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Snow on the Trail? Steep Slope Below? Author Offers Guidance for Confident Snow Travel

Situation: You are on a day hiker taking an early-season hike. You start low but climb to higher elevations.

Your trail is clear for miles. Yet just shy of the viewpoint where you want to stand, you find a patch of trail—maybe 20 to 40 paces long—is covered by the last of winter’s snow, right where the route crosses an exposed, moderately steep slope.

You, having foreseen nothing but blue skies and songbirds, brought no ice ax. What do you do?

It depends, says Mike Zawaski, author of the Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking and Moving Across Snow, released in December by The Mountaineers Books.


Mike Zawaski pauses on the rim of Mount St. Helens. (Courtesy of Mike Zawaski)

Zawaski has taught mountaineering courses for Outward Bound for 15+ years and once worked with Yosemite Search and Rescue. His book addresses all manner of wilderness travel on snow, from serious mountaineering challenges for climbers to simpler tasks such as hikers sidestepping across snowfields.

When considering the plight of a snow-stymied day hiker, Zawaski says decisions could be influenced a variety of factors:

Are you traveling solo or with other hikers? What’s your experience level? What’s your outdoor skill set? Do you have a trekking pole? Is the snow soft, firm or flat-out icy? What time of day is it? Is sun shining on the snow? Will sun still be shining on the snow if you must cross it again during your return trip?

“Accidents commonly happen where the land changes in some way,” Zawaski said in an interview with The REI Blog. “The snow gets harder or softer, or the angle of the terrain steepens or the run out below the trail becomes much worse. Suddenly you’re in a very different scenario than where you were maybe just seconds before.

“Things were so mellow, but all of a sudden, holy cow, the snow is harder or deeper or changed for the worse somehow.”

Zawaski’s thoughts on navigating snowy hiking situations safely:

Think ahead. “You should be preparing for these transition zones ahead of time,” he said. ”People should keep the phrase ‘Prepare for the worst’ in mind. You don’t want to get part way up this snowy pass and suddenly realize, whoa, this is way worse than I thought.”

Know how to kick steps in snow. Kicking steps is your primary tool for staying secure while moving on snow,” Zawaski said. ”Practicing this skill is essential to increasing your proficiency.”

Unfamiliar with kicking  steps? Find a snowfield on a gentle slope where no threatening runout lies below. (“Runout” is the slide zone below path of travel. If steep and rocky, the potential for injury or worse is high.) “In Snow Travel I tell people to swing from the knee, keeping the sole of your boot level or tilted slightly into the slope to create a stable platform," he said. "It’s different from just trying to stomp your foot into the snow to create a flat space.

The obvious path is not always the safest path. “A common mistake people make is trying to follow the trail,” Zawaski said. “They think, ‘Well, there’s where the trail goes or where people have gone; I’m just going to follow that.’ Don’t get lured into thinking you have to follow the trail.

“You may see steps in snow on the trail, but if lots of people have walked in them and it’s a cold morning, the snow may be compacted and icy. Many times I’ve found if I start kicking my own steps, it’s better than trying to tiptoe across frozen steps that I can’t navigate or kick into very well.

If you have the skill of kicking steps, you’re free to not follow the trail if going straight up looks better than trying to zig across the slope.”


Crossing a snowfield on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington. (Photo: T.D. Wood)

Timing matters. “For hikers who aren’t carrying crampons, it’s better to get yourself to a mountain pass in the afternoon or when things are sunny so the snow  is softer and  kicking steps is easier,” he said. “So it should be easier if you get to an east-facing pass in the morning or a west-facing pass later the later afternoon so the snow has had time to heat up and soften.

Understand gravity (think ahead, part 2). “If you go up the snow, are you also going to have to climb down? Realize that it’s better to climb up snow than down.

“People can use traction devices you slip on the bottoms of your shoes," he said. "They can be helpful, but if you are mountaineering, you need mountaineering equipment.”

Use poles. “If you have ski or trekking poles, you should have those out,” he said. “If I have something to jab into the snow to assist me with my balance or help me stop if I fall, that’s going to be better than nothing or just using my hands.”


Traversing a moderately steep snowfield in Colorado. (Photo: Mike Zawaski)

Or use whatever is handy. “If you see a pass coming up and you’re down in the trees, grab yourself a big, sturdy walking stick ahead of time or a dagger-like rock. Not that you have to create some prehistoric ax out of rocks and sticks. But find a big, burly stick that’s going to work for balancing and jabbing into the snow.

Or, just back away. “But if you’re not that comfortable, you’re better off turning around,” he said. “If you need an ice ax and you’re improvising with a stick you’re putting yourself in a more challenging situation.

“Making the decision to keep going means considering the likelihood of falling and also the consequences of falling.  If the consequences of falling are low, go for it. If the consequences of falling are high, even if the likelihood of falling as low, think twice about continuing on or turn around.”

Mike Zawaski will appear in person April 4 at the REI Denver store at 6:30pm to discuss proper ice ax use, step-kicking tactics and other techniques for safe travel on snow. Zawaski’s free presentation is open to the public.

Posted on at 12:30 PM

Tagged: Hiking, kicking steps, snow travel and snowfields

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wow, so cool.

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