In many of the mountaineering expedition books that I've read, there are references to cutting of snow steps on slopes.

What is the advantage of cutting snow steps? Why not use crampons and do a front pointing cramponing with additional support from the ice axe? (Side stepping also seems reasonably safe on non vertical climbs). Is there a specific situation which calls for snow steps?

2 Answers 2


There's a discussion of this in Freedom of the Hills. The question refers to snow, but usually this is done on ice (or very hard snow). One reason would be if not everybody in the group has crampons. For example, mountain guides in East Africa usually can't afford crampons. Historically, the technique was developed before crampons were invented. Even if everyone in the group has crampons, front-pointing on steep ice is very tiring, and may not be secure, especially if the ice is hard enough that you can't drive the spike of the ice ax in.

  • Does it mean that step cutting is obsolete now? In case of front-pointing climbs, there is the side stepping option where it will be less tiring. Jan 19, 2014 at 15:56
  • 1
    @Unsung I would say yes. At it is quite time consuming to cut steps, you will only do this if other options are not applicable for one of the reasons given in Ben's answer. Jan 19, 2014 at 16:12
  • @BenediktBauer Most of the books mention cutting steps for the sherpas, I guess that provides a pointer to the lack of crampons or maybe even the heavy loads they carry? Jan 19, 2014 at 16:34
  • 1
    It's a calculation involving safety, and lots of factors can be involved. Do you have a belay? Do you have a fixed line? Is there exposure? If someone slips, how favorable are the conditions for self-arrest? Could cutting a step on one isolated patch of ice save a large group from all having to put on crampons just in order to make one step safely?
    – user2169
    Jan 19, 2014 at 16:37
  • 1
    @Unsung That's another point: if you are in an expedition context where several (or a lot of) people are walking the same way (for example between the different camps) up and down several times, steps are more convenient and the investment in time and work pays off more easily than if you are walking a way up and down only once. Jan 19, 2014 at 16:39

Cutting the Ice steps is technique which is used since years, and rather was invented way before something like crampons came up in mountaineering.

I met a team at Saser Kangri, who spent a lot of time in cutting steps in Ice. And, I could only ask them why to do it and invest so much of amount of energy and critical time when you have crampons?

I believe Ice Cutting is done on a very hard snow. Agreeing to the fact that you can use crampons for an ascend over such a face, but for a team of around 10-15 mountaineers, everybody exerts the same when they choose not to cut ice steps, but if two/three heads go a bit ahead, cutting steps, the team can proceed much faster and rather in a packed approach, like a convoy. In case of bad visibility, the stranded people can track down such steps and follow them rather than looking for something else which is more artificial. I see that as the biggest advantage of doing it.

  • bad weather would probably wipe out the steps as well! Jan 30, 2014 at 5:25
  • 3
    Bad weather wipe out even Men, their Ropes and sometimes ladders. Doesn't mean you can't count on anything up there.
    – WedaPashi
    Jan 31, 2014 at 4:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.