Climbing in snow

Snow is a significantly unstable substance, and the manner of climbing in it is based on this. You have to tread completely differently in drifts of soft powder than you do in hard firn. The form the snow takes has a fundamental influence on the climbing method and the selection of appropriate equipment. In soft snow under certain circumstances you can sometimes get by without crampons and even without belaying with a rope, while on hard, icy snow without the necessary winter equipment you cannot take even a single step properly. Another important factor that influences climbing in snow is the incline of the slope. On a slight incline you can climb relatively free of worries about falling, and for this reason you mostly do not belay at this stage of the ascent. You can break any fall with your ice axe. Once the slope becomes steeper, however, and at the same time the snow is harder, you have to begin belaying during your climb. The relationship between the characteristics of snow and the incline of the slope is definitive for the proper selection of your climbing method.

Climbing in soft snow

In soft snow you are immediately confronted on the slope with the unpleasant reality that you are floundering around. Walking becomes harder, as you have to lift your feet high for the next step in order to continue forward. The first good tip is to maintain a wider gait, approximately shoulder width, so that you can have better stability when walking. It is also highly desirable when lifting one foot to ensure that the other is standing firmly at the moment you transfer your weight to it. It is good therefore after completing a step to settle in, to tamp down and firm up the snow under your feet. That way it will hold after you transfer your weight to it in order to complete the next step. Take each step while slightly inclined toward the slope. Hold the centre of mass of the body above your foothold; in other words, don’t lean too far forward or back.

On a moderate slope you can climb in zigzags. As soon as the slope is steeper, you can climb in the line of fall, because zigzagging would disrupt the layers of snow, creating a risk of it breaking apart under your feet. In worse cases, this can cause an avalanche.

Tracks should not be made too far from each other, as a smaller person who cannot make such a large step would be able to follow in them. It is also a matter of courtesy not to destroy a fresh track. Particularly if you’re descending along the same route as you have ascended, you should go about a meter to the side of the tracks of your ascent so as not to trample them.

When ascending along a steep slope in deep snow you help yourself with your shins and knees as well. First you tamp down the snow with the knee of your bent leg, and then complete the step into this thereby lower layer of snow as normal with your foot. Another significant aid is the use of telescoping walking poles. The poles help you keep your balance, particularly at time when one foot falls deeper than you expected into the snow (if there is risk of a fall, however, an ice axe should take precedence over poles).

You should try to always have your ice axe at hand. If you have ended up in walking terrain, where you nevertheless can’t rule out the use of an ice axe, you should remove it from its ties on your backpack. You should then carry it in your hand, prepared for use, or hang it on your seat harness, or shift it into the space between your back and backpack.

Carrying an ice axe in the emergency position for quick retrieval.

Carrying an ice axe in the emergency position for quick retrieval.

In truly deep snow your progress along the slope can be almost impossible, you can fall through very deeply, on the upper side all the way up to your head, for example. If such a slope grows continually steeper as you climb upward, then your progress will become possible only by making incremental footholds in the snow. This is a delicate activity. First flatten out a foothold at hip level, taking care to tamp the snow and make it stable. Carefully move up to the foothold and kneel on it. Try to lighten your weight with your hands driven into the sow. Slowly transfer most of your weight to your knees on the foothold, and use your hands to scrape out the snow in front of you and build another foothold about a half metre higher. Once it is complete, rest your hands on it and slowly raise your feet onto the lower foothold. Use your hands to lift yourself higher, then once again dig them into the snow above you. Now completely leave the bottom foothold and place your knees once again on the higher foothold. In this way you will have completed one step upward, and now you will repeat the process until this segment has been overcome. You can improve the holding of your hands if you have your ice axe handy, which you can drive into the snow with the handle perpendicular to the surface of the snow. Which on a very steep slope can also mean that you will drive your axe shaft horizontally in front of you?

This sapping along the slope is relatively psychologically gruelling, but needs to be carried out with concentration and care. Brute force can achieve nothing here. With the increasing height on a very steep slope the climber is exposed to the highly relevant fear that she isn’t holding onto anything reliable; intermediate protection, if any has been built, does not inspire much confidence. Worse yet, the character of the terrain very rarely allows a retreat.

Climbing in firn

It is common to climb through firn snow with crampons on your feet. Nevertheless, if the slope is slight and ends below with a safe landing, and at the same time the section you need to climb is short, you may often climb the snow without crampons. With softer firn snow you can also dig footholds with the tips of your shoes. Once again, keep your steps at shoulder width apart and take steps at an incline to the slope, so that your foot won’t slip back out from under you.

In summer firn snow is sometimes acceptably soft and collects around the ankles, and if a snow field isn't too large and has a safe downward slope, walking can even be achieved without crampons by using an ice axe. But it is essential to have gloves.

In summer firn snow is sometimes acceptably soft and collects around the ankles, and if a snow field isn’t too large and has a safe downward slope, walking can even be achieved without crampons by using an ice axe. But it is essential to have gloves.

If you can no longer dig out footholds with the tips of your shoes, you will need to switch into zigzag steps, where you will proceed slightly sideways against the slope. Now you can create footholds using the side of your shoes, and you can make several kicks one after the other until the foothold is deep enough to fit the entire flat sole of your shoe.

Climbing with ice axe and crampons

As soon as you feel uncertain and become worried about falling while climbing in snow, or if it becomes clear that a fall would be dangerous, long, and would land us into poor terrain, it is critical to have an ice axe handy. At least for self-arrest in the snow during a fall.

More in e-book.

Title Part 5Mountaineering Methodology – Part 5 – Snow and Ice

ISBN 978-80-87715-11-6

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

For example U.S. store – link

Another countries – look on the page Download

Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).

Title Part 5 GPTitle Part 4 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 5 – Snow and Ice

ISBN 978-80-87715-16-1

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play