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#2495 - 10/10/05 05:26 PM
Ice Axe and Crampon Use (or misuse)
Posted by JPR, 10-10-05I love the sierra and I've done several dozen trips into the mountains between Lone Pine and Yosemite. Winter trips, summer trips, hiking trails, 5th class rock climbs, ice climbs; the point being that I have a fair bit of experience.
After climbing lots of sierra peaks and all the 14ners, except two, I've learned first hand that it's real easy to get in over your head and real hard to get out of such a mess. So, I have been very saddened recently to see a death and a number of injuries recently (as well as two deaths last spring) as a result of poor, unnecessary decisions.
1.) Don't be afraid or too proud to turn back. That is often the best thing you can do on trips like these. You can always go back and try again.
2.) If you don't know how to use crampons and an ice axe and have considerable experience using them together, they will only get you into more trouble and possibly killed.
3.) If you haven't repeatedly practiced self arresting on a steep icy slope, you don't know how to use an ice axe.
4.) If you haven't tripped and fell, shredded at least one pair of gaiters and poked a hole in something expensive, you don't have enough experience with crampons to use them on your own up on Whitney.
5.) Glissading is dangerous, even if there isn't a sign expressly saying so. In fact, you'd need a sign about 20 feet tall to describe all the dangerous things one can find in the mountains. If you want someone to hold your hand, stay home.
6.) If you don't know why it's a stupid idea to glissade while wearing crampons, you shouldn't do it.
7.) If you have never glissaded before, Whitney is not a good place to learn.
8.) If you don't know the difference between magnetic north and true north, you don't know how to navigate in the back country. Buying a GPS does not fix this problem. Unfortunately on Whitney, the only time this will become apparent is when the weather gets bad and you can't see the trail anymore.
Be careful, get instructions from a guide and understand the risks that you are about to take. The mountains are beautiful, but they can kill you very easy.
Posted by wbtravis5152, 10-10-05Wise words. I have 4 winter seasons using ice axe, crampons, snowshoes, taken a basic snow skills course and am just feeling comfortable with the idea of doing the Main Mt. Whitney Trail in the spring or early fall.
I fine it incredible that people with absolutely no experience with these tools want Mt. Whitney their first learning experience.
I have punched a hole in a pair of Gore-tex pants, shredded a pair of PreCip pants with my crampons and severely sprained an ankle glissading while wearing crampons.
Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Blog
The Mt. Whitney Day Hike and Backpacking Page
Posted by GigaMike, 10-10-05Great info. This past winter I bought a pair of snowshoes and did a few hikes up Mt. Baldy. In the 5 times I attempted to summit, I turned back twice because I wasn't sure if I would be able to go back down without getting into trouble. This year I'm going to purchase crampons & Ice axe and I will practice using them before I get myself into any situation that requires them.
Posted by dstempke, 10-10-05For anyone: where did you take a course to learn snow skills?
Posted by Ken, 10-11-05There are a number of options; the Sierra Club in SoCal works out an arrangement with Kurt Wedberg, an occasional contributor here, for such classes each winter, as well as certified avalanche courses. He also runs a guide service out of Bishop. http://www.sierramountaineering.com
There are also other guiding services in various areas that teach the skills, such as Bay Area, Tahoe, Mammoth, Fresno.
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.
Posted by wbtravis5152, 10-11-05dstempke,
Both Sierra Mountain Center and Sierra Mountain International in Bishop are good and reasonably priced.
Posted by Bob T, 10-11-05I do find one piece of advice slightly curious. "6.) If you don't know why it's a stupid idea to glissade while wearing crampons, you shouldn't do it."
That might suggest that if you do know why it's a stupid idea to glissade while wearing crampons, it is OK to do it. You might think that it is stupid to think that if you know why it's a stupid idea to glissade while wearing crampons, it is OK to do it, but isn't stupidity a big part of the problem in the first place?
I might say, "6. Don't glissade while wearing crampons. If you don't know why it is stupid, don't find out the hard way."
I might also change 7 to 7a, and instead have as #7: "If you don't have experience hiking, climbing, and descending steep terrain in ice and snow, Whitney is a terrible, dangerous, and potentially fatal place to learn -- turn around if you encounter those conditions on Whitney without experience." I would just say, "If you don't have winter mountaineering experience, Whitney is a terrible place to learn," but too many people don't understand at what point Whitney requires winter mountaineering skills.
