Training for the trail has most certainly been moving forward. One major task was to practice/learn using an ice axe to self arrest and self belay. Luckily my husband has mountaineering training and experience-his tutorials are fantastic. All I wanted for Christmas this year was a trusty Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe, and that is what I got-my first real tool. Have to say, with my record of cutting myself with sharp objects, I've been a bit apprehensive about thrusting my body weight onto something so close to the major arteries in my neck. But with safety precautions, body awareness, and practice, I feel more empowered to have those reflexes available should the time come, i.e. I'm sliding down an icy mountain slope.
Last weekend Jacob and I drove up near Sonora Pass, to the snow, found a snow covered hill, and made a snow run. Guess my Minnesota roots came out-makes me want to get into more snow/winter activities.....
The following is what I learned from that lesson:
How to use an Ice Axe:
A Basic Ice Axe is a traditional, and essential safety tool used in mountaineering. Not to be confused with a Technical Ice Axe, or Ice Tool, a Basic Ice Axe serves as a balance and safety device while ascending or descending steep icy or snowy slopes. This wicked-awesome tool can be life-saving, for self-arrest in an unexpected run in with gravity, to carve steps, and as a self belay in the form of a retrievable snow anchor when you need to rappel down a pitch but don't have a better natural feature to tie onto. Learning to use an Ice Axe is an exciting and necessary skill for anyone interested in winter hiking and mountaineering, and will be helpful for us if/when we run into snow on the PCT.
The main components of an ice axe are
- The Adze: this is the wide, flat end of the head used for chopping steps in hard snow or ice.
- The Pick: this is the toothed, pointed end of the head, slightly curved, and the part that is shoved into the snow or ice during self arrest.
- The Head: comprised of the adze and the the pick.
- The Shaft: shaft length and configuration depend on climbing style, strength, size, and type of climbing. Back in the day, shafts were made of wood; but the one I will be depending on is made of aluminum-alloy; very lightweight-one of our major considerations for our thru-hike.
- The Spike: a steel point at the base of the shaft for balance and safety when the axe is held by it's head as if it were a walking stick.
How to use a basic Ice Axe:
How to Self-Arrest
- With your side to the slope, you should be grabbing the ice axe with your slope facing hand at the head with the adze facing forward. The thumb is under the adze and your palm and fingers are around the pick. If you slip grab the end of the shaft above the spike with your other hand.
- The pick should be pressed just above the shoulder, so the adze is near the angle formed by the neck and shoulder. *It's crucial to have a guard over the adze*
- The shaft crosses the chest diagonally and is held close to the hip. *gripping the end of the shaft in this way prevents the hand from acting as a pivot from which the spike can swing around and strike the thigh.*
- Chest and shoulder are pressed strongly down on ice axe shaft. It is the body weight falling on the axe which leads to a successful self-arrest.
- Head should be facing down, so the shoulders and chest keep the body weight over the adze.
- The spine should be arched slightly away from the snow. This arch is critical in body weight distribution, which puts most of the weight on the adze head, and the toes; which are the points that dig into the snow and force a stop. Pull up on the end of the shaft to further this weight distribution.
- Some say the knees should be digging into the snow, and if crampons are used, this is true. But in our case, we won't be using crampons, and the possibilities of going over rocks or cutting ice edges, the feet would be better for that contact than the knees.
- Legs are stiff and spread apart with the toes digging in.
Because there are various ways of falling down a mountain, it's important to practice the various different scenarios. The four likely scenarios are feet first on stomach, feet first on back, head first on stomach, and head first on back. The immediate objective in all cases is to get your body positioned in the only effective self-arrest position: feet first on stomach.
Feet first on stomach
This is self-arrest position, so just get the body over the axe shaft and end in final position described previously
Feet first on back
Roll toward the head of the axe and aggressively shove the pick into the snow at your side near your hip as you roll onto your stomach. If axe head is on the right, roll to the right. If left, roll to the left. Careful not to roll to the opposite side as this could shove the spike in the snow and cause loss of control of the axe.
Head first on stomach
Feet need to be swung downhill. Reach axe downhill and off to the axe head side, (if the head was in your right hand, this would be to the right above the head, and shove the pick into the snow to act as a pivot, to rotate your body so your feet are first downhill. Continue with above described self arrest position.
Head first on back
Hold axe across torso and shove the pick into the snow, then twist and roll toward it, the pick again acts as a pivot. Work your chest toward the axe head, and your feet so they are facing down hill. A sitting position helps this.
And practice, practice, practice. Self-arrest is a last-ditch effort-few actually have to use it, and the hope/prayer is that you don't. But it is empowering to learn. Safety first, get proper instruction, and go with someone who knows what they are doing.