The skills needed to move safely over snow are the foundation of mountaineering.
Un-roped falls on snow contribute significantly to accidents in the Teton Range. Unlike the large snow fields in the Cascades and some mountains in the East, the summer snow in the Teton Range is unique. While there are fewer large snow features on which to practice the consequences of a fall, the practiced skills required to safely navigate smaller snow features remain the same.
Don’t feel pressure to already
have these skills.
These skills take many years to learn
and even more to refine.
Enjoy the journey of learning
and gaining experience.
Learning and practicing solid footwork, specific techniques for walking on snow, how to move your body over snow covered terrain MUST happen BEFORE attempting to climb on steep snow.
You must learn how to use (and practice with them regularly) the tools needed for traveling on snow BEFORE taking them into the mountains.
Take a snow safety course with a local guide service such as Exum Mountain Guides to learn the critical fundamentals.
Read the snow travel portions of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills and Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking, and Moving Over Snow by Mike Zawaski.
Always maintain a high level of awareness as you move through the mountains.
A few important things to assess throughout your adventure include:
- Potential “run outs” or the consequences of sliding down a snow feature including steep slopes, snow fields exposed to cliffs and those that terminate in boulder fields.
- Be aware that rivers of ice cold water may be raging beneath the snow. Look for these places and do not walk on this snow or cross unless you are sure it can support your weight.
- Be aware of boulders scattered on and at the base of steep snow fields. These hazards increase your risk of injury if you slide.
- Changing snow conditions depending on sun, shade, aspect and terrain feature. The firmness of the snow influences the difficulty of moving over the snow. Choose the appropriate and safest travel techniques and tools.
- Monitor your own comfort level and fatigue.
Know and be responsible for your own capacity to safely travel over the terrain.
Speak up if you are not comfortable with the terrain, snow conditions or your skills.
Choose objectives that match your skills and experience.
Practice the following on belay from above and on a low angle snow field with safe run out (a snowfield that eases to a flat feature with no rocks at the bottom):
- Proper ascending and descending techniques.
- Self-arresting without an ice axe, just hands and feet.
- Regaining your balance from a slip using your ice axe. This “self-belay" is what prevents slips from progressing to slides and falls and is the standard use of an ice axe. Understand that successfully arresting a high speed slide is unlikely.
- Using your foot placements, body position, and self-belay with an ice axe to prevent a slide from ever occurring.
- Although it is most desirable to use the “self-belay” to prevent a slip from progressing to a slide, you must also practice proper ice axe technique to stop a slide from all positions - head first, on your back, on your belly.
Always wear a helmet and gloves.
Only glissade if you are well practiced in the skill and on slopes with low angles, soft snow, and safe run outs. Never glissade with crampons on your feet.
Going down is often much more difficult than going up. Before you ascend a snowfield consider the added challenge of descending.
Transitions on and off snow to rock or vegetation are also areas of difficulty and may be steeper and have deep and wide gaps between the rock and snow or thin soft snow that collapsing under your weight.
About the Author
Nancy Bockino grew up in the mountains of Idaho, Montana and Washington. She began climbing, backcountry skiing and working as a field ecologist in the early 1990’s. Nancy moved from the Cascades to Jackson Hole in 2000 and fell in love with the mountains, whitebark pine trees and the local community. Nancy keeps quite busy working as a part time guide for Exum, an ecologist caring for whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an avalanche course leader, an instructor for Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute, an EMT and Wilderness First Responder, a member of Teton County Search and Rescue and as a member of the Ortovox USA ambassador team.