In summer conditions, ignoring altitude and length of the hike (which obviously, you can't ignore), and assuming the weather doesn't turn bad (something else that can't be ignored), Whitney isn't really a very dangerous place. Sure, any hike is potentially dangerous, but in the summer, it isn't really the terrain that makes Whitney a problem. Experience isn't a big deal on the main trail in summer conditions. At that point, being acclimated and in shape to go 22 miles round trip at altitude is about all that matters (combined with the sense to turn around if either physical issues, timing issues, or the relatively infrequent summer weather issues warrant turning around).
A casual hiker who gets in shape and gets acclimated can do Whitney in summer conditions, rarely having any serious problems, and so long as common sense is used in turning around when appropriate, problems for such a casual hiker shouldn't be any more life threatening than they would be hiking in the coastal hills.
But once there is meaningful snow and ice on the trail (I don't consider a few tiny ice patches around the cables that never go away, or small snow fields that are well traveled near the summit, to be meaningful), the ball game changes. It is not for hikers, it is for experienced winter mountaineers. And people who think "I'm a very strong hiker" shouldn't go up, unless they can also say, "I'm an experienced winter mountaineer."
Sometimes, I have a sense that we are unnecessarily cruel when talking about someone's death being the result of foolish decisions. The person is dead, no need to blame the deceased for their own death. However, I do think that discussing it helps reinforce certain ideas that may help prevent others in the future from repeating mistakes, and may help people learn from the mistakes of others instead of learning from their own mistakes, or making mistakes that can't be recovered from to learn.
I have always been lucky enough to survive my mistakes to learn from them, but it is better not to have to get lucky.
Posted by Richard P, 10-11-05I don't know why people keep saying that Whitney is a terrible place to learn mountaineering skills.
Sure, it's ridiculous to think that you can grab an axe and head up to the summit over two days. As a bunch of people have stated, in this situation you are an accident waiting to happen.
But, there are many places on the lower slopes of the mountain that are great places to learn winter skills:
- After a big dump, the road up is a great place to learn how to handle snowshoes or skis on ascent and descent.
- There are many gentle slopes on the lower part of the mountain where you can practice self arrest with an axe.
- There are many gentle slopes on the lower part of the mountain where you can practice climbing and descending with crampons.
Most of these skills are not that complicated, but you do need to practice them enough that they become second nature. Your natural athletic ability and coordination will determine how long it takes to become proficient in these skills.
And, do go out with a guide, or someone else who isn't afraid to criticize/advise you on your weaknesses, before you go out on your own.
Posted by Bob T, 10-11-05It is a matter of semantics, of course.
At what point are we on "Whitney"? I think one can make a good argument that if you are below the Portal, or on what I assume you mean by the "lower part of the mountain," (the two places you suggest learning) you are not really on "Whitney". If I am on the road, I am no more on Whitney than I am on Wotan's Throne or on Thor Peak. Same if I am on the "lower part of the mountain" (unless by that you mean above between Trail Camp and Trail Crest, or you mean the MR between Iceberg and the Notch).
The real point, with which you seem to agree, is that it is not a good idea to be learning winter mountaineering skills while making a summit attempt of Whitney, most especially when going without anyone who can teach winter mountaineering skills.
I absolutely agree that there are places in the Whitney area that are well suited to learning winter mountaineering skills. And if one was taking enough days on a trip before heading to the summit and had a knowledgeable instructor/guide, I suppose it would be OK to be learning winter mountaineering skills as part of a trip that involves making a summit attempt of Whitney, but even then one shouldn't really make the summit attempt until after the basic winter mountaineering skills have been learned lower down on the trail.
Maybe we can get rid of semantic concerns and just agree on this: "Whitney is a bad place to learn winter mountaineering skills while making a summit attempt."
Posted by Richard P, 10-11-05It is splitting hairs. :rolleyes:
I define a climb as starting from where I pick up my gear and head up. In winter, this sometimes means that a "Whitney climb" may start down at Lone Pine Campground, in summer at the Portal trailhead.
Posted by Jessica, 10-12-05Ken, I enjoyed #4 the most. That sure is true. If you have spent any time with crampons you will have some tears in your gators or ski pants.
