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When on an icy/snow slope if I loose my footing, what is the correct technique to self arrest and control my slide?


To re-iterate, this question:

What is the proper technique for self-arrest when wearing crampons?

Is asking specifically what do they need to do with their crampons in this situtation:

Should the crampons be used for stopping or held high in the air, to avoid tumbling over them?

I'm trying to be more general. How do you self arrest?

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    The same question but specific for the case with crampons exists already: Proper technique for self-arrest with an ice axe, when wearing crampons. Is this question specific about the case without crampons? – imsodin Dec 6 '16 at 13:55
  • Really I want this to be a canoical Q&A around the axe technique. That concentrates on the issue with crampons? – user2766 Dec 6 '16 at 14:10
  • Why are you limiting it descending? – paparazzo Dec 6 '16 at 15:00
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    outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/6241/2653 Without crampons you have no fear at all to touch the ground with your feet because the risk of being flipped is mostly disabled. So for me this is covered in the other topic. – Wills Dec 6 '16 at 15:32
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    The time you have to get into self arrest for it to be successful, the technique must be automatic and not require you to think about "Do I have crampons, uh, no, yes, no, I took them off, OK, now I can......". I always taught self arrest without crampons is the same as with them. If have time to think about it, you can then dig toes in, but experience of instructing many students indicates to me at the point students had time too think, they had stopped or needed the safe run out zone. – user5330 Dec 7 '16 at 3:49
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The most important thing to remember is to prevent this situation. You should never find yourself in the position to slip down a slope. In many cases (steepness, snow/ice conditions, ...) there is no way that you will stop once you are slipping, even if you execute the following perfectly. Still we want to be prepared for the worst case as well. And knowing the following is just a first and minor step, the most important thing is to actually try it over and over again. Just make sure the terrain is suitable, so no rocks and a flat (snow) section at the bottom.

There are two phases: First you need to get yourself in a stable position, then you need to brake until you eventually stop. The techniques vary depending on the equipment: With an ice-axe and crampons, with an ice-axe only or with neither.

Stable position

The final position you want to be in is front to the ground and head up-slope (against the direction of slipping). Details vary depending on equipment.

Ice-axe and crampons

Basically the same as with just an ice-axe, however you must make sure your feet are off the ground at all times. Your crampons catching potentially results in uncontrolled tumbling and serious injury.

Ice-axe

Turn sideways, if on your back.
Plunge the pick of your ice-axe into the snow. Do it gradually and keep a firm grip. If you do lose the axe, proceed as described below. This will automatically turn you in the head up position.

Neither

Essentially the same again, but instead of plunging the pick into the snow you brake by pushing your arms into the snow. Just try to lift your upper body with the arms, as if you were going into a plank position or doing push-ups.

Braking

Ice-axe and crampons

Still keep your feet away from the ground. If the terrain permits it, keep that way till you stop; it's the safest. If the terrain becomes rocky, try to brake without your feet until there is no other option any more. Meaning the risk to get into an uncontrolled tumble is negligible, as falling over a ridge/crashing into rocks/... is imminent and worse.

Ice-axe

Hold one hand on the shaft, the other on the head of the ice-axe and position it in front of your chest. Apply pressure by leaning onto it. Again do this gradually, sticking it into hard packed snow will probably yank it out of your hands.
This position might be scary as the ice-axe is pretty close to your face. True, this is dangerous, but this is a life-threatening situation, so braking efficiency wins over the potentially broken nose or missing tooth.

Neither

Get up onto your underarms, then lift all your body so that only the underarms and feet are in contact with the snow. In certain conditions you might even want to get into a push-up position (only hands and feet on the ground).

  • I have seen several successful self arrest. A rope lead arrest a team. In practice it worked for me. – paparazzo Dec 6 '16 at 15:04
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    This could use some more detail on getting into stable position, e.g., if you roll, you roll in the direction the pick is pointing. When braking, turn your face away from the ax. I would emphasize practicing a lot, including practicing while wearing a pack. – Ben Crowell Dec 6 '16 at 15:17
  • BTW I will likely add a bounty to get a good canocial answer so it'll be worth your while to be as detailed as possible! :) – user2766 Dec 6 '16 at 15:19
  • @Paparazzi I don't say you can't do it, I have done so many times when training, but never for real and I know some people who fell and started slipping with no chance of stopping before "the bottom", luckily they survived with at most minor injuries... Just imagine a steep ridge with hard packed snow that quickly becomes almost vertical/rocky) to the side. – imsodin Dec 6 '16 at 15:23
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    @Paparazzi You are changing the meaning by selectively quoting only a part of imsodin's sentence. The entire sentence reads: "In many cases (steepness, snow/ice conditions,... ) there is no way that you will stop once you are slipping, even if you execute the following perfectly." (My emphasis.) That's entirely compatible with your assertion that self-arrest is possible in many other cases. (If imsodin's answer really did boil down to "it's completely impossible", describing the technique in detail would be rather pointless. :) ). – Pont Dec 6 '16 at 16:26
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Having learnt this years ago, I can thoroughly recommend that when you're in a suitable spot with a group you practise.

The rest of the group can observe your form, keep an eye out for hazards and generally stand around looking unconcerned. A suitable spot is reasonably deep snow that naturally flattens out, free of rocks and trees. This may also give you a range of slopes, but anyway don't start too steep.

Don't pick a ski slope or popular off-piste run. You could choose to wear ski goggles but 20 years ago we didn't. Make sure everyone keeps warm. A refresher at the start of the season isn't a bad idea; we once had enough snow in a sloping local park.

If you're hiring a guide, discuss in advance the possibility of them choosing a spot and doing a brief practice session.

(This is meant as an addition to the other answers but grew into too much for a comment)

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There is a bit to it. A book like Freedom of the Hills has excellent instructions with illustrations.

If it is solid ice you cannot break through then this is not going to work.

Practice on your own, with a group, and / or go to a school.

Practice on a slope that has a slide out so you will stop even if not successful.

Often if there is a chance of a fall you will be roped up. If you have some inexperience climbers then rope up. If you fall call out to the lead.

Roped is about the same but you can get tangled up.

It is best if you are tethered to the ax. The grip is three fingers around the pick and thumb around the shaft (different from a self belay grip). If you are not in the position before you slip you are going to have trouble

The braking position is face down head up (hill) dig the pick on same side shoulder or slight above, shaft across your body held near the bottom near your waist with your other hand, and head look away and down. Knees spread slightly and feet up. Raise your butt to put more force on the pick.

You can fall in 5 positions
face down head up (hill)
face down head down
face up head up
face up head down
tumble

On descent you are more likely to fall head down.

Face up head up is best as you can get the axe in position. Roll toward the pick (very important).

Face down head up if you are not in position then role to your back to the side of the pick, get axe in position, and role back.

Face down head down then above your head to the side dig in the pick and swing into position. This takes some strength and practice. Will need the axe in position before you hit the ground.

Face up head down you. Across your hips dig the pick in and spin around and rotate to face down at the proper moment. Scary. You really just need to practice.

If you are not lead you need the rope outside the pick so you need determine which side they are going to pass and fall on the other side of the rope.

Roped up if someone drops in a crevasse same thing so you need to have rescue grip on flat snow.

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