Ascent of Thunderbolt Peak via the Underhill Couloir

24 May 1997 - by Mark Wallace

Thunderbolt Peak was the last fourteener in California to be climbed. The first ascent was made in August 1931 by a team led by noted mountaineer Robert L. M. Underhill. The party included Francis Farquahar, Bestor Robinson, Jules Eichorn, and Glen Dawson. The route they took was up what is now known as the Underhill Couloir. Over the Memorial Day weekend David Underwood and I decided to follow in their footsteps and climb Thunderbolt via the Underhill Couloir. A climbing accident on the descent turned the trip into more than we bargained for.

The trip began innocently enough. On the morning of Saturday, May 24, we hiked from trailhead parking (7,700) up the North Fork trail to Sam Mack Meadow (11,100). The trail was free of snow for almost the entire length. We were well past Third Lake before we encountered anything more than patchy snow. However, the hill leading up to Sam Mack Meadow was snowy. Sam Mack Meadow itself was largely snow-covered, but there was a large snow-free patch in the middle that was bare ground. This was where we pitched our tent.

The next morning, we got a slightly late start (7:15 am). We climbed moderate snow slopes to what appeared to the snow-clad terminal moraine of the Palisade Glacier. We followed the ridge of the moraine to the Glacier itself, and then hiked up the Glacier to the foot of the Underhill Couloir.

There are actually two couloirs, a left and a right. We decided to climb the right couloir, which is the more prominent and obvious of the two. Secor reports a chockstone in the middle of the couloir which is bypassed by climbing the wall to the right, but we didn't encounter it. (Maybe it buried in the snow).

Getting out my slope-meter, I measured the beginning of the couloir at 35 degrees, and the middle at 45 degrees. It got progressively steeper as we moved higher, and I would estimate the steepest portion (close to the top) at 50 degrees. We began with the ice axe in the stake position and, as the slope steepened, began swinging it overhand. David had a north wall hammer in addition to his axe; I did not.

The snow became increasingly soft as the day progressed, and near the top of the couloir it was difficult to gain purchase because of the softness. We perservered, and reached the notch at around 1:00 pm. From the notch there was a spectacular view of a land of endless snowy peaks to the west.

We climbed fourth class slabs to the base of a wall. The wall seemed beyond our ability to climb, so we climbed diagonally to the left, David leading the way and me following, for a full rope length. David estimated that the crux of the pitch was 5.5. From there it was third class climbing to the top of the ridge and then to the base of the infamous summit block of Thunderbolt.

The summit block is 5.9, and was beyond our ability to free climb. David lassoed the summit. We then aid-climbed it with one CMI ascender and a prussik. From the summit there were absolutely magnificent views of the Sierra Nevada, White Mountains and mountain ranges to the east of the White Mountains. The weather was ideal: sunny, very little wind, and absolutely clear.

By then it was around 5:00 pm, and time to get back. We rapped down two rope lengths and downclimbed third class rock to the notch at the top of the Underhill Couloir. By then the Couloir had gone into shade and was quite hard. We rapped down two rope lengths. David then decided he wanted to glissade the rest of the way down the Couloir.

Unfortunately, the Couloir was too steep and hard, and David was unable to slow himself. He careened down the couloir at high speed and came to rest below the base of the Underhill Couloir. The slide/fall was about 400 to 500 vertical feet. Seeing only a limp, motionless body at the bottom, I repeated yelled, "David! David!" at the top of my lungs. There was no response. The body remained what appeared to me to be totally motionless as I descended the couloir by down-climbing. I thought he was either dead or unconscious. David had the rope with him, so I had to descend by facing into the slope and plunging in the ice axe dagger-style. It took a very long time for me to descend to him. I kept yelling "David" at periodic intervals, and there was never a response, nor did the body move.

When I reached him, there was total darkness. To my surprise, he had propped himself up against the snow and said he thought he had broken his femur. He had also dislocated his shoulder and was in terrific pain. He was unable to put any weight on his leg. I made him a shelf in the snow where he could lie during the night, and we used the rope for insulation. I then hiked out to call Inyo County Search and Rescue. David was helicoptered out the next day (after spending a freezing night at 13,000 feet on the glacier).

The good news (not learned by me until later) is that the injury to his leg is an extremely nasty bruise to the hamstring, not a broken femur. His shoulder went back into place during the night.

