If you’re a hiker or mountaineer, you might love glissading. For those of you new to it; glissading is a controlled, sliding descent down a snow slope on the feet or butt, typically using an ice axe to help you control your speed or stop.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a specific slope that’s becoming renowned for killing people, and it’s happening while they glissade. Recently another death has happened in this same spot, and although there are reasons this is happening, there are no good reasons for it.
I decided to write this post because so many people seem to not know how to glissade safely, or blow off safety in the name of having fun. That needs to change.
I’m not just talking about techniques for glissading and self-arrest (how to stop yourself). I’m referring to all the factors that surround a glissade – gear, skills, understanding objective hazards and terrain, situational awareness, judgment, and attitude.
I can’t teach you to glissade and self-arrest on paper, but what can do is offer up important points to keep in mind when you are facing the decision whether or not to glissade a slope.
The draw of the magical
The Enchantments area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is renowned for its singular beauty. Numerous high alpine lakes perched among gorgeous white granite outcrops; burbling streams; and soaring peaks to make any outdoor fanatic drool. Mountain goats abound, and there’s magical feel that makes you believe you’ll see gnomes and dwarves around the next corner. Seriously. It’s no wonder the folks who named the lakes used a Tolkeinesque flare.
Gushing aside, this area draws a LOT of people from all over the world every year. So many in fact, that there is a strict permit system to keep the numbers of tromping boots, shitting hikers, and generally destructive humans in check (LNT, anyone?). The permit lottery sees over 12,000 applications per year, for allowing a few dozen people per day into the area between May 15 and October 31.
Sadly, that doesn’t mean that everyone who goes there understands the risks involved. Plenty of backcountry newbies show up who aren’t properly prepared – not only with the right gear, but with the right skills, knowledge, and judgment. And as more and more people take to the hills, we hear of more accidents, more injuries, and more deaths, most of which could have been prevented by proper skills training, knowledge and judgement.
Sadly this is the case when the masses take to an inherently dangerous activity like mountain travel – and it’s the responsibility of the outdoors community to share our knowledge and wisdom with the newcomers.
Pass of renown
There are two basic ways into the core of The Enchantments – Snow Creek trail and Stuart Lake trail, which leads past Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass.
Aasgard Pass leads 2,000 feet up in a mere quarter mile on the map. If you consider that a 1,000 foot gain in a mile is typically considered a lung-buster, Aasgard reigns in the world of steep trail hikes. It is a beast and you earn the top. Yet people tend to go for it because it gets them into the heart of the Enchantments in a slightly shorter distance and time than Snow Creek trail.
After lolling at the pass, you either hike further into the Enchantments (ooh! gnomes!), or you head back down Aasgard. In summer, it’s a dirty, pebbly, knee-pounding Stairmaster hell descent. Pre-load the ibuprofen (I mean it), bring hiking poles, and grimace on. When there’s snow, you might find anything from crampon-worthy ice, to firm snow, to slushy post-holing. And for part of the year, a 1200-foot snow slope in the middle of the pass, just begging you to slide right down.
And now we’re back to glissading. And hard lessons. And good judgment.
Folks who know the area’s reputation know to stay to the climber’s trail (red line in photo below), which stays to hiker’s left of the tree island on the way up, and hiker’s right of the tree island on the way down, unless it’s very early season and there’s no chance of the snow to the right of the tree island being thin.
Read most any trip report or how-to page on getting up Aasgard, and you’ll see mention of this.
Why? About half-way up the center of the pass is a rock outcropping that has a creek running over it in a waterfall (see red arrow below – click photo for a larger image). By nature of its position and aspect, in springtime the rock melts out earlier than surrounding snow-covered terrain. The waterfall that runs over the rock forms a tunnel back under the snow on the downhill side, creating a deep hole in the snow, with rushing water running into it, that leads into the bowels of the snowfield.
If you were to fall in that hole, you would likely disappear until your body was found in late summer once the snow melts out. This has happened to a number of glissaders over the years, most recently in 2017. The problem is so persistent, there is talk of placing a warning sign at the top of the pass in the middle of the wilderness area.
The most recent glissading death on Aasgard Pass prompted an enlightening interview with Pacific Northwest local Steve Smith, the Climbing Education Manager at The Mountaineers, a long-established climbing club based in Seattle. Back in the late 90’s Steve was unfortunate enough to glissade right into this same hole, and lived to tell about it. His interview is sobering, and it provides great advice for those heading into the high country. There’s also an article about it on The Mountaineers’ website. My photos above are of the summer slope; check out the photos in his article for what it looks like in spring.
The mountains in spring are in a state of warming and snowmelt, and as snowfields thin, the layer over buried creeks (‘snow bridges’) and lakes gets thin enough that at some point, your body weight will break it – and down you go into the drink. Knowing how to gauge and avoid this takes experience in the backcountry.
But the accidents on Aasgard weren’t about breaking a snow bridge over a creek – the glissaders just fell right in because they couldn’t see the hole or hear the rushing water from above because among other key contributing factors, a slight bulge in the slope above the waterfall obscured it completely. But what happened here was preventable.
In his interview, Steve points out some key factors about state of mind, technique and terrain that contributed to his slide into that hole, and his success in getting out of it. I encourage you to head over there and memorize his talking points.
You might think ‘fine then, just avoid this spot and carry on’ – but what Steve points out in his article, and perhaps what the dead climbers would point out if they had the chance, is that the factors that contributed to these accidents are factors that might come into play any time you slide down snow, on any mountain. And they were preventable.
Glissading and self-arrest – points to remember
Glissading is an integral part of mountain travel. It can save time on descents, but we do it mainly because it’s fun.
