Friday, October 12, 2007

French Terms: If you don't know, you'd better axe somebody!

AAI Program Coordinator utilizes Piolet Appui on Dragontail Peak

So this afternoon I was in the midst of a rather long session of updating AAI’s web site, and as is often the case, my ears and eyes were open for any possible chance for distraction that might happen across my corner of the office. While working on the content of our 6-day Alpinism 1 page, I came across our curriculum, which mentions that we teach the principle ice axe positions, along with their French names - and there I found the perfect opportunity for a momentary distraction. Little did I know that close to an hour later (now) I would still be lost on the tangent.

It all started with Piolet Poignard (Piolet means "ice axe," but I couldn't remember what Poignard was). You see, AAI’s Assistant Director and lead guide in the Alps, Mike Powers, or the "king of French terms" as we call him, is firm in his conviction that being able to recite the French terms forward, backward, at breakfast, and in your deepest sleep is something that any self-respecting mountaineer, let alone professional guide, shouldn’t think twice about being able to do promptly and accurately.

Being the uneducated and untraveled person that I am, I have not yet had the chance to spend countless hours rubbing elbows with Frenchmen in high alpine huts while sipping Bordeaux and recounting details of the day's success and telling tales of mountaineering lore and history. Hence my excuse for forgetting Poignard.

Knowing that others in the office often hunt for similar distractions throughout the course of the day, I thought that taking the time to reeducate myself and quiz the others in the office would be the perfect respite from staring at the computer screen for a few minutes. Thus, today’s blog entry was born.

Below are photos of the principle ice axe positions, along with their French and English names and a brief description of the application of each. We hope you take this opportunity to avoid more serious tasks, much as we did, and enjoy your new found or newly refreshed knowledge.

Canne: The "cane" position. Standard for traveling on flat and gentle snow slopes where the ice is used primarily as a balance aid or walking stick. In true Canne position, the pick points forward. Our Assistant Director, Mr. Powers, would tell you that with the pick facing backwards, the term is Merde. I will leave you to explore the definition of that one on your own.

Piolet Canne

Manche: The "handle" or "sleeve" position. The shaft of the axe is plunged into the snow using both hands on the top of the axe. Used in times where added security is needed. Usually used for short sections of steeper slope or in variable snow conditions where footing or balance may be insecure. Often used in guiding when the guide may see the need for increased personal and team security.

Piolet Manche

Panne: "Low" or "down." This is the low dagger position. Low dagger is often use for speed and efficient movement on hard snow or neve on slope that are 45 to 65 degrees.

Piolet Panne

Appui: Literally means "support" or "push" To us, this means middle dagger position. Similar to low dagger, this technique is for moving quickly on steep, firm snow or neve. The position allows for a more forceful planting of the pick in the surface of the snow or ice and so it is more suitable for harder conditions than low dagger would be.

Piolet Appui

Ancre: Pronounced like “onk”. This is the "anchor" position. It has a few applications, most commonly used to clear short bulges or steep sections in otherwise gentle terrain.

Piolet Ancre

Traction: As you might guess, this one is used for maximum traction. This is the steep ice technique use on waterfalls and steep alpine ice, 65 degrees to overhanging.

Piolet Traction

And finally, the pesky term that started all of this:

Poignard: Means "dagger." This is the high dagger position and is is used for firm snow or neve that is usually 60 to 70 degrees. This technique is not very secure and shouldn’t be used excessively on hard ice where balance is harder to maintain. The point of your axe should be able to penetrate the surface of the snow or ice an inch or two for maximum security.

Piolet Poignard

And now for the bonus round.

If you can send us a picture or of an accurate description of Piolet Ramasse and Piolet Rampe you get a $20 gift certificate for our equipment shop. Send your answers to Coley Gentzel at


Anonymous said...

Hi, Instead of a $20 gift certificate, how about a date with Coley? Just a suggestion. Karen H.

American Alpine Institute said...

Thanks for the thought Karen! The gift certificate idea was meant to serve as a "reward," whereas a date with me would likely be a lot closer to a punishment :)

We will keep the concept in mind for future applications though.