This is the second mountaineering accident I have personally encountered, and, interestingly, each involved a sitting glissade and the same type of injury. (The other one was in the Himalayas on a descent from Mount Mera).

In email to me, Mark explains:

David ... is a very experienced mountaineer, and passed the tests to be an E-rated leader on both rock and snow with the SPS. He is a better rock climber than me. Frankly, I don't think anyone could have self-arrested on that slope at that time. The conditions were simply too treacherous.

... David had once before climbed the Underhill, and on that occasion he had successfully glissaded it. However, the snow was soft at the time. In my experience, this makes all the difference in the world. Your boots push up snow in front of you, and it slows you down big time.

Mark comments further:

I have been asked some very legitimate questions regarding the accident in the Underhill Couloir, such as what can be learned from the experience and what would be done differently next time.

Starting off, I think the risk/reward ratio for glissading is very bad. If everything goes right, you will (1) have fun, and (2) get down the mountain faster. If everything goes wrong, you will kill yourself. Sometimes it may be critically important to get down the mountain fast, but more often than not the time saved by glissading is just not that important.

Second, although your glissade may have a "safe runout", that doesn't mean your glissade will be safe. Suncups and bumps in the snow can cause wicked injuries. In David's case, there was a "safe runout", meaning that there were no rocks, no crevasses, no yawning bergschrund to worry about. There was a huge flat snowfield runout on the Palisade Glacier. He was injured nonetheless. (I am not sure why or how).

Third, experience on slopes of similar angle or even the very same slope is not dispositive. David had previously successfully glissaded the Underhill Couloir on another occasion. That time, though, the snow was soft, and this time it was hard.

Fourth, not only is the angle of the descent and the hardness or softness of the snow important, but also the porosity of the snow. When I was climbing the Underhill in the morning, I would swing my ice axe overhand, drive the pick in to the hilt, and pull up on the axe only to find that the pick came down to me instead of me going up to the pick. A fully-embedded pick slid through the snow for a couple of feet! The snow was full of air. I found better snow and proceeded upward. On a fast glissade, a fully embedded pick could zipper through the snow and fail to stop the person glissading. This appeared to happen to David.

Fifth, although not relevant in our case, the dangers are compounded if you haven't already been up the slope you intend to go down in your glissade. Suppose that that nice glissadable snow turns into glare ice a couple of hundred feet down, and the glare ice has a thin cover of snow hiding it. You zoom down the slope, feel real confident, and then you hit the ice going real fast. Surpriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiise!

Sixth, you can get out of control real fast on a steep, hard-snow slope. If you wait even one or two seconds too much, you may be S.O.L. On the Underhill on Sunday, the control threshold may have been reached in as little as two or three seconds after pushoff.

Rather than learning anything new, this experience reinforces my belief that "When in doubt, don't glissade." Corollary: figure out in advance how you are going to get down the slope you plan on climbing up. Rappel? Down climb? Make sure you're carrying enough slings, rappel rings, etc. Also, look for safe spots to rig the rappels when you're going up.

Observation: I was able to get down the Underhill Couloir without a rope and without wearing crampons by facing in to the slope, driving the pick of the ice axe in dagger-style, keeping knees and toes on the snow, and then quickly removing the pick and plunging it in six inches or so lower. It probably would have been a whole lot easier if I had my crampons on, but I was too rattled by David's fall to think of that. Also, there weren't a lot of good places to sit and strap them on.

Tony Cruz comments:

One other tip about glissading, which hopefully everybody knows: don't do it with your crampons on. Last year a lady broke her ankle doing this on Orizaba.

Also, if you have a hard fall with your crampons on, bend your knees so your crampons don't catch and flip you out of control.

Owen Maloy adds:

This is either unconsolidated snow or sugar (rotten) snow. We in fact had new snow last Friday May 23. Either condition poses an avalanche hazard. A layer of this kind of snow over hardpack (the ski area euphemism is "firm") can just go and take you with it. If there is not very much loose snow you may not be buried but you can go for a ride.

Advice given in a recent SMS avalanche seminar by Sierra guide John Moynier to Barb Cohen (recent SPS chair) with regard to descending the couloir on Mills: rope up, and keep the rope going in a Z pattern. If the snow is safe, then maybe you can relax. Reason: if a new layer slides, you go over the chockstone airborne. If you have crampons on, they will load up on the new snow and not bite into the under layer.

This would have been safer if Mike and Dave had been on the mountain earlier. Local guides recommend being off the steep snow by noon in the spring. After that the slush gets too deep, provides no purchase, and can slide.