One thing which I would add. The danger level can vary from day to day or even within the same day. Snow Can vary from soft to hard and sometimes can be so icy. Obviously glissading can be a great deal of fun or very dangerous depending on the snow conditions.
I for one love to glissade. However I only do it when there is nothing to crash into below, and if the snow is soft enough to prevent myself from going too fast. I also would never glissade without know self arrest techniques with an ice axe. Dragging your feet and hands is not enough if it is icy.
As has been recently reported concerning the death on the chute by the switchbacks, the snow on the top was perfect until it turned icy and thus fatal. So the first half of Mr. Tom's glissade was probably enjoyable until it turned to ice and he realized he could not slow down.
Like Richard P. mentioned, the whole Whitney area has many hills and slopes good to gain experience on. Perhaps they don't include the area above the notch on the Mountaineers route, since a fall there would bring you over the cliff. Or the chute next to the switchbacks, with it large rocks at the bottom. With icy conditions either one of these two hills gives no room for error.
Posted by Adrian, 10-12-05A quick comment on crampons and ice axe. an ice axe is fine to use as a brake during a controlled slide, but slip and fall situations involve all manner of body positions where you may not have time to stop yourself because you're already going too fast and out of control before you can get oriented properly to try digging the thing in!!! I think of the ice axe more as a climbing aid, and this brings us to crampons.
Instep crampons are crap, pure and simple!!! They may be fine for icy sidewalks, but not on mountains. Full crampons are what you need, but not necessarily the type with the forward pointing prongs unless you are doing actual ice climbing. They are awkward at other times. But the instep varieties may get you killed. Yes, you will rip your pants!!! But if you have snug pants or use the velcro strap things used by bicycle riders that will help limit that and the issue there is not protecting the pants/gaiters so much as keeping from tripping yourself. Having really adequate crampons is paramount and being careful about foot placement is too. If you fall on a steep slope.....bad; best to avoid falling.
This from an old easterner. Full crampons are absolutely imperative on places like Mt. Washington in winter because all the snow blows away leaving nothing but ice above tree line!!
Posted by san onofre guy, 10-12-05For someone who has done extensive winter hiking in Maine and New Hampshire, often below tree line hiking instep crampons are safer. In New England with wet snow or midwinter rain, you may have a trail that is tracked down and very slick or a combination of rocks and slick hard snow. In that instance on trails instep crampons are preferable to full 10 or 12 point which are tough to walk fast in when dealing with rocks underfoot.
I agree on Whitney full 10 or 12 point crampons should be used. By the time you typically put them on in the switchback area, the typical hiker will not be hiking fast in any event, especially if there is a need for crampons.
Posted by tiogap, 10-13-05I see more and more people using trekking poles in place of ice axes. dumb, dumb, dumb.
Posted by Jim in Huntington Beach, 10-16-05I will respectfully disagree with #4, especially after spending two weeks living in new 12 point crampons on Denali last May without damaging a rope, gaiter or limb, even when forced to jump a bergschrund in Denali Pass. (As discussed in "Mountaineering" 6th Edition Chapter 14: Jumping) I do agree that eventually I will shred something at some point. :-)
Re: #6 Warned somebody at Shasta about this and then watched him grin at me, proceed to glissade with crampons and promptly break his leg.
Posted by Dean, 10-18-05Part of the problem is the simple fact that most people think, "it won't happen to me". The warning about glissading in crampons is so often ignored it isn't funny. I watched a bunch glissade on Mt. Hood wearing their crampons despite warnings from several others No injuries but they were lucky. They of course will make that same mistake somewhere else and unfortunately pay for it. On Mt. Adams, a gal ignored warnings about wearing her crampons on the famous chute that comes down from the false summit to the Lunch counter and she promptly broke her leg. Took a chopper to get her out. Human nature is what it is, sometimes people have to learn the hard way. Every parent can tell stories to that effect.
Posted by Andrew, 10-18-05Glissading in crampons is a tempting thing to do. Often you slide a little, walk a little, and then slide some more.
Consequently people end up leaving them on, not realizing the danger or not wanting to take them on and off.
We have seen pictures of people on this board wearing crampons while glissading, not realizing they were not supposed to. Sometimes it made no difference, since the snow they were sliding on was very soft and they were lucky not to catch an edge on something.
It has been good to read this board, so that we can learn from one another what is safe and what is not.
