How to NOT kill Yourself Snowshoeing

How to NOT kill Yourself Snowshoeing
Descending Mount Matier

I remember borrowing a pair of crampons for my first ascent of Mount Baker in 1990, and the advice of the lender. “Make sure these thing fit” he said, “because if they come off and you’re on the ice you’re hooped.” A few years later, during a mountaineering course I learned that crampons are tools for getting you into terrain where you definitely require crampons. I never learned what to do if they fall off, so I’ve always made sure they don’t.

Ascending Mount Baker
Ascending Mount Baker

My point is, what do you do when everything goes to shit?

I’m not going to go into the answer for the crampon scenario above, but perhaps I can address the snowshoe situation.

In my last article I detailed a pattern in accidents among snowshoers and winter hikers, but I think I was rather thin on both avoiding the conditions leading to such an accident and what do if, as I said above, everything goes to shit. It’s not too helpful for me to sit here in my office and say “well, you really should have had an ice axe with you.” For whatever reason, some of you may find yourselves in a desperate situation one night and need a few pointers.

First let me encourage everyone to take winter travel very seriously, do things the right way and take an avalanche course, and understand the limits of the snowshoe as a travel tool. Second, let me encourage you to read my disclaimer and take my advice with a grain of salt. You do NOT want this blog post to be your only source of information, that would be stupid.

If you find yourself needing to cross or descend an icy slope, the first piece of advice is to do so facing the slope. If you were on crampons, this would be called front pointing. Use the cleats (such as they are) on the snowshoes as if they were crampons and step sideways (if traversing), or carefully downhill (if descending), one foot at a time. Make certain each foot hold is very sturdy before transferring your weight to it. This might seem slow and awkward, but facing the slope is the safest way to do this.

Essential to this maneuver is to use your ski pole as if it was an ice axe. You can invert the pole and use the handle as if it were the spike of the axe, or remove the basket entirely and use the pole right way up. Plant the pole before moving your feet; be sure the pole penetrates the ice layer on each plant, make is as deep as it can go. If you slip, throw your weight on the pole and kick to regain your foot holds. It’s better to use just one pole in this situation, put the other one away. Put the wrist strap around your wrist, it might be the thing that keeps you on the slope.

Descending Mount Matier
Descending Mount Matier

Even better, go and get an ice axe for Christmas, right now! This one will do.

The same advice goes for snow hikers; in fact snowshoers might be well advised to take off the snowshoes altogether for a traverse or descent, but be certain you don’t endanger yourself in the fumbling act of removing them. Without the oversized platform distributing your weight, it should be possible, unless you are on hard ice or very hard summer snow, to kick steps through the ice crust. A small platform for each foot step should be enough, as long as you have an ice axe or ski pole to maintain the third point of contact. Don’t be impatient; the harder the conditions, the more kicks it will take to make your step.

A good foot platform in hard snow is more secure than the flimsy aluminum cleats on the snowshoes. Go slowly, and test each foot.

Kicking steps is best done with a hard boot. If you are unfortunate enough to be wearing runners, trail shoes, or snow boots, use the ski pole to break the ice crust.

While you’re out there kicking steps and being impatient, remember the way the Swiss guides used to do it; using the adze on the ice axe to chop steps for their clients. Conrad Kain chopped thousands of steps up Mount Robson.

Gentlemen, that’s as far as I can take you!”
-C Kain


Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills Author: The Mountaineers,Mountaineers Books, September 8, 2010 592 pages, 7 1/2 X 9 , 978-1-59485-137-7

11 Comments on “How to NOT kill Yourself Snowshoeing

  1. Hm, having had the dubious pleasure of self-arresting with a ski pole on more than one occasion in the past, I would argue that having the wrist strap on is actually detrimental to stopping. You need to be able to slide your hand down the pole as you slip to keep the pole in the snow and more closely approximate an ice axe self arrest. With your hand in the strap at the top of the pole you will simply lever the pole out of the snow and take it down with you.

    Check out Craig Connally's "The Mountaineering Handbook" for beta on how to self-arrest with ski poles.

  2. That's a good point to be sure, once you're falling it would be very hard to self arrest with a ski pole if the wrist strap is on. However, not having the wrist strap on while using the pole as a self belay could result in a fall where your last-ditch connection to the anchor is gone.

    The accident data in "Accidents in North American Mountaineering," my own experience and recent mountain rescue course work all indicate that more emphasis should be given to not falling in the first place than to self-arrest. Many self arrest attempts, even with the correct tools, end in failure – lack of practice perhaps. Your chance with a ski pole is slim.

    Thus the argument – if you're buying a book, reading about self-arrest with a ski pole, and even going so far as to practice this technique, why wouldn't you just go an buy and ice axe and learn to do it the proper way.

    This is why I did not address self-arrest in the article; first, you're not going to learn it from a blog post, second, if you're going to learn it, then learn it correctly, from an expert, and with the right tools.

    Ultimately, there is no hard and fast rule; do what you need to do for the conditions at hand. Based on the accidents I read for this article, self arrest would not have worked for about half of these 23 incidents.

