“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.”
- Doug Larsen (1902-1981)
Hiking in snowbound terrain requires planning, the right equipment and an ability to distinguish variations in conditions. It also calls for a specific skill set, which can be acquired via basic mountaineering courses or multiple excursions into the snow with experienced friends.
Snow conditions can vary dramatically depending on factors such as time of day, temperature and season. Before setting out for a hike in snowbound terrain, do your research in regards to weather forecasts, maps and obtain as much up-to-date local information as possible.
Planning is one thing, but the fact is Mother Nature can be unpredictable. Begin with a plan but be flexible enough to adapt to whatever situation presents itself.
Hiking on snow can be slow going. Your daily mileage will go down. Your feet may be soaked. Occasionally you will posthole (ie. the process by which a hiker sinks lower than shin depth whilst walking on soft snow) up to your waist. All wonderful fun! Look at it as a challenge; an opportunity to experience one of nature’s many magical realms from the inside out.
- Whenever possible, avoid routes which take you above cliffs or bluffs.
- When crossing snowfields in the spring avoid going too close to rocks, where the snow will be softer due to warmer temperatures heating the rocks.
- If hiking in an area where you will be traversing steep slopes (see below) carry an ice axe. Hiking poles may also assist with balance and minimize the chances of slipping.
- When ascending a snow slope keep your steps short, decrease the gradient by zig-zagging and if the snow is soft enough, kick steps with the toes of your shoes.
- If the snow is too hard for kicking steps and you are not wearing traction devices such as crampons, instep crampons or microspikes, the alternatives are to either to bide your time or cut steps with the adze of your ice axe.
- When descending a snow slope, assuming that the snow is not frozen solid, the ideal method is the plunge step. Landing heel first, let the weight of your body drive your foot into the snow. Keep your knees slightly bent to maximise balance and avoid hyperextension.
TIMING YOUR DAY
- Make life easier by trying to “time your days” in regards to ascending and descending snowbound passes. Avoid going over passes too early when the snow may be frozen (ie. very slippery and difficult to gain footholds). At the same time, you don’t want to leave your run too late, as by early/mid afternoon the sun will have softened the snow to the point that you may well spend the rest of your afternoon postholing down the other side.
When hiking in snowbound, mountainous terrain hikers need to be aware of the dangers posed by avalanches. Three main points to consider:
- EDUCATION: Before embarking on a trip, educate yourself in regards to the different types of avalanches, warning signs, necessary precautions and what to do in the event of a worst-case scenario.
- UP-TO-DATE INFORMATION: Before setting out, check the latest weather forecast and consult with local authorities as to the current snow conditions and potentially hazardous areas.
- RECOGNITION: Theory is all well and good, but unless you can translate what you have learned out in the field, all your acquired knowledge will be for nothing. Keep your wits about you at all times and be cognizant of any changes in your surroundings.
Any snow slope, no matter what its gradient, has the potential to slide. The steeper the angle, the greater the probability. Avalanches most commonly occur on slopes ranging from 30 to 45 degrees. For a general overview of avalanche basics, click on the following link from Princeton University’s excellent Outdoor Action website.
When hiking in snow-packed, mountainous terrain you need to have an ice axe.
- SELF-ARREST: For hikers, an ice axe’s principal purpose is to arrest slips or falls when traversing steep, snowbound areas.
- PRACTICE: Taking a course on basic ice axe skills represents a good investment in your own safety and peace of mind. Failing this, check the internet for step-by-step instructions or ask for a lesson from friends with experience in self-arresting. Once you have the theory down, practice your self-arrest technique on progressively steeper snow slopes. This is not a skill you want to be learning whilst tip toeing across an icy 40 degree slope!
- POINTS TO REMEMBER: 1. An ice axe is just a pack decoration unless you have it in your hand when you actually need it; 2. Knowing how to self-arrest does not replace good judgement and footwork as your primary tools for safely traversing steep snow slopes.
- VIDEO: See the following instructional video from the British Mountaineering Council: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM3xLshmNnk
Glissading is going down a snow slope on your bum or feet. It is fun, fast and can potentially be hazardous to your health.
- Scan the slope. Check for protruding rocks. Assess the runout. If the runout is not obvious and safe, glissading is not a good idea.
- Visualise your route of descent.
- Descend with control. Dig your heels in (no microspikes or crampons!). Use your ice axe to control speed.
- A standing glissade is basically like skiing without the skis. Use the edges of your shoes to carve turns and/or control speed. If your balance is not good, better go with the sitting option.
Sources of Information
There is no substitute for practical experience, however, the following sources provide a good overview of the theoretical knowledge one needs in order to hike safely in snowbound terrain.
- Books: Two books immediately come to mind. The first is the authoritative, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Although written for climbers and mountaineers, this book/encyclopedia pretty much covers all the information hikers need to know for excursions into snow country (eg. avalanche evaluation, techniques for efficient snow travel, glissading and self-arrest). The second book is Buck Tilton’s, NOLS Winter Camping (2005). Aimed more specifically towards backpackers, this books provides practical advice on clothing, safety, planning, travel and setting up camp.
- Online: For online information, try Princeton University’s Outdoor Action website.