Self-arrest limitations |

Self-arrest limitations

We had reached the summit of Mount Zirkel earlier in the morning and now we were heading down by a new route. Our descent was through a narrow couloir with slope angles approaching 45 degrees. This was not a guided climb, and everyone’s climbing ability was somewhat equal. Kirk was the strongest climber with plenty of past experience using ice axes. We did worry occasionally about his mental capacity. He was my climbing partner, not my accountant.We were walking on a ridge with a slope angle of around 20 degrees. Kirk was in the lead, and as he entered the couloir, the slope angle steepened dramatically. He found the sun had yet to soften the snow. He did not have crampons on and should’ve turned around. Later, Kirk confided he wasn’t thinking clearly, he just wanted to get down. A couple more steps and both feet went out from under him and he started sliding down the couloir.He did a textbook perfect roll to his belly and started applying pressure with his ice ax pick. The pick just bumped along the hard snow which was more ice than snow, doing little to arrest his slide.Kirk went from falling to turning over in a matter of seconds and now he was picking up speed at a dangerous rate. For unknown reasons he decided to flip back over to his butt and then he was gone right down the gut of the couloir. Because of the slope angle we could no longer see him. My first thought was that Kirk was a dead man.We ran to a rocky ledge and peered over the side and saw Kirk shoot out of the couloir 1,500 vertical feet below us. He was still in sitting position. He rode the couloir like a giant slide barely avoiding the rock walls.The rest of us avoided the couloir for our descent. We took a rocky rib we discovered further down the ridge. Even though we were moving fast it still took us 45 minutes to get down to Kirk. He knew how close he had been to death. He had waited for us thinking about how he liked living. On the walk out he talked incessantly and pointed out brilliant colors the rest of us failed to see. It was like he had ingested a large quantity of potent mushrooms. Eight months after I moved here from Steamboat Springs a similar incident occurred on South Maroon Peak on what I call the Grand Couloir – one of the large east-facing couloirs on the Bells. This accident happened with a very experienced climber, a mountain rescue person who lost the grip of his ice ax in soft snow and had no way to arrest his slide.The problem with the Grand Couloir is , it’s not a straight shot. It’s steep and it bends. So if you have an uncontrolled slide high on the couloir you will careen into the rocks with dire consequences. That’s what happened 21 years ago this summer when the climber shot out onto the rocks. He died from his injuries. It’s a dangerous couloir, and similar accidents have happened there since. Alpine climbers need to have the ability to arrest slides on snow with an ice ax. Because of snow conditions, steepness of the slope, or improper techniques the self-arrest may not accomplish what the climber wants. Self-arresting with an ice ax has limitations.On slopes steeper than 45 degrees, in hard snow, or extremely soft snow I start thinking of other ways to protect myself beyond depending solely on my ability with the ice ax. On extremely hard snow putting on crampons might be the answer. On terrain approaching 50 degrees, pulling out the ropes and setting up belays would be prudent. With the exception of low-angle glacier travel, anytime the ropes come out make sure to set protection and have good belays. I will not tie in with someone and depend solely on his ability to self-arrest falls with ice axes. Anytime you are on steep snow and you need the use of ropes make sure you are placing snow protection – either snow stakes, snow flukes, or deadmen. We can look at accidents on Mount Hood and Rainier to know the foolishness of tying in to people who cannot arrest their falls with an ice ax. Ron is a local mountain guide and senior NOLS instructor who recommends lots of self-arrest practice and proper instruction. Keep your tools sharp! He can be reached at

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