Steep Ground - The Tricks for Off Piste Skiers

Article by Barry Roberts
Friday 17th December 2004

The techniques for ensuring security on steep ground Ė the use of ice axe and crampons, working with ropes and slings, and so forth Ė are derived from the world of climbing. Our focus in this section is on the specific tricks and techniques needed for the off-piste skiing environment. We do not cover the basic climbing techniques (such as tying knots or walking with crampons) for two reasons:

  1. All these techniques are well covered in the Mountain skills training handbook - now the standard course book for the UK mountain leaders training Ė and in many other mountain skills books.
  2. Such techniques need to be taught and practiced in the field.

Where there are basic techniques to be developed we make reference to these in the text.

1. Recognising dangerous terrain

If you canít see the bottom of a slope or gully and only a horizon line below, then thereís some sort of drop below! Be prudent.

Keep an eye out for evidence of being in a ďpoubelleĒ (French for rubbish bin!) - stones, ice lumps, loose vegetation. Donít hang around in these areas in the fall line!

Remember the dangers arenít all high up. You may have to cross small streams and rivers as you descend low down into valleys. Whilst a slip might not kill you, cold water immersion might or at least it will be very uncomfortable and inconvenient. Think about how you can apply the same principles of securing someoneís progress with a rope in such situations.

2. Avoidance, anticipating and preparation

You can always turn back if confronted by steep, tricky terrain. Or you can double back, lose some height and go below the hazard (which weíre often reluctant to do because we then often have to regain the lost height). Alternatively, you can climb up and around the hazard, but again this means added effort to gain height weíre only going to have to lose. These are all valid options. Donít just blindly follow the path of least resistance - the trail thatís been blazed in front of you. Conditions may have changed dramatically for the worse since the trail was put in.

Before youíre in a precarious situation (steep and icy with a dangerous run out) you should, in the following order, do or consider:

  • Putting your harness on.
  • Putting your coutou (ski crampons) on!
  • Getting the rope out handy for use.
  • Getting your axe out and tucking it into your shoulder strap for easy access without having to remove your pack.
  • Putting on an extra layer of clothing, add a hat, zip up your flaps etc in anticipation of the pace slowing dramatically and getting cold. Think especially about gloves.
  • Regrouping so you know whoís nervous and struggling.
  • Abandoning your skis and putting your crampons on.
  • Getting a rope set up from above so the nervous have a handline (tie knots every half metre) or can attach their ropeman. The anchor must be bombproof though.
  • Belaying each person individually.

Here are some other tips:

  • Leave your skins on for those rolling traverses. If youíre on a glazed track, especially on a rolling track and you already have your skins on, consider leaving them on for that nasty descent or traverse. Practice this on safe ground as itís a bit unsettling how you can judder downhill. Lock your heels down too. If you have your skins on and itís icy then chances are you already have your coutou on too so you may have to walk downhill.
  • Leave your skins on if carrying your skis up a couloir. Why take them off and give yourself something else to do when youíre on a precarious slope!
  • Itís far better to spend a few minutes putting coutou on somewhere safe (or safer), than faffing on an icy slope with a deadly runout below. The same applies to rummaging for crampons that are hard to put on icy ski boots, trying to tie your skis on your pack and so on. You get the idea!
  • For a short technical section, it might be quicker for the leader to go ahead and throw a knotted rope (or 2) to everyone to come up one at a time than for everyone to struggle putting crampons on.
  • Going down: you may need to climb down a couloir rather than up it. The same techniques weíve discussed are applicable here. Bear in mind though that people seem to be less comfortable climbing down steep terrain than they are climbing up, especially with skis on their back. You also have the potential problem of getting the last man down without leaving a rope behind.

3. Building an anchor

Once you reach the point where you or your party are going to need help from a rope in getting down a slope, you need to start putting in a safe and secure anchor. The cardinal rule of your choice of anchor is to keep it simple. Use the simplest anchor and rope system you can get away with Ė simple means the fastest to set up and involving the minimum amount of kit to do the job.