  3. Anonymous; not sure of the actual statistics since there's been no controlled experiments (that I can find, please correct me). I agree that many self arrest attempts fail, mostly because in my experience the cause of a fall is often extremely hard, icy conditions which make self arrest very difficult.

    It should be treated as a technique of last resort (the same as Avalanche Beacons); important to understand, and practice, but not to be relied on to get you out of trouble.

  4. both articles are excellent resources for winter outdoor activities and thank you for taking the time to write and post them. They should be mandatory reading at all the places that rent snowshoes before they actually give you the shoe.

    I have been "shoeing" for more than 5 years now, have taken AST-1 course, practiced beacon rescue and ice axe self arrest and still there is always more to learn. And like you say, the best protection against a pound of bad incidents is "an ounce of prevention". I can think of several times where I was where I shouldn't have been, in hindsight, and only hoped that I have learned to recognize those situations more accurately, from the experience.

    Keep up the good fight, Michael.

  5. Good info. The MSR Lightening Ascent snowshoes have serrated, aluminum siderails that sort of act as crampons on icey side-hills. I highly recommend these to those traveling in difficult terrain. Instinctive ice-axe self-arrest is important – it has to be done immediately otherwise one gains too much speed.Practice, practice, practice. It may mean your life!

  6. I have a pair of the MSR Lightening Ascent, as well as both the older Denali (had 2 inch aluminum spikes) and the newer Denali (with the neoprene bindings). I've also used Atlas and Tubbs style snowshoes. I used the be the gear purchaser for the SAR team, and I ended up buying the Denalis; I agree they're among the best of breed for snowshoe travel on the coast.

    However, they all have the same flaw in that the binding and the platforms force you to walk flat footed. If it's a snowshoe, then it's got a platform and there is always this effect. This will always be a problem on steep icy terrain.

    • Michael,
      Thank you for the great articles for all the reasons expounded on by others. I was about to comment on an issue I had with one part of your previous article, but decided to read this article first, and glad I did.
      My criticism of the the previous article was only that you made a special point of highlighting that “modern gear” is part of the problem and then continue to spotlight the MSR Denali’s as an example. In my opinion… and based on what I read here in ‘this’ article, you agree that MSR Denalis are among the best. If one were to read only the previous article you would come away at least partly thinking that it was these newfangled modern MSR Denali snowshoes that are to blame. While your point about how the wide platform alters how a foot can properly engage a steep traverse, I haven’t seen better traction from any older style narrower snowshoe. Also you neglect to mention that the MSR snowshoes have two continuous rails with teeth that aid in gripping during a traverse… something that older style snowshoes lack. I have seen the MSR’s constantly outperform older style snowshoes.
      Perhaps your argument should rather have been that the extra grip of the modern snowshoe like MSR’s gives a feeling of confidence that isn’t warranted on dangerous terrain. Sorry if my complaint here sounds petty, or if I sound like an MSR rep (I am most definitely not), but I have recommended the MSR type snowshoes to many people over the years and the way you discussed them in the previous article does them a dis service… when either they shouldn’t have been highlited at all, or at least have given the pro’s and con’s of them.

      • Mark, you make some very good points. I value any criticism, and I think I understand the nuances of what your trying to say. Some people call this “niggling” or petty, but not me.

        It was not my intent to highlight the MSR snowshoes as especially bad, in fact I consider MSR to be the leader in snowshoe design. I purchased over 50 of them when I was the equipment chair for my SAR team, and I have a pair myself. I tried not to dwell on the performance or features of any particular brand; I only mentioned the MSR once, and included two pictures: one of the snowshoes themselves, the other of a person sidehilling with them on.

        My article was intended, as you rightly stated, to point out that modern snowshoes and the advertising that accompanies them give users the impression of capability and confidence and there are these two things (sidehill and downhill travel on steeper terrain) for which they are all astoundingly bad, and the primary cause of some deaths. Secondly I was trying to point out that even without snowshoes people regularly come to greif on steep snow; there was at least one skier who died last year of this.

        My recommendation was to learn the proper travel techniques for steep terrain if you’re going to venture out. These include gear and travel skills that are time test and are hundreds of years old; crampons and ice axes.

        Based on the comments and other feedback I’ve received I’m confident that the primary message of this article is understood to be the general problem, and not a specific criticism of the one brand.

  7. I read somewhere that if you put your wrist in the strap and the pole gets stuck in the snow when you go down, there’s potential for a dislocated shoulder, elbow, or wrist.

    • There’s two schools of thought here
      1) keep the pole with you and try to extend it upwards as the snow stops moving. A lot of people are found quickly because they are attached to their poles.
      2) jettison your gear and people may find you by following the equipment.

      It’s true that in British Columbia most people who die in avalanches do so because of physical damage either from the snow or hitting obstacles. The recommendation is if you can’t ski out, try to discard your skis.

      The reality is that these things happen so fast you would be hard pressed to keep your wits about you.

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