Rich Calliger notes:

What about the time-tested maxim, "Avoid steep soft snowy slopes"? Obviously not the methodology/advice people want to hear; BUT was it applicable here on Underhill?

THE question to answer I think. Accidents usually start by a small first decision and then adding in a series of just as small decisions until they add up to an injury-accident or worse. Was this the first decision (to climb it?) that started the chain of decisions (ie, not to turn back when exact conditions were discovered to not allow a self-arrest) and so-on?

Was it very close to being unsafe snow to even have wisely attempted it? THAT may have been the original problem seeking the "correct" solution - don't climb it. Yes? NO? In retrospect Mark what do you think?

THEN, the glissade issue would never have arisen. But - I do tend to be more cautious, if not over cautious, as I solo a lot; but the question still needs to be asked and answered by all who face similar snow.

David Underwood gives a first person account:

I noticed that several people had read Mark Wallace's posting and had commented about my slide down the Underhill Colour on May 25, 1997. Surprisingly none of them contacted me to see if I could elucidate as to the events that occurred.

We were descending the coluour and the snow seemed firm in the lower third of the chute. I had glissaded this potion before and knew that there was a good runout. I told Mark that I was going to test the conditions and stepped into the center of the chute. I sat down and as soon as I started to slide I turned over to brake but the ax went through the snow and would not grab. I had just spent two weekends doing ice ax practice and checkout and I think that my technique was right but there did not seem to be any stopping. I made several more attempts at braking but kept picking up speed anyway. Eventually I tumbled and was unable to continue any kind of controlled slide. Just before I stopped I felt something snap in my left upper leg. At the time I was sure that it was broken and the pain was quit intense. I also had a dislocated shoulder. This is from an old skiing accident and the shoulder goes out easily so I was not surprised. The problem was that I could not get into a good sitting position to try and get it back into place. I finally got my gear off and was trying to make myself comfortable when Mark finally reached me. I did not hear him calling until he was within about 50 yards or so. I had him help me to put my down vest on under my anorak and to cut a platform for me to rest on. We put the rope on it to help insulate me from the snow. I also tried to get him to splint my leg using the ice ax and some sling but he was unable to make it rigid enough to be effective. I had to remove it as it was tangled up with the rope. I sat on the ledge and used my pack to lean on during the night. I was able to move my leg and reposition it and began to suspect that it was not broken. By morning I was able to stand on it but could not walk. It actually helped the leg sitting on the snow as it kept it from further inflammation. I had to give Mark my headlamp as he had left his in camp. As I watched him descend the glacier he went too far to the left, I tried to call to him but he could not hear me. He said later that he had a hard time finding Sam Mack Meadow. I was taken to Northern Inyo Hospital where x-rays showed no breaks, Mark had taken my truck and gone to get a motel. I learned later that he had gone to Lone Pine as the Search and Rescue team and told him that I would be stabilized and flown home. He called the hospital that night and told them that he would not be back that night. The hospital released me as I was ambulatory and found a motel room across the street for me. All my street clothes, wallet, money, credit cards etc. Were in the truck, I called my wife and she was able to put the room on a credit card. The next morning I located the motel where Mark was staying but they said that he had left early. I waited for him to show up but it seemed to be taking a long time. I finally had my wife call his house and she located him at home, he had left Lone Pine early in order to get to work that day. My wife had to go by his house to get my things from the truck and drove to Bishop to get me. Since she had already been driving about seven hours that day we stayed another night in Bishop rather than spend another five hours driving home that night.

One of the Search and Rescue team members had gone back to Sam Mack Meadows and got my pack on Tuesday, so on Wednesday I was able to meet Pat Ellison from the Search and Rescue team and get my pack. The team is supported by donations and they do a great job. I intend to send them a yearly donation and hope that others might think about their sections sending donations to them also.

David Underwood <"david@kay"> comments:

Berton Callicoatt wrote:

> Anyone make it up to the Palisade Glaciers this past weekend?  How
> about some  trip reports on your climbs!  What were the conditions?