Types of anchors: ranging from simplest to most complex are:

  • Body belay: use your body as the anchor Ė you just wrap the rope around your arms and back, and shuffle the rope around your body to keep it tight. You need to have an absolutely secure stance so thereís no risk of you being pulled off. You may need to take a minute to dig a U-shaped bucket seat to sit in for more security. Advantages: this is fast to set up and useful if youíre only bring people one at a time across a short steep section and where you can easily throw the end of the rope to the next person. Disadvantages: you can be pulled off! Rope friction can also destroy your expensive ski jacket.
  • Ski belay: just shove your skis into the snow as deep as you can get them. Loop the rope around the skis (as low as possible to limit leverage) and then around your body as in the body below discussed above. You can kneel against the ski initially for added security and then get the first person up to take over to ensure the ski doesnít move. You may have to dig away or trample down the surrounding loose snow to get to more dense snow that will hold the skis firm. If the skis become loose (if they hold a fall), just re-site them. If one ski isn't sufficient for a belay, place a second ski a few feet behind it and tie this to the front ski using a prussik cord. Advantages: speed and simplicity. This probably the quickest snow anchor you can easily set up. Only a rope is required. Disadvantages: relies on a sufficient depth of snow. Not likely to hold the body weight of an adult if hanging in free space Ė e.g. abseiling. A slight variant for use in crevasse rescue is described in more detail in the section on crevasses.
  • Boot axe belay: drive your axe in to the hilt, wrap the rope around the top of the shaft and stomp on the top of the axe to stop it from being pulled up. Thatís it. Advantages: quick and simple. Disadvantages: you need an ice axe. The anchor wonít be as deep as the ski anchor.
  • Natural Features: trees, stumps, boulders and even ice blocks, seracs make ready anchors. They must be immovable! Like with the ski anchor, you may be able to simply to wrap your rope around the object and take in the rope securely. A sling can be useful to wrap around the anchor and then youíll need to attach the rope to the sling via a locking karabiner. You can simply clip the rope in and use a body belay or learn a self-locking hitch, like the Italian hitch, that will create friction in the system. This is an essential hitch to learn which can also be used for lowering someone or for abseiling on.
  • Ice Screws: the strength of an ice screw placement (in a static situation Ė where the rope is always tight and there isnít the possibility of a weight with momentum pulling on it) is dependant on the 3 factors:
    • The quality of the ice itís placed in
    • The angle of the placement, and
    • The depth of placement. The minutia of the debate on placing ice screws subjected to dynamic falls will be of interest to ice climbers.

Hereís what ski tourers need to know:

  • Quality of ice: darker and clearer ice is more dense and less fragile and therefore more secure for a screw placement. White, bubbly looking ice is weaker and less secure. Use your axe to hack back the overlying weak ice to get to the stronger layers. You may have to hack a circular area 50cm in diameter. If youíre confident of the ice quality then perhaps one screw will do. It depends on what load the screw might have to hold! You can always put 2 screws in for more security, but this will take more time. (Put the second screw in about a metre above and 50cm beside the first screw and use a sling to equalise the load on both screws (see the detailed description on crevasse rescue [LINK]).) Put your screws in to the hilt if possible. If the screw wonít go all the way in, it has probably hit rock and youíll ruin the screw if you persist. If the screw sticks out, to reduce leverage, tie off the screw using a sling larkís footed (see diagram) around the screw, as low as you can get it.
  • Angle of Placement: if the ice is at an angle (ideally in a concave scoop), place the screw perpendicular (90 degrees) to the surface. If the ice is vertical, place the screw 10 degrees off perpendicular, up hill. This is especially important if you have to tie the screw off so the sling doesnít slip off.
  • Screw depth: So whatís the minimum screw depth thatís safe? In good quality ice maybe you can get away with 12cm if itís tied off securely. If youíre not happy with the depth of the screw and itís your only option, tie yourself directly to the screw and then belay the rope on your body (or harness) to create an indirect belay. This system allows you, with your body weight, to take any strain on the rope before the weight comes on to the ice screw. Of course the danger is that if the ice screw fails, you might be pulled off!