Posted by C. Popoff, 10-18-05Another point I would like to add.....
I had a friend glissade down the chute this past June without wearing gaiters. Multiple layers of skin were shaved off his calves when his pant legs rode up past his knees on the slide down. By the time he reached Trail Camp, his pants were stained with blood. He is still healing from the ice burns. With gaiters, this never would have happened.
Posted by Dean, 10-18-05Good point on the gaiters. I likewise had a friend who lost some skin on San Gorgonio when his pant leg rode up and exposed skin. Just like a burn thanks to the snow which can act like sandpaper. It was nasty and took him quite a while to get that skin back. I had a similar occurrence on an elbow when I glissaded down from the Red Rocks on Shasta. It wasn't big but it taught me to make certain all exposed skin is covered.
Posted by singstream, 10-18-05why is it that whenever there is a report of a mountaineering accident, you get loads of people saying if you don't have lots of experience, you shouldn't be doing it. beginners and experts die or get seriously injured all the time mountaineering. and it is these "sticky" situations that we learn to be a better mountaineer. sometimes, the situations are fatal, most often they're not.
regarding using trekking poles for self-arrest, Craig Connally the author of "the mountaineering handbook" recommends using them.
Posted by Sierra Sam, 10-18-05Singstream:
"why is it that whenever there is a report of a mountaineering accident, you get loads of people saying if you don't have lots of experience, you shouldn't be doing it. beginners and experts die or get seriously injured all the time mountaineering."
yes, experts get hurt/killed too, but very rarely on places like Whitney. No-one is saying that beginners or people without experience shouldn't climb, but that they should take some time to learn before trying something difficult. There are plenty of people, both professional guides and friendly locals, who are happy to show someone the ropes on Whitney and elsewhere. The point is that anyone who has been climbing for awhile has seen people hurt, or even killed, doing something on a mountain that could be done safely. We're just trying to pass on the fun of mountaineering without getting people unnecessarily hurt.
Posted by Dale Dalrymple, 10-18-05This summer I bought a copy of Craig Connally's book specifically because of his coverage of the use of poles in falls.
With "The Mountaineering Handbook" in hand, I have sought to find any recommendation from Craig Connally for the practice of self-arresting with poles.
He states that there is no "body of experience" adequate to even identify best techniques for pole arrest.
He does make some other points:
1) Practice is necessary.
2) Poles do not work as well as axes for arrest.
3) Poles are for immediate arrest, not eventual recovery of control.
Recommendations he does make in this section do include these:
1) Avoid falling in bad conditions, use poles if they can help this.
2) Use a rope and anchor where arrests are not feasible.
3) When practicing in an area with a safe runout, dull your tools and bring plenty of first aid gear.
4) Avoid wearing slick clothing when falling.
The people I downhill ski with persist in going places with bad conditions and occasionally falling there. These people always happen to have poles with them for purposes other than self arrest. Since I can't keep these people from falling, I hope to educate them to make what use there may be in the equipment they already carry. However, it would still be inappropriate to suggest to them that even a practiced knowledge of pole self-arrest technique has much to contribute to a rational decision process about avoiding dangerous terrain.
Posted by JPR, 10-19-05C. Popoff & Dean: Gaiters aren't the problem in the cases you described, its going too fast that caused the burns. Going too fast is caused by being out of control which, as you know, can lead to all kinds of terrible problems. Also, to get burns, you need to be on crusty or icy snow, which might be a bit too slick for glissading.
Singstream: Wrong on all counts bro. You said that "beginners and experts die or get seriously injured all the time mountaineering". This is a bunch of cr*p. Experts get injured or killed very rarely and every time something serious happens to a novice, its all over the news (which is not often).
Experienced people get upset when they see/hear of novices getting hurt, because in most cases, it shouldn't have happened. By the same token, a lot of more experienced people are pretty open to giving advice and showing novices how to travel in the mountains. Find these people...
Regarding self arrest with poles - it's hard in good conditions and in icy conditions even worse. Unless you have practiced it, don't count on it.
Posted by Memory Lapse, 10-19-05I have been searching the web to find information on Craig Connally who is the author of "The Mountaineering Handbook".
Does he have a web-site or an affiliation with a mountaineering school or guide service?
I have located a couple of references to his participation in some Sierra Club organized and guided summits only.
