Friday, October 22, 2010

Self Arrest with Crampons

We teach self arrest a lot.

You could argue that we teach this skill more than any other. Every single course that goes out onto a glacier will spend at least some time covering this foundational skill. Some will spend all day, whereas others may only spend a short period of time. But it happens on just about every mountaineering trip...

There are a lot of different elements to a successful self-arrest and this particular post wasn't written to address them all. Instead, this post was written to discuss the one area of self-arrest where there is a fair bit of contention: toes up or toes down.

One school of thought is that when you arrest, you need to kick your toes up off the ground. This is so that if you are wearing crampons, they won't catch and flip you over.

The second school of thought is that you should kick your toes into the snow to help arrest the fall. In this school of thought, your toes should go in immediately to provide more resistance to the slide. However, this school also believes that you should only do this if you are not wearing crampons. This school believes that you should not kick your toes in if you are wearing crampons for fear of injury or flipping over.

The third school of thought is that you should always kick your toes into the snow, regardless of whether or not you are wearing crampons. The theory here is that stopping is the most important thing and that it's worth the risk of getting flipped over or injuring your ankles to stop.

Most AAI guides teach a combination of the second and third schools of thought. Programs that teach the first concept are definitely in the minority these days. The number one focus of any self-arrest activity is to stop a slide and most of the time, that means using your feet as part of the arresting system.

The real question comes when we look at the most obvious break between the second and third schools of thought. In the second, you kick your feet up while wearing crampons and in the third, you put them into the snow no matter what. Each of these styles of thinking are a little bit too rigid. In alpine climbing there are seldom absolutes. Both concepts have validity in one venue or in another. The problem is that it depends on snow conditions.

If you are on hard, solid ice or neve, then it's usually better to kick your feet up into the air. If you are on semi-solid terrain with occasional harder sections, then it's probably better to kick your toes in. This "it depends" approach isn't what most people want to hear. They want to hear a black and white answer; in part because a black and white answer is easier to remember in the heat of the moment.

Strategical thinking when moving in the mountains, in any kind of terrain, should always be composed of two questions. What is is the likelhood of a fall? And, what are the consequences of a fall? If these questions are always at the forefront of your thinking, then a black-and-white answer may not be so important. If you are constantly strategizing what you'll do in the event of a fall, then it is likely that you will react appropriately when the right skill is needed.

There is no easy closure on this question. There will always be people who argue vehemently for one of the three schools of thought. When all is said and done, none of the arguments matter. All that matters is that you can stop yourself when you fall.

--Jason D. Martin

6 comments:

Michael said...

As someone who suffered a severe ankle fracture resulting from a ~150ft slide down a 45deg+ pitched couloir, I can attest that had I kept my crampons elevated during my attempted self arrest, I would have not likely fractured my ankle in the process of being flipped. That said, practicing for self-arrest in crampons in a semi-controlled setting is most DEFINITELY not the same as attempting a self arrest in an emergency situation. I am/was confident climbing on snow in crampons and despite practicing self arrest in even steeper terrain, I still was unprepared for the velocity at which I slid in my attempt to self arrest, hence the inability to kick my feet up before they caught snow and flipped me over and out of the self arrest position.

For my $0.02 worth, I would advise folks that if possible, keep your feet elevated during a slide. My fall was nearly 16 months ago and I am just now able to walk (with a limp) as a result of the ankle fracture.

American Alpine Institute said...

Michael,

Thanks for the comment. It is completely valid.

You were on pretty steep terrain and you slid quite a bit before you were able to stop get your feet in...

I do want to make sure that everyone understands that we're not proponents of always kicking your feet in no matter what. I think it's better to look at it from the "it depends" perspective.

If (and that's a big "if")you can arrest immediately before any speed is accrued, then getting your feet in might be better. But clearly if you've gained any momentum at all, you absolutely have to keep your feet up.

As someone who has been pulled off my feet in crevasse fall situations and as someone who has slipped and had to self-arrest AND as someone who teaches this stuff a lot, I can attest to the fact that it is surprising as to what happens in real life as opposed to controlled practice slides. This is why we constantly, constantly, constantly have to be thinking of about what the likelihood of a fall is and what the consequences are...

Thanks for sharing!

Jason

Andy said...

I fully agree with this post. A factor that is related to this is time spent on snow. The more time one has spent on snow of differing types, the more intuitive the decision becomes in an emergency situation. On hard blue ice, I'm instinctively more sensitive to catching my crampons on something on the ground. On soft mushy snow, I'm more relaxed and not concerned with my crampon points catching something unexpectedly. Imagine the way we walk across a frozen pond as compared to walking across a grassy meadow. The more time we spend working with the different mediums of frozen water, the more instinctual it becomes.

Electric Fly said...

Thankyou for this post, and for providing a voice of reason to this longstanding debate. Every self-arrest scenario has a differing set of circumstances.

Some of these circumstances may be speed, momentum, snow/ice consistency and probably most importantly, terrain or lack of it before a sheer drop.

Being aware of the circumstances present as you climb will help you to react in the most appropriate manner.

With a broken ankle you may still summons help, with a broken neck it's usually curtains.

Anonymous said...

I fell on a rather steep slope I got turned toward snow I lost my ice axe trying to self arrest I had no choice but to use my hands and crampons to slow. I did it with all my power dug hands in, when I planned crampons in I did it just right as to come to a low stand if they lifted me a bit but luckily my hands and crampons just slowed me to a stop! I believe in using crampons with controlled technique if emergency and need. Worked for me perfectly. Thank God.

Anonymous said...

Using crampons and my hands in a self arrest other day proved very effective. I dug my hands in with all my strength after losing ice axe in self arrest and fug my crampons in a bit sideways I believe as if I was going to stand lean forward if they brought me up however they stopped me perfectly thank God.