position if possible - it allows you to hold onto the ax with both hands. Alternatively, you can descend with one hand on the ax while the other hand grabs steps for handholds.
  • Use pick if spike won’t drive into the snow - This is useful on short, sections of hard snow, especially with crampons.
  • Use existing steps for greater security - each person should improve the steps as the party descends.
  • More experienced climbers should descend first to build a good set of steps.  If roped up, the last person will be highest on the slope and safeguards the rope team in the event of slips.


        sometimes this permits a rapid safe descent of a very steep section


11) Glissading

       Assess the slope

  • Adequate run-out is the first prerequisite for a safe glissade.
  • Route visibility - Make sure you can see the entire glissade path; an unseen portion could hide a moat or other hazard.
  • Steepness and snow conditions
  • Everyone who is glissading should be comfortable with the slope, with consideration to how snow conditions will affect speed. Do not try to glissade steep, icy slopes.
  • Snow stability
  • Plan an alternate route if avalanche potential is moderate to high.
  • Rocks, moats, and other hazards - Consider how obstacles can be avoided. If they can’t, don’t try to glissade.

      Sitting glissade preparation

  • Dress properly
  •       No crampons - You will likely break an ankle if you glissade with crampons.
  •       Gloves to protect your hands - Abrasive snow will cut exposed knuckles, which may cause you to lose your grip on your ice ax.
  •       Rain pants – pros and cons - rain pants will keep you dry and will make your glissade faster. Sometimes you want to be faster and sometimes you don’t.

      Hold the ice ax properly

  • Shaft to one side and parallel with the direction of travel
  • Spike trailing as a brake
  • Pick pointed away from your body
  • This position offers the best safety by providing a brake and pointing the pick away from your legs. Note that your arm holding the ice ax head is across your body, with the hand palm up.

      Leg positions

  • Knees bent with feet flat for most control
  • Knees straight for speed in soft conditions - increases the surface area in contact with the snow for more buoyancy - can lengthen a glissade on soft snow or a gentle slope.

      Controlling speed

  • Put pressure on the spike to slow down
  • The harder you push on the spike the slower you will go. You shouldn’t need any pressure if you are happy with your speed and you are not accelerating.
  • Stop by braking with the spike, then dig in your heels
  • Get up carefully if you are carrying a heavy pack.
  • Self arrest if you can’t control speed with the spike

      Roll away from the spike

  • If you roll toward the spike you could get flipped over, causing a tumble down the slope.

      To avoid obstacles, stop, move over and continue your glissade
      You have little steering control with a sitting glissade. Plan your path before you start.

12) Hard vs. Soft Snow

refers to snow texture

       Hard snow is more difficult to climb/descend, and a slip or fall occurs very, very rapidly.

  • It is much more difficult to drive in the ice ax spike for self-belay.
  • minor fall can quickly turn into a desperate self-arrest which may not work.
  • Because of the slippery surface and the inability to stop, a glissade is extremely foolish.

      If you learn these techniques in soft snow only, you will have an unjustified sense of security for use in hard snow. Beware of overconfidence.


13) Items Not Covered Here

      The following items are well-covered in Mountaineering, The Freedom of The Hills, 7th Edition.

  • Snow Camping
  • Hazard Awareness (rockfall, icefall, moats, snow bridges and avalanches)




Jim Nelson, Content,

John Ohlson, Editor,

Don Schaechtel – Several of his previous Tutorials are adapted herein

Ken Small – A strong advocate of hard snow practice


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