January 9, 2009
The Ski Pole Belay
Over the years I've learned a few tricks and tips that can make life a little easier in the backcountry. I've been doing some of these so long they seem obvious to me, but they may be a secret to you, so I thought I'd share a few. Here's one I call the "Ski Pole Belay". No, it's not an attempt to arrest a fall with your ski pole, but rather a way to belay yourself in dicey situations by jamming your ski pole into the snow and stepping on it.
Here's the typical setup: you're skinning up hardpack or crust without ski crampons, and the angle is steadily climbing. Suddenly, you realize that your skins/edges are about to break loose and send you whooshing down the hill in one of those unforgettable "death slide" moments. What do you do?
Try the Ski Pole Belay. First, plant your pole slightly downhill of your downhill ski, but angle the pole outward, as if you're trying to get it perpendicular to the angle of the snow. Next, step/slide your downhill ski slightly downward, and actually step directly on the basket of your ski pole, pinning the pole into the snow.
If all goes well, you've just created a stable platform to stand on, which will either allow you to get out of your skis and backtrack to safer ground, or even advance ahead by repeating the motion until the angle or snow eases enough to let you skin again.
The Ski Pole Belay is not only useful on ascent. Sometimes while skiing, you'll encounter the going-down version of the same problem: harder, steeper snow than you expected, which suddenly becomes a threat. Use the Ski Pole Belay to sidestep/down climb to a safer position, as I did when bypassing an ice bulge in North Peak's North Couloir.
Okay, now let's get to the fine print: a lot can go wrong with this technique, with potentially catastrophic consequences. It should be obvious that you're not going to want to do this with any frequency when using carbon fiber ski poles, or cheap/damaged aluminum poles. I ski with series-4 aluminum shafts in the backcountry. Even with these, your ski edges are still harder than your poles, and capable of punching through them.
If you have never done this before, you might not realize that by locking your downhill ski in place, you are risking a nasty over-the-falls type fall if you happen to lose your balance and get your center of gravity too far over (downhill of) your skis. Practice this technique on safe ground first to get a sense of how it works, and always keep your weight toward the hill, rather than out, as we skiers normally do.
Finally, the Ski Pole Belay can and will fail if the snow isn't hard enough. Your ski tip will pop right out, and you're a goner. For all these reasons, the Ski Pole Belay is best used as a stop-gap measure to get you out of a fix, rather than as a means to put yourself into dangerous situations.