The advantage of ice screws is they offer the potential for very reliable anchors. Useful for also tying the rope to and dangling a hand line that needs no belayer (keep an eye on it though and use two screws if lots of people will be hauling up on it!). Disadvantages: equipment intensive, very skill dependant in placing a screw securely. Thereís a risk of taking time to put a screw in when a simpler system would suffice. There are no absolutes: experience and judgment are necessary to understand the nuances and risks associated with ice screw placements.

4. Crampon skills

Practice cramponing skills; progress from flat walking to walking up hill. Ski touring is not the place to crampon for the first time or to find out they donít fit your boots. Install anti-balling plates. These stop snow from sticking to the underside of your crampons and tripping you up.

5. Ice axe skills

Learn and practice the ice axe self arrest.

6. Emergency self arrest

The ice axe self arrest is great for the times you have an ice axe in your hand (walking on difficult terrain), but less helpful in the situations when you donít Ė like skiing steep terrain! In these situations you can use your ski poles in a similar fashion.

When skiing steep terrain, take your wrist loops off (but don't drop your poles!). If you fall, then you can then more easily grab the lower end of your poles and drive this into the surface as in doing a self arrest. You can also put the two poles together - hold at the handles in one hand and down the poles with the other. This makes a firm "staff" that you can use to maintain your balance if you're side slipping down a steep coulouir. You may also find that taking the straps off and holding the poles lower will enable you to jump turn more effectively.

The final, last chance, option is if you fall with no axe, no poles, and have lost your skis. Your best option here is to roll onto your front and execute a simple ďpress upĒ against the snow. This drives the toes of your boots into the snow (see below) and (usually) slows you down. On very steep ground, be careful to make this a gradual motion as otherwise you may somersault backwards over your boots and start tumbling. This is a technique worth practicing on the piste!

7. Using the rope!

Keep the rope handy in case you need it. Make sure itís not left at the back of the group, deep down inside someoneís rucksac whoís reluctant to stop to get it out. Thereís no shame in using the rope to secure the groupís safety, despite what other groups are doing. Just learn to be decisive about its use and how to quickly set up the simplest yet still effective belay.

Make sure you know how to tie and use the following four knots:

  • The rethreaded figure of eight: for tying into the rope,
  • The clove hitch: for tying the rope to the anchor,
  • The Italian Hitch: for abseiling down a difficult pitch, and
  • The prussik loop: for gripping onto a rope in a crevasse rescue.

8. Climbing using your ski poles

If you donít have an ice axe, or donít want to get it out for short snow climbs, turn you poles upside down and if the terrain gets steep, you can shove the pole handles down into the snow for more security.

9. Ensure your own safety!

Weíve left this vital point until last. Whatever you do when youíre in a position to secure someone elseís safety, ensure that you are safe. This means that you are anchored securely and canít be pulled to your death by someone on the end of the rope youíre holding. Ultimately this is the prime consideration when setting up any anchor. If you are attached to the system, are you secure? If the answer is no, then you may have to move up the ladder to a more sophisticated (hence more time, skill and equipment intensive) belay system. So be it.

10. Conclusion

Travelling on steep ground is all about not falling off in the wrong place.

This means:

  • Spotting and preparing for dangerous ground (recognising dangerous terrain) and thinking about using your skills and equipment before you have a drama (avoidance, anticipation and preparation).
  • Using the right equipment to move securely when it does get steep (building an anchor, use of the rope, cramponing skills, using your ice axe, using your ski poles, ensuring your own safety).
  • Stopping yourself if you do fall (self arrest).


The co-author of this article, Barry Roberts, with French mountain guide Luc Bellon, runs a unique off-piste ski coaching holiday in Chamonix which is†aimed at upper intermediate level skiers who would like to improve their off-piste ability, and make ensure that they have all the necessary skills for dealing with the very real risks involved. You can find out more informatin, and book your place at www.allterrainski.com.

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