Footwork on snow and ice

Footwork on snow and ice

Moving on snow and ice can be a tricky business. But like any activity, understanding and mastering the key skills will make you proficient, efficient and safe. Allen Fyffe explains how to use your boots as tools to maintain your security.

Kicking steps

When kicking steps, hold your axe in the normal manner, that is with the pick pointing backwards and the thumb under the adze. This way it can be used for both support and balance and is ready for ice axe braking. There are several ways to kick effective steps but the prime requirement is a positive step which is angled into the slope. 


There are several ways to kick effective steps but the prime requirement is a positive step which is angled into the slope

Direct ascent

Steps are kicked directly into the slope by swinging the boot an appropriate number of times to produce a secure step, usually deep enough to take half your foot and angled slightly down into the slope. On the hardest snow, however, a step a few centimetres deep may have to suffice. As the snow hardens, you'll need more effort to produce a positive step; as the snow steepens, you'll need to kick more vigorously because it will be more difficult to swing your foot as freely and still maintain your balance.

It is normal to hold your axe in whichever is your stronger hand and drive it vertically down into the snow for balance and security. Don't move it until you are standing securely in two steps. Climbing soft, deep snow, is a matter of creating steps and distributing your weight as much as possible while pushing your axe, and perhaps your arms too, into the snow.

Diagonal ascent

When kicking steps it is best to zig-zag up the slope. The actual angle of ascent varies, although about 45 degrees to the fall line is convenient for most open slopes. The steeper the slope, the lower the angle of the diagonal. Use the side of your boot to create the steps and keep them horizontal, angled slightly into the slope, nearly as long as your boot and as wide as is required for safety. The kicking action along the slope allows the cleats on the sole of your boots to act in a saw-like manner to form the step. 

Hold your axe in your uphill or inside hand and drive into the snow for balance and security. Only move it into its new position when you are standing in balance on two steps. To change direction there are several options:

In soft snow you can kick a step large enough to accommodate both feet then start a new line from there.

Alternatively, turn into direct ascent, swap the hand holding the axe and begin the next diagonal.
The exact method will depend on the angle of the slope and the hardness of the snow.

Descending steps

Creating steps in descent feels less natural. These are called plunge steps and they are made with the heel of your boots. Stand upright facing down the slope and step forward and down, driving your heel into the snow with a positive, stiff-legged movement, almost a vertical drop on to your heel. Keep your toes in the air and take care not to rock forward out of the step by dropping the front of your boot. If you are going straight down, your axe is held in your stronger hand ready to use for security should it be required (Fig 3).

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