Learning to Prefer Holding a Pointy Metal Ice Axe While Falling

By Annie Cantrell


It was a sunny afternoon as I was hiking up a steep slope with my fellow JIRPers when I saw field safety staff member Adam Toolanen slip and fall down the hill. I remember thinking that it was strange how relaxed and calm he was. It wasn't until he used his ice axe to stop himself that I realized he was demonstrating self arrest technique. It looked easy and natural to him, but when I reached the top of the hill, it seemed ridiculous to slide off on purpose.  (In fact, when hiking up the slope I was worried about falling unintentionally – a funny thought when our entire purpose for being there was to throw ourselves down that slope!)

Students practicing their self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak.  Photo:  Mira Dutschke

Ice axes look like weapons: at one end of the shaft they have a metal spike, and at the other they have a head consisting of a serrated metal pick and a shorter blade called an adze. Despite their threatening appearance, they can save your life if used properly. To arrest a fall on snow, you fight to get onto your stomach with your feet downhill of your head – which is not always how you start out. You maneuver your axe so that it lies diagonally across your torso, with one hand on the shaft near the spike and the other gripping the head. You then drive the pick into the snow near your shoulder and lever the shaft against your chest with your full body weight, while simultaneously kicking your feet into the snow. This is a lot to put together in the few seconds you have to stop your fall, so repeated slides down the hill were necessary.

Mira Dutschke, Justyna Dudek, Molly Blakowski and Annie Boucher practicing their self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak.  Photo:  Jeff Barbee

We started off slowly on a gradual part of the hill, practicing the correct position. At first, this portion seemed steep enough, and had me questioning my abilities. Adrenaline was coursing through me as we started by practicing sliding down on our butts. Matt, a staff member, had said that he was confident we could stop ourselves, but also assured us that there was nothing to harm us even if we did fall all the way down the hill (aside from a long walk back up). I was surprised when I was able to stop myself. This wasn’t so hard after all.

Even though I successfully managed to self arrest going down quickly on both my butt and belly, I still found it difficult to trust an ice axe over my own body. Prior to this moment, every fall I’ve taken in my 21 years of life has been arrested using only my body, and now I have to control, use, and trust a threatening piece of metal while flying downhill. When we began to slide head first on our backs, trusting my ice axe became a problem.

Justyna Dudek, Molly Blakowski, Mira Dutschke, Annie Boucher and another practicing their self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak.  Photo:  Jeff Barbee

This time I couldn’t see what was going on around me, and I was going much faster than I had in the other positions. I did a variety of things wrong, all of which happened really quickly. Apparently I kicked my legs uphill, afraid to let myself swing down. I was flailing wildly and only managed to stop myself halfway down the hill. Another time, I almost ended up at the bottom of the hill, after trying to stand up before I had slowed down sufficiently.

Annie Boucher and Mira Dutschke practicing self arrest on the side of Cairn Peak with Lake Linda far below.  Photo:  Jeff Barbee

After a few scary moments, I figured out how to stop myself quickly and reliably. This proved to me that in moments of real panic and danger, I could stop myself from falling. In fact, one of my teammates told me that she gained confidence in her own abilities after watching me fall such a great distance, self arrest, and hike all the way back up the hill.

Justyna Dudek ready for action practicing her self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak  Photo:  Mira Dutschke

The next day we practiced an even more complicated scenario: stopping a fall while roped together as a team. Here, one member would pretend to fall off of a hill, and it was our task to catch both ourselves and our teammates. I was successful: I remembered the technique, I knew the position, and I trusted my ice axe. While learning how to self arrest had its terrifying moments, I gained confidence in my abilities to safely travel across the icefield.