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Mountain Skills: Skiing with Sharp Objects

When you were a kid, your mom probably told you, “Don’t run with scissors!” That was sound advice. But now, as a grown-up backcountry skier, it’s a good idea to learn how to ski with sharp objects. Moving in steep terrain, where a fall is a real possibility, with these objects attached to you, is actually safer.

Ski crampons, boot crampons and a simple ice axe should be a part of every backcountry skier’s kit. You won’t need them everyday, but knowing when and how to use them can greatly improve security and enjoyment. Here’s how.

Ski Crampons

Ski crampons are likely the most misunderstood piece of gear for American backcountry skiers. They are not a substitute for boot crampons; they are not tools for going up steeper grades; they are for certain conditions, particularly thin surface crusts.

The German word for ski crampon is harscheisen. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Use the German word for ski crampon—harscheisen—when you’re referring to your sharps to sound like an expert. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Ski crampons are the best tool for ascending when the surface of the snow is so slick that your skins aren’t gripping, and the surface of the snow is a crust that will support your weight with skis on, but not with only boots or boot crampons. If you find yourself slipping on a rain or wind crust, but end up punching through when you take your skis off, this is the ideal time for ski crampons.

Actually using ski crampons can be a little tenuous because it’s an awkward movement at first. Take smaller steps, don’t use the risers of your bindings and set a shallower skintrack. You will go more slowly than your normal skinning or crampons pace, but under applicable conditions, it’s still the fastest way to go up.

Boot Crampons

I was once told, “You should either have skis or crampons on your feet while in the mountains.” I don’t think that’s absolutely true, but it is worth considering. Having that extra traction on your feet can be an amazingly comfortable feeling.

Dan Loutrel gets to the point. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Dan Loutrel gets to the point. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Boot crampons are not only for steep technical terrain; they are essential on hard slopes, especially where a fall would have ugly results. If the snow is firm enough to support your weight, ascending in crampons is normally faster than skinning. If you find yourself debating between crampons and skins, go for the crampons—it will be the right call more often than not.

When walking in crampons, learn techniques that allow you to keep your heel down. You don’t want to walk on your toes, or “front-point,” up the mountain, because your calves will explode. Instead, you may need to zigzag up the mountain. Be careful to not catch the crampon on your pants, especially on the way down. And if the snow is deep, soft and balling up under the crampon, then it is likely time to take them off. Crampons with snowballs on the bottom are basically roller skates.

Ice Axe or Piolet

As one of my clients says, it’s nice to “give the mountain a handle.” Ice axes are not only for ice and arresting falls—an ice axe can add security on steeper ascents. And becoming comfortable with one is sort of like going to all-wheel-drive, because your hands are helping as well.

Andreas Fransson literally skiing with sharps in Chamonix, France. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Andreas Fransson literally skiing with sharps in Chamonix, France. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Ice axes work well in hard snow and soft snow. If you feel that you may slip, or a slip may be very costly, it’s time to get out the axe. It can be used as a way of “self belaying,” which means it is anchored while you move. Or it can be used to chip away snow or ice to increase the purchase of your feet.

Learn to use an ice axe in self-arrest, or anchor, position for when there is a potential for a fall or slip. The “cane position” is more comfortable while on easy and moderate terrain. And the “low dagger” position is handy (no pun intended) when the terrain is steep and you’re still moving relatively quickly. Learn to store your ice tool securely on your pack, in a place where it is accessible but where it won’t poke other people or fall off your pack.

Sometimes we have to climb firmer snow before getting to the softer snow. Don’t skitter around like Bambi on ice—ski crampons, boot crampons and a simple ice tool will make the ascent easier and offer you much more security. And understanding where, when and how to use them is an important piece of backcountry skiing.

Donny Roth is an AMGA-certified ski guide and professional skier. He writes about his adventures at independent-descents.com. Learn more about skiing with him in Chile at chile-powder-adventures.com.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the informative article- I’ve been wondering why one would use ski crampons instead of regular ones. Speaking of crampon use, you actually do want to use the front points if its really steep (too steep for French technique), but you want to keep the HEEL down (proper spelling of the referenced body part, as opposed to ‘heal’ which was used in the article). Not only will keeping your heel down prevent calf fatigue, it actually helps better engages the front & secondary points on most crampons.

  2. Glenn solomon says:

    Telling your readers that they can learn how to use boot crampons or an ice axe from a short article in
    a magazine is irresponsible. Crampons, if improperly used, are dangerous. In a fall, when improperly positioned,
    they can kill you. The same is true of an ice axe.

    Yes, they are valuable tools that can increase safety when properly used. But it takes field practice, usually
    hours of field practice, for a novice to get to the point where they will probably do more good than harm.

    • While I agree that field practice is required and essential, articles like these provide some insight into the basics. I would say some information is potentially better than none at all. I found the article to be informative, thank you.

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