Mark Wallace and I climbed Thunderbolt on Sunday. The glacier was clean. we had good snow from Sam Mack Meadows to the top of the Underhill Couloir. It took two axes and some step chopping to make the top. Coming down the Couloir the snow had hardened as it is in the shade most of the afternoon. We rapped about two thirds of the way down, I stepped out onto the snow in the center of the chute which seemed firm and took off. I tried to arrest but the pick would not hold. I went about 500'. I had some control for about 100' but after that it was an E ticket to below the bergshrund. I felt something snap in my left femur area and my shoulder was dislocated. When Mark reached me which took about 45 mins. I had got my pack off and was just trying to get comfortable. He dug a platform for me and put the rope out for me to sit on, helped me get my down vest on under my anorak and went for help. This was about 9:00 P.M. on Sunday. I sat shivering for most of the night. Just before dawn I managed to get my shoulder to go back in place. I could move my leg but it was extremely painful. The chopper finally showed up about 2:00 P.M. Monday. The pilot was looking on South fork, they finally put one of the Inyo Search and Rescue members in the chopper. I was able to signal them with the mirror on my compass. I finally saw someone on the moraine about 1000' below. I yelled and they said help was coming. They came up with a litter and lowered me down to the chopper. I can not express what a great job they did getting me out of there. X-rays at the hospital in bishop showed no broken bones and they released me that night. I have a leg that is black from the butt down and can not sit real comfortable but I can hobble around. My shoulder will regain its strength in a few weeks, it has been dislocated before. It was a cold night but I had regular thermals pile pants, glacier pants, light and heavy upper thermals, a down vest, anorak, food, water, balaclava, O.R. gaiters, O.R. mitts and liners. Just lucky I guess. (Lukasz Salwinski) writes:

We've seen you going up the couloir on Sunday.

Sunday night (3-4am) a friend of mine passed you within a few hundred yards while going up to solo North Pal through U-notch. He made it down at about the time you were picked up by the chopper. For a while he got scared the chopper came to pick _him_ up - he was behind the schedule by 4-5 hours and thought that we were creative enough to call for the chopper. Monday morning (10-11am) a couple of guys were on the top of the moraine just where the chopper was dropping rescue party later in the day. They were wondering for a while if a black spot they see under the couloir was something else than a rock ... What time and which way did he go down ? monday morning (~9AM) we noticed someone passing by our tents hitched at the top of the gulch leading from 3rd lake, just below the top of the moraine. good to know you're more or less ok.

Tadeusz SLUPSKI writes:

I am Polish, and I suspect that you are the climber who explained me so kindly the approach to the North Palisade Summit last Saturday in the Glacier Lodge. On Monday I climbed the peak, starting at 3 A.M., being on the top at 2.00 in the noon,and observed the action of the rescue helicopter from the top. When I reached the bergschrund beneath the U-Notch again in the afternoon - the helicopter left finally to the valley, but my friends, Lukasz and Rafal described to me what had happened. Badly to think that I passed in the night only several hundred meters from the place, where you were lying, knowing nothing about that. I compass with you over this accident and feel happy that finally your bones occured to be in order, because Lukasz informed me that your thigh could be broken. We feeled very uncomfortable, that your friend had not informed us in the camp (we camped just behind the moraine on the descent from Palisade Glacier to the 3rd Lake ), because we could help you a bit in that night - Rafal and her wife are medical doctors, we had sleeping bags etc. In our tradition the rule is that rescue is more important than any other individual plans. If you have troubles with the repeated dislocation of an arm - I am an self-taught expert , as I am fighting all my life with this injury, my right arm is for twenty years O.K. after implant of a bone, but this injury happens from time to time to my left arm, which was not operated. The dislocation occured also during climbing, in such places as North Face of Piz Badil in Swiss Alps - and I could manage with it., and continued to the top, which was easier than rappell. The injury is terribly painful because the bone can press the nerve - and it is important to pull slightly the arm all the time in the direction of the elbow. I used often a rope sling fixed on the piton (or on the ice-axe), tying the sling around the elbow (the injured hand ought to be bent in elbow and kept near the chest ) and pulling the sling by the weight of my body only. The pain diminished and after 10 - 20 minutes the bone returned itself to the joint. Other methods of setting the dislocation ( rotations etc.) are dangerous and doctors advice not to try without anatomical experience. Hope to meet you some day again on the rock and ice.

Tadeusz SLUPSKI continues:

I climbed North Pal via U-Notch on Memorial Monday. This was my first ice-climbing in Sierra Nevada , so I cannot compare the ice-conditions with any average conditions in that mountains. The Palisades Glacier was perfect, especially in the night in the moonlight, as I started from the moraine at 3 A.M. (I camped below the moraine at the couloir leading from the 3rd lake to the Palisades Glacier, next to the Temple Crag, which seems to be a better approach then Sam Mack Meadow. The cross of the stream is in the place, where it outlets the 3rd lake).

