Falling on steep ground is the second most frequent cause of fatal off-piste accidents after avalanches. Climbers, for whom steep ground is a constant risk, are very familiar with the hazards of such terrain and the techniques for moving safely and efficiently over it. Piste skiers, for whom falls are routine and rarely lead to death or serious injury, can be much less aware of the dangers they face in an off-piste environment with no safety ropes and helpful cushions around the rocks and cliffs.
Negotiating steep ground on Cosmiques Couloir, Chamonix, France; here the skier must assess whether the narrow, icy track leading through the rock-band into the next snow section will be safer to cross on skis or with crampons. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
Steep ground is terrain that is potentially deadly due to one or a combination of the following four factors:
- A slippery surface: all snow is slippery, but if the track we’re skiing is glazed ice, covered in avalanche rubble or thin snow cover with rocks and bushes exposed, then this is clearly going to be harder to stay in control on if we’re still on our skis. If we’re ascending or descending a couloir or slope on our feet that is steep, icy or rocky, then we are now climbing, not skiing. Different skills and a fresh mindset is required.
- A nasty unforgiving run-out: by run-out we mean where you’re likely to stop if you fall.
Will you slide down a glazed couloir and over the cliff at the bottom, or into a pile of boulders?
Will you slide down into a gaping crevasse?
Does the slope eventually flatten out into a deep snow bowl that will cushion a fall – (but if it’s a long slope what injuries will you sustain as you cartwheel down)?
- The human factor: be careful that there isn’t a queue of people ready to slide up your backside (on their skis) or fall on you or kick rocks/ice down on you higher up the couloir.
- The nature factor: is the steep slope threatened from above by icefall, rock fall or avalanche? In this case you have the pressure of moving quickly out of harm’s way and staying secure on dodgy ground.
Matt Perrier enjoying steep ground and great snow on Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France: a hard-charging fall line descent such as this is a classic example of a situation where the risks posed by the terrain itself must be fully assessed before casting off down the line. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
The critical consideration is to be able to move securely over steep ground, quickly – on or off your skis, and to be able to improvise with confidence, the use of a rope, ice axe and crampons to ensure your safety. As always though, in the mountains, speed is safety; if you need to stop frequently to get out the rope and/or put on your crampons to secure your party then either the conditions are bad (and you should reconsider your route), your party is not up to the level of difficulty your route presents or perhaps you are being over-cautious and therefore run the risk of spending too much time on the mountain and are susceptible to other problems we’ve already discussed; being benighted, being exposed to changes in the weather, running out of energy, food, or water, and worse still, not arriving at the final powder descent while it’s still in good nick! This means you need a good understanding of your party’s abilities (and phobias) on steep ground!
You will require the follwing kit to be safe on steep ground (just click on the links to buy these items direct from planetFear) :
- Slings and ropes: at the very least take a rope and a sling or two for connecting the rope to your anchors. Remember the ABCs of climbing A- anchor, B - belay, C – climber (i.e. skier in our case)
- Ice / Snow Anchors: whatever the choice of anchor, it must be strong enough to take the weight of whatever is tied to it! The normal anchors that should be carried by off-piste skiers on steep terrain are two ice screws, a bulldog hook, plus a deadman if required.
- Belay device: a belay introduces friction into your rope system and implies control of the rope. Climbing books talk a lot about direct and indirect belays; the difference is simple. For a direct belay, any weight that comes on the rope is directly transferred to the anchor. For an indirect belay, the rope is running through the belayer who is then attached to the anchor. Arguably a direct belay is easier to set up and allows the belayer freedom from the rope system i.e., if someone falls on the rope, the climber’s weight is pulling down on the anchor and not the belayer, so he can move more freely to deal with the situation. · Climber: the climber (or skier) who may be traversing, climbing up or being lowered down.
- Ice axe: either to drive into the snow for a quick anchor, for chopping back weak ice to get down to a solid ice surface that you put an ice screw in, or more simply for chopping a few steps in the track thus avoiding the use of the rope altogether. A truly light weight axe (such as the Cassin Ghost which weighs just 220g) will be of limited value for chopping into hard ice for cutting steps, or clearing the way for an ice screw for example, but it will still be useful for a boot axe belay and for self arresting when sliding down a snow slope. Remember you’re going ski touring, not ice climbing, so your choice of axe will largely be determined by weight.
- Crampons: lightweight touring crampons don’t bite well in hard ice but can be useful on steep, hard snow slopes and in boot steps. Depending on your route choice and the steepness of the terrain you anticipate, a compromise might be for only the leader to carry a pair so he can climb up/down icy sections and set up a rope for everyone else.
- Ice screws: carry a minimum 18cm screw that you can put in by hand.
- Shovel: which you will be carrying anyway as part of your avalanche kit is essential for digging down into deep snow to make a “bucket seat” belay.
- Harness: a must have for glacier travel, otherwise, if you don’t have a harness to tie in to, learn how to tie a bowline on a bight, over the shoulder. This makes a secure and excellent improvised chest harness.
Other stuff that can be useful is:
- Helmet: helmets designed specifically for skiing are growing in popularity, although a standard climbing helmet will be much better than nothing. Advantage: it could save your life. Head injuries are mercifully rare, but there is growing evidence that a ski helmet can reduce the risk of injury or death in a head injury fall. Disadvantages: additional weight, can be uncomfortable, can impede your hearing. Not a realistic option for ski touring, but worth considering for off-piste skiing, especially if there are rocks around.
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