I taught snow travel, glissading and self-arrest for years with Colorado Outward Bound School. As mentioned above, I can’t teach you that here ‘on paper’. Any way you slice it, you need to go out on the snow and get trained by someone who knows it well. Find a local university outdoor program, climbing club, or guide service to learn from. If you’re lucky, you might have a friend who is a seasoned mountaineer, but remember that doesn’t mean they are a good teacher or will show you all you need to know. Use your best judgment.
Wherever you learn your snow travel skills, remember that it’s more than knowing how to walk, slide and stop on steep snow. Below are some important things to do and remember when you’re in the snowy backcountry.
Helmet: If you have a helmet with you, wear it. As you cruise down the slope, your ice axe can flip up and hit you on the head. Sharp pointy things + head = injury. And if you have to self-arrest, you’re going too fast anyhow, and your helmet should be on. What if your head hits a rock? A patch of ice? You not only get injured, but you become a liability to your adventure partners who have to care for you and get you out of there.
Sunglasses: You will be moving fast, perhaps slightly randomly or even out of control, with an ice axe in hand. Your ice axe provides three sharp pointy places to poke your eye with. Protect your eyes and wear your shades, even if it’s not sunny out.
Gloves: If you’ve ever had to self arrest without gloves (um, maybe I did
once twice…), you’ll know it’s really dumb to glissade (or hike on steep snow) without gloves, no matter the temperature or softness of the snow. Put those gloves on. Or don’t, and self-arrest without them, and then compose your lecture to your friends about how they should always glissade with gloves.
NO crampons: Do NOT wear crampons to glissade! The spikes can easily catch and flip you, causing you to tumble, lose control, and have to arrest when otherwise you wouldn’t have to. Any time you lose control glissading is a chance you might slam into a rock or worse. And sharp pointy things tend to lodge in your calves and shins.
NO yard sales: Any loose gear on the outside of your pack can cause you to snag on something or roll, and can come detached and become a tumbling hazard to you or your partners. Make sure everything you can get inside the pack is in it, and anything attached to the outside is strapped on tight. Snug down the compression straps on the pack as well, so the pack moves with you. Snug down the lid. Wear your hipbelt so the pack doesn’t drag behind you on the snow.
Skills, judgment, attitude, awareness
Know how to self-arrest in every position: Learn how to self-arrest by taking a class. Practice, practice, practice! When you actually need to self-arrest, you’ll be really glad you practiced. Self-arrest doesn’t always happen when you are sliding gleefully down a hill on your butt with your feet in front of you. More typically, you’ve slipped and fallen, your head is below your feet as you slide, or you are tumbling and disoriented, or something wacky like that.
Learn how to get yourself into a strong self-arrest from any position by actual practice on steep slopes (with a safe runout) with someone who knows the ropes. Repetition-repetition-repetition. Having a pack on makes it a whole new experience, so practice with and without.
Assess your surroundings: What are the objective hazards? Know the potential obstacles, runout zone, rocks on top of the snow (OW! Tailbone!), possible creeks or boulders under the snow, cliffs, and other invisibles that could be in your path. Ideally, get visuals on the way up a slope first, but that’s not always an option, so learn to gauge the slope from above. KEY: If you can’t see everything below you, don’t slide the slope (remember the people from Aasgard Pass). Walk it.
And remember, if the party ahead of you slid a slope, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. I hear people talk about seeing glissade paths that end in a hole in the snow. Gotta wonder. I’ve actually been on a slope near the bottom of a glaciated climb, where we saw another party unrope and glissade the last few hundred feet, and when our roped team continued down near their path, we saw they had gone right over a crevasse. Unroped. Again, just because someone else decides to do it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Know the snow: You can build to frighteningly high speeds very quickly when glissading. Understand how snow conditions can affect your speed and trajectory; pay attention to steepness, hardness, and contours. Getting a sense of this takes experience 😉
Go at your own pace: Go at a pace that works for you and feels safe. The point is to have fun, so determine your own speed and style and stick with it. There will always be someone who wants to go faster, and if you make it a competition, you may get in over your head. If you are the speed demon, be a spotter for everyone else once you reach the bottom.
Even if everyone else is sliding, if you are not comfortable with it, plunge-step down. And if you have a friend who doesn’t want to slide but feels pressured to do so, offer to walk it with them if they need company.
A short video of plunge-step technique:
Give plenty of space between people: If you are in a party of people, give some space between people; you may all go at different speeds, and this helps to avoid collisions.
Maintain situational awareness: As shown by Steve in his interview, it pays to keep your attention sharp and maintain situational awareness; many accidents happen in the outdoors because someone got sloppy and inattentive. How recently have you and your partners had food, water, rest? Are you feeling on top of your game before heading into risky terrain? Are you alert enough to even recognize you are heading into risky terrain? Paying attention and staying sharp is really important.
Always err on the side of safety: When in doubt, walk the slope. There will always be more slopes to slide. Remember; when an injury happens, it puts all members of your party at risk.
Take your skills to the next level: Once you are confident in your solid glissade and self-arrest skills, you will be more confident, and ironically, less likely to fall, on steep snow. People who are afraid and have no trust in their ability to stop themselves tend to step more hesitantly on snow, which in fact makes them more likely to slip and fall. This article talks a bit about that. I saw it many a time when I taught for Colorado Outward Bound School.
At the beginning of this post I wrote about how many new backcountry travelers go out without proper training. That’s not to say that experienced backcountry travelers are immune from accidents and making mistakes. We all need to be on top of our game, all the time.
There is more to snow travel than I’ve written about here. I encourage you to learn the ropes completely by taking a course. There are many outdoor programs that offer snow travel skills. Check with your local college, outdoor club or guide service for options. If you don’t live in an area where learning these skills is an option, you might consider traveling to take a skills intensive offered by one of many guide services in areas such as New Hampshire, the Cascades, the Sierra, or the Rockies.