The glacier was completely crevasse-less, and the bergschrund of U-Notch couloir was covered by two strong ice-bridges completely safe, but I cannot promise that they will not melt in June. I observed no avalanche or rockfalls' signs in the couloir. Snow was perfect, crampons useful but not necessary, one ice-axe and no screws. I decided to climb the final pitch of the couloir straight up (about one pitch), which was very pleasant, but naturally I use two ice-axes , and I found myself on the wrong U. I have not known that U-Notch is in fact the W-Notch, and there is a gendarme between the left U and the right U. However the traverse to the proper right U was easy. (In the afternoon, descending fron right U I omitted the ice-fall on the left, heading downstream, along the easy rib, which starts from the gendarme and is covered by snow and talus.) The chimney variant seemed to be too difficult for solo-ing so I choose Clyde's variant. Descent to the south gully starts from the right U, and I suppose that is shorter then 120 feet, described by Secor or Roper. Anyway it is easily marked by a bunch of slings just above the "body-wedge crack", on the lower ledge. I used self-assecuration 15 m between lower ledge and upper ledge, and 10 meters from the upper ledge up, just behind the left arete. At the beginning of the chute there was some ice, further on - the ice disappeared and the rock became pleasantly warm in the sunshine. I reached the rappell slings on the ridge just above the chimney variant, but rapelled the opposite side of the main ridge, landing in the middle of snowy field, which cross the entire north face of North Pal. That variant is not described in any guide-book but I found it quite useful. The snow was perfect on the field - like in the U-couloir, but the day was very hot, and in the afternoon during return I had to clean my crampons very often, because snow glued to them. I used only one ice- axe but two axes would work better. Snow was not deeper than 5 cm. I reached the crest behind the first bigger gengarme, and left the crampons. The summit blocks offer very interesting bouldering, but rather tiring on that altitude - especially the last meter before the summit platform. On the platform I was surprised to find many small puddles with drinking water, and when I dried all of them it was very fast to melt new supply, as the sun was in zenith exactly in the noon. The descent was as fine as the ascent, but naturally I rappeled along the chimney variant onto U - Notch. I am not sure about it, but I think I reached Palisade Glacier about 4.P.M,. or little bit later. p.s. During all the descent the rescue helicopter passed around, but the accident of David Underwood on Thunderbolt is described in previous newsletters.

David Underwood writes:

> : Well if you read my latest adventure on the Underhill colour you
> : might  not think so.  I got on top of the axe immediately but it did not
> : seem to do much good.  Slowed me down for awhile but I sure took a ride .

maohai huang wrote:

> Was it an ice tool ( short shaft and maybe with aggressive pick ) or a > normal ice ax? Was the snow too soft and deep or was it hard for the > pick to bite into? Did you had your weight on the ax or you just tried > to sink it with your arms?

It was my regular ice ax, a Laprade with a slight positive bit. I got on top of it and it broke through the surface but the top was icy. I slowed down a bit and then lost the bite and started to go again, I managed to get one more bite but then tumbled and after that just kept hoping that the damned thing didn't beat me to death. I think I reeled it in one more time but was moving too fast to do any good after that. Fortunately I had a long runout. I started about 200' or so from the bottom of the coulour, the bottom being at 13200' and when I looked at my altimeter the next morning I was at 12860. What hurt me was the irregularities caused by the flow from the couloir where it crosses the bergshrund. I was also carrying a north wall hammer, I used it to help climb the upper third of the chute. Anyway I will lead it as a Sierra Peaks trip next Memorial Day. Call it the Underwood memorial slide trip.

Phoebe Couch remarks:

I do this while downhill skiing and it should work for glissading as well. When you lose control and are sliding (and have to climb up a steep slope 500 feet to retrieve your skis), the best thing is to relax and spread yourself out to increase your surface area, while trying to get your feet down and drive the boot edges in as well as your arms on each side. If the snow is not bullet-proof, you will make a small hill in front of you under your arms and between your legs and will slow down. When you are relaxed, you conform better to the slope and are less likely to break something.

Steve Shields orates:

There has been a lot of great feedback on glissading over the past few weeks. Why don't we start heeding the advice?

