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DELETE AFTER PUBLISH - Glissading: Author Shares Tips for Safe Sliding

Glissade: to slide in a standing or seated position down a snow-covered slope without the aid of skis or a snowboard.

Who does it? Anyone descending a snow-covered slope who wants to save time and have a little fun at the same time.

Mike Zawaski, author of Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking and Moving Across Snow (published in December by The Mountaineers Books), discussed the technique with The REI Blog.

Bonus: If you live near Denver, you can hear Zawaski discuss snow travel skills of all kinds in a free presentation at REI Denver on Thursday, April 4, at 6:30 p.m.


Descending climbers hop into a glissade chute. (Photo by T.D. Wood)

The REI Blog: Is there an ideal slope angle for glissading?

Zawaski: I can’t think of a particular angle. It really depends on the firmness of snow. The harder the snow, the lower the angle you’re going to want to slide on.

On a low-angle slope it’s hard to get going. But if you’re on a steeper slope with firm snow, it’s amazing how fast you can get out of control. And if you drop your ice ax, you’re in serious trouble.

REI: So each slope requires some individual evaluation.

Zawaski: Glissading is a tricky thing. If the angle is too low, you can’t do anything. You have to walk down the slope, and you wish you were flying. But if you try on a slope that’s too steep, things can become really treacherous.

You want something in between. You want something soft enough with a low-enough angle where you won’t fly out of control.


Glissading on Mount St. Helens; Mount Adams in the distance. (Photo by T.D. Wood)

REI: Give us your top 3 pointers for glissading newbies.

Zawaski: OK, here's 3:

1. Don’t try it if you’re tired.

2. Start slowly and practice self-arresting if you're unsure of yourself or need a reminder of how to do it.

3. Remove your crampons.

REI: What’s the risk of glissading when you’re tired?

Zawaski: Glissading is a way to save energy, but it isn’t always a good idea. If you’re exhausted and on a steep slope, it can be hard work to control your speed, digging your heels in and pushing on your ice ax. If you’re really tired, it’s probably better just to keep walking unless it’s an easy slope.

REI: Newbies think crampons can help them better control their speed when glissading.

Zawaski: That’s a bad idea. If you’re sliding on your butt and you’re going fast, all of a sudden one of your spikes catch. Your foot is going to stop and your body is going to keep going. You’re going to twist your ankle or potentially break something much faster than you can react to prevent it.

REI: What’s your preference? Glissading on your back side or on your feet?

Zawaski: If I’m going to glissade, 90% of the time I boot glissade. I don’t like wearing holes in my pants. Although when the snow gets soft, I’ll certainly sit on my butt and glissade down.

REI: How does a person master boot glissading? (Note: That's Zawaski perfiorming a boot glissade in the photo to the right.)

Zawaski: Like lots of things, you try things in places where you’ve got safe, favorable conditions. You need sacrifice a little bit of time to work on those skills.

If you’re just learning, the probability of falling is pretty high. So it’s better to practice in a place where the consequences are low.

I’m going to practice my boot skiing at a low-angle spot low on a slope, somewhere where the runout is good and there’s nothing in front of me.

REI: What’s the right position for boot glissading.

Zawaski: Like all those metaphors in life, balance is essential. You want to be a little bit on the  back of your feet, but  if you lean too far back you’ll fall. Lean too far forward and you fall on your face.

The more common scenario is people really don’t commit and they lean back too much. They’re thinking, ‘If I fall, I have this safety net.’ That makes it too easy to fall. You’ve got to commit to the slope.

REI: How do you position your feet?

Zawaski: If it’s a hard slope and I’m worried, I’m going to start in a more snowboardy position and ski sideways a bit. If I’m a little more comfortable, I’m going to get into more of a telemark position where my feet are facing downhill, but they’re staggered a little bit, with one foot ahead of the other.

Then if I’m the most comfortable, I’m in more of an alpine skiing mode where my feet are right next to each other, pointing downhill. I’ll kind of make some turns on the edges of my boots if I’m feeling in control.


Glissading on a modest slope without an ice ax. (Photo by T.D. Wood)

REI: More people probably sit when glissading. What’s the best way to control speed: Use your feet or your ice ax?

Zawaski: I don’t know if I can answer that question. If I were to break it down into percentages on which is doing more work to slow you down, I’d say your ice ax is doing the most, especially on firmer snow. When the snow gets really soft you’re usually just using your heels, but an ice ax is still your central component. Having an ice allows you to really dig that spike in and slow yourself down.

REI: Once I sat down in a glissade channel and after sliding 30 or 40 feet I reached a steeper pitch and really picked up speed. I hit a few dips, caught some air and flew out of the channel, tumbling a number of times. It was a real NASCAR moment. I was grateful I had an ice ax to slow my momentum.

Zawaski: I can remember a significant self-arrest experience: I was glissading down some 14er (in Colorado), sitting on my butt in the soft afternoon snow, and it seemed like some snow was sliding next to me. I wondered, ‘Oh, is there a little avalanche or something happening?’

So I looked back, and I don’t know what happened—maybe my feet hit something—but all of a sudden I’m rolling head over heels. My glasses were full of snow, so I couldn’t see.

All of a sudden I stopped and I was in a self-arrest position.  I attribute that to getting out and having done enough sessions where I had practiced self-arrest. In this situation there was a certain amount of muscle memory that helped me.

REI: So people are wise to learn how to stop before they start sliding down slopes.

Zawaski: At some point people just have to commit some time. If you want to know how to self-arrest, you have to practice that skill. That gets in the way of your climbing objective. If you’re halfway up a peak you don’t always think, ‘Well, let me slide down here and lose a hundred feet of elevation to practice self-arresting.’ People have to commit some time to practicing self-arresting.

REI: Smart advice. Thanks, Mike.

Reminder: Author Mike Zawaski will discuss snow travel skills of all types and sign books in a free presentation at the REI Denver store on Thursday, April 4, at 6:30pm.

Posted on at 5:25 PM

Tagged: glissading and snow travel

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