Posted by singstream, 10-19-05i guess what im trying to get the experienced people to admit to is that there have been situations where you yourself have gotten into a sticky situation. maybe a route that was above your skill level, a stream that was flowing too fast. some how, you made it out alive (skill? luck? or a little of both). But just as easily you could have died. Don't mistake what I say that one should not take the necessary classes and have the know-how before getting into mountaineering.
An experienced guy died above the notch, glissading. RJ Secor was seriously injured glissading on Mt Baldy.
as far as i know, Craig Connally is an engineer in the bay area. Don't know if he guides. You can do a search on amazon for his book.
Posted by Ken, 10-19-05I have contacted Craig and invited his participation.
Posted by Sierra Sam, 10-23-05>>> "I guess what I'm trying to get the experienced people to admit to is that there have been situations where you yourself have gotten into a sticky situation. maybe a route that was above your skill level, a stream that was flowing too fast. some how, you made it out alive (skill? luck? or a little of both). but just as easily you could have died."
Of course 'experts' get into situations where the outcome is in doubt. I think the big difference between an expert and an inexperienced climber is that the expert usually recognizes the risk that they are taking and decides that they can handle it. That judgment is not always 100% correct. Even when it is wrong, an expert often has the skills to recover and survive the situation.
Inexperienced climbers often don't even recognize the risks that they are taking, nor the skill to recover. A good example is the recent thread from a climber who chose to glissade in a steep section without any prior experience. She could easily have been badly hurt or died, but did not understand the risk she was taking. If she had hit an ice patch, it is unlikely that she would have had the skill to recover, which would be difficult for even an experienced climber if they were going too fast.
Posted by Bob R, 02-07-06Last Saturday I climbed Baldy, first time in 13 years. When I looked over at the slope Ali Aminian fell on two years ago, I thought of this thread. Here are some pictures of that slope: nos. 16--19 in this album. No. 16 was taken from the saddle that the trail from the ski hut ascends to. Ali's body came to rest about 800' downslope from where he fell on the Bear Flat trail.
Ali was a past president of the California Mountaineering Club, and a very experienced, skilled, and careful mountaineer. I knew him well, having climbed an even 20 mountains with him in the preceding dozen years. His hiking poles were near his body, not attached to his wrists. His ice axe and crampons were on his pack.
Certainly, he would have tried to arrest with his hiking poles; obviously, he was unsuccessful. Most likely, he would still be alive if he had used his ice ax instead.
Posted by Richard P, 02-08-06I don't know whether my subconscious mind was trying to tell my something, but when I got to that ridge area on the Bear Flat route the last time I was up there, I dropped my pack in a hurry and put on my crampons.
Posted by h_lankford, 10-15-06Ken, thanks for bumping this thread back up. (Edit: I see that the gremlins have deleted your post)
Lots of discussion about accidents. Here is a good just-published reference for anyone wanting to learn more/be informed/warned/educated. The Whitney MR accidents listed on page 34 are surely known to regulars on this board. I copied it here verbatim. Harvey
"Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2006" from American Alpine Club
Fall on Snow-Loss of Control on Voluntary Glissade
California, Mount Whitney
On April 10, Patrick Wang (27) and Martin Kozaczak (27) climbed the Mountaineer's Route on Mount Whitney. On descent, around 14,100 feet, there is a steep traverse on a snowfield between the summit and the notch. The climber's decided to remove their crampons and attempt to glissade. Kozaczek went first and began to slide too fast. He was able to self-arrest.
Wang began his descent and immediately began to slide too fast. He attempted unsuccessfully to self-arrest. He tumbled out of sight over a rock band. His body was found the next day.
Wang was reported to be an experienced mountaineer. Snow conditions were consolidated, windblown, and icy. The traverse is short in distance, and the consequences of a fall are often overlooked.
Many choose to climb/descend un-roped and unprotected here. There have been numerous fatalities at this same location. In fact, there was another fatality here within one month of this one involving a solo climber who was wearing crampons but not carrying an ice ax. There was another accident in the same place in October resulting in serious injury. (Source: Gregory Moss, Sequoia District Ranger and Chris Waldschmidt, SAR Coordinator for Sequoia / Kings Canyon National Parks)
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A most helpful video: How to ice-axe self arrest from the British Mountaineering Council