Never glissade with crampons on. Never glissade down a slope in dangerous conditions (i.e. icy patches or unconsolidated snow), especially if you did not go up that way.

I pulled a climber off Orizaba who snapped her tibia AND fibula within 10 feet of starting her glissade with crampons on! (Right Tony) I know many of you have similar stories and have posted them. There is a difference between objective dangers and self induced pain. Once realized, you have a choice.

Steve Eckert comments:

Glissades should always be done at slow speed, and you should constantly and intentionally vary the speed just to make sure you have control. If you can't stop in 20 feet, you are out of control. I watched a guy glissade right into a bergschrund one time. Bummer. I've also seen people bounce out onto talus at the end of a snow chute (one of them breaking several bones - but he was doing it without an ice axe).

Good idea: Set some pro and wear a harness, then try glissading on very steep slopes (35-40 degrees). Build up some speed and see how fast you can brake without spinning out of control (usually the spike of the axe pivots you around when you try to brake hard - it takes practice). Do this on belay, on hard snow, over and over. Soft snow (where we usually practice) is nothing like the real stuff where your life is at risk. In soft snow you can stop without the axe (probably faster than with it). In the real world, the places I find most dangerous are patches of ice or hard snow in an otherwise soft chute.

Extra credit: Rope up, and have someone try to drag you downhill while you stop them from glissade position instead of from self arrest. I have (on several occasions) "rescued" people by tying them to myself and controlling both of our descents via glissade braking (with the other person "dead weight" and not trying to brake at all). It takes practice, but it can work and it's much faster than a boot-axe belay if you know your limits well.

Never brake with the pick, or you risk having it lodge behind a rock or ice clod and either (a) rip your arms out of their sockets or (b) rip your axe out of your hands. Neither is fun. Keep the pick turned away from your thigh and face while braking - improper grip is the most common mistake, and ripped pants or skin are the most common result!

> although your glissade may have a "safe runout", that doesn't
> mean your glissade will be safe.  Suncups and bumps in the snow can
> cause wicked injuries.  In David's case, there was a "safe runout",
> meaning that there were no rocks, no crevasses, no yawning
> bergschrund to worry about.  There was a huge flat snowfield runout on
> the Palisade Glacier.  He was injured nonetheless.  (I am not sure why or
> how).

Most likely due to tumbling. In fact a separate email from Dave confirms that. The bumps you talk about are almost always the problem. Speed kills.

> On a fast glissade, a fully embedded pick could zipper 
> through the snow and fail to stop the person glissading.  

Those who have climbed with me have heard that refrain before. Those who have not should listen to what Mark says. Most of the snow we find in the Sierra is unsuitable for a standard ice axe arrest. If you can pull the pick thru the snow, it will not stop you. When you twist out of glissade into self arrest, you will be stopping with your feet and elbows, not your axe (most of the time). Anyone who cares to debate that is welcome to join me on some climbs and we'll do some arrests with and without axes. Don't tell me, show me. I'm always happy to learn or teach.

On a recent SPS trip I had just finished belaying a couple of people down what I considered a moderate slope, and I followed them unroped. I was testing some new overboots, and was not used to their bulk, so I carelessly tripped: it took about 20-30 feet to stop without an axe on a slope that some had wanted a belay on (and if you want a belay, you get a belay). I just rotated into glissade position (from a head-first face-down slide) and dug my heels in. You have to do it quickly, however, before you pick up speed. Soft snow, even at high angle, is not appropriate for a standard ice axe arrest. Only practice and testing will allow you to decide which techique is the best for the given conditions. One size does not fit all.

If your feet stick while arresting, you flip over backwards. That's why it's so important to be able to hold a slow glissade - my experience suggests that with practice you can glissade slopes on which you cannot arrest (like the summit of Bolton Brown last year, which was over 35 degrees and knee deep corn snow). I turn falls into short glissades instead of arrests because the spike of the axe will go deeper and has a larger cross section than the pick (therefore it brakes better in the snow Mark describes).

If a regular arrest fails, use the spike like a canoe paddle - that would have saved Dave had he initiated the move soon enough (before he picked up speed) and aggressively enough to break the surface crust. It has saved me several times. Of course I also use a modified wrist loop that attaches to both the top and bottom of the shaft, allowing me to keep the spike in the "canoe paddle" position even if my hand comes off the shaft (it's like a skinny fluke in operation) and allows me to lock my hand at any point along the shaft (further up for softer snow).

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