Ax can stop dangerous slides on snow, ice

Accidents are more likely to occur in summer, when Alaska days are long and warm

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Snow and ice accidents, strangely enough, usually start along about June, when Alaska days are long and warm.

Lured by sun-softened snow, hikers, backpackers, would-be mountaineers and tourists decide to slide down snowfields that sprinkle the surrounding mountains.

At first, all goes well. Then they hit some still-hard snow, sometimes even hidden ice.

In a blink, said Chugach State Park Superintendent Jerry Lewanski, they accelerate from sledding speed to rocket speed.

For those with an ice ax, who know how to use it, this is no big deal. You simply get onto your stomach, get your weight over the shaft, and twist the pick into the snow to stop the slide.

Only a few people, however, carry axes every time they venture onto snow or ice. Many more go unprotected. Lewanski watched some in the snow-filled gully on the southwest face of Flattop Mountain on a recent weekend.

"It's so enticing and seductive to get out on that snow," he said. "Everyone under 30 came down that way."

Luckily, he added, the snow was soft and no one got hurt. But that isn't always the case.

Over the years, Southcentral Alaska has seen a variety of deadly and serious accidents that began with sliding or slipping on snow and then speeding out of control.

Two people died and six were injured in a slide down the North Couloir of Ptarmigan Peak in the Chugach Mountain Front Range in June 1997. A young Anchorage woman was killed in a slide off Byron Peak near Portage in summer 1996. A 28-year-old climbing student slid to his death off Pioneer Peak near Palmer in spring 1987. A 23-year-old woman was left with critical head injuries after a slide down North Suicide Peak went out of control in 1986.

No one keeps track of the less serious injuries, but just in the state park, rangers say they see many and learn of more after the fact.

Anecdotally, I hear about a lot, Lewanski said. I think it happens quite often. They dont get hurt enough to warrant a rescue. They hobble back (to a parking lot), and friends take them to the hospital. Ill hear about it a few days later.

Almost everyone who has spent much time in Alaskas backcountry has a story to tell about being tempted onto the seemingly smooth surface of a snowfield, ending up in an out-of-control slide and suffering some sort of injury. It might be as simple as tumbling into some rocks and getting bruised or as bad as suffering a seriously sprained ankle or broken limb.

It neednt be. A simple $50 to $70 tool called an ice ax or mountaineering ax and some quick lessons in how to use it can ensure safety not only in sliding down snowfields but in crossing them.

The same tool, an ice ax of somewhere from 70 to 90 centimeters, can also serve as handy walking stick, a third leg to help ford streams and rivers, a serious tent peg for snow or soft soils and even, in an emergency, a weapon with which to threaten aggressive bears.

In general, hikers will want an ax about cane length. Ice climbers usually look for something shorter, in the 40- to 60-centimeter range. Hikers, of course, also have the option of getting the shortest, lightest ax they can find and lashing it to a backpack.

Using an ax to arrest a fall is pretty simple. Get your weight over the shaft to hold the ax down and then twist the pick into the snow or ice to create enough resistance to stop the slide.

The book Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, published by a Seattle-based nonprofit known as The Mountaineers, offers detailed instruction. Read this bible of climbing, even if you plan to take a climbing class or have friends show you how to use an ax to self-arrest.

If you read the book and decide to teach yourself, find a snow patch with a safe run-out below in case your efforts fail.

Then practice, practice, practice. You should be able to stop a slide in a fall from any position with the head of the ax in either hand. Devote time to practicing your weak side.

When a potentially dangerous fall happens, you want to be able to self-arrest no matter which hand is holding the head of the ax, and terrain often dictates the hand hold.

When traversing steep slopes, for instance, youll often need to plant the shaft of the ax in the snow on the high side for security. The direction of travel will thus decide whether the head of the ax is controlled by your left or right hand.

Once you master using the ax, youll discover that mountain snowfields can often be considered the down escalators for rapid descents from Alaska peaks. Pull on slippery nylon pants, grab your ax and enjoy a quick ride down.

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