Mountain Education Resources
Hiking Poles On Snow?
As we have heard from numerous thru hikers, trekking or hiking poles have helped many accomplish a variety of uses such as:
-maintaining balance and shock absorption, especially while descending
steep, rocky summer trails,
-tarp and shelter supports,
-rattlesnake and bear deterrent,
-creek crossing “third leg,” and
-poor attempts at self-arrest when falling on steep snow.
The nice thing about a hiking pole is that it is usually in your hand and, therefore, at the ready should you loose your balance, twist your ankle, or suddenly almost step on a snake. These all relate to summer and dry trail walking. However, when it comes to snow, the right pole can save your life.
Most hikers hear a lot about ice axes and that they should learn how to use them for self-arresting nasty and dangerous falls on steep snow and, thus, carry them into the Sierra along with some sort of traction devices for their shoes. So, leaving Kennedy Meadows you’ll witness many hikers carrying axes strapped to their packs. For the most part, these axes remain there for the duration, never used, because summer hikers aren’t familiar with when they will need them until it is painfully taught after their first fall.
What we have found is that most folks don’t know when they’ll need to have them in hand until it is too late and they are sliding downhill with their axe still strapped to their pack. They don’t know how to recognize dangerous slopes and snow conditions. Sure, they’ll learn as they go, but usually not until after the first fall. The other factor that prevents thru hikers from having their axes in hand is that they are often reluctant to stop, evaluate the conditions, and put the axe in hand, before continuing across the snow field, either up or down.
So, what we encourage hikers to utilize from KM on or from Manning south, is a self-arrest pole. Two we have come to like after 30 years of playing with them, the Black Diamond “Whippet” and the Lifelink “The Claw” (http://www.garmontusa.com/390001.html). Although they are not “certified,” because they are always in your hand and at the ready, either design has saved our lives quite a few times (even guides and backcountry instructors fall once in a while). Furthermore, I believe the Claw can be switched onto the bottom half of the Lifelink regular hiking pole once you reach KM, then switched off and back to a summer hiking pole say up in Tahoe, when the snow and slopes are less severe. This way you only need purchase one pole and “The Claw” as a switched out accessory.
For the sake of balance, which is of utmost importance when walking on snow with top heavy packs, we encourage hikers to also bring a regular hiking pole with a snow basket as a second pole for the other hand. This pole can be picked up at KM or the snow basket, alone, if you started with two poles from the border.
Although carrying an ice axe looks cool, it is of no use if it’s not in hand when you need it. Either train to recognize dangerous slopes that you wouldn’t proceed across normally without an axe in hand and temper yourself to stop and unstrap it before moving on, or use a self-arrest pole and hiking pole combination and don’t worry too much about “being ready.” Of course, always keep a trained eye out for dangers like icy, steep slopes, submerged rocks, logs, and trees, wind wells, sun cups, thin ice and snow bridges, nasty post-holing conditions, and the complications of steep ascents and descents on snow.
With a self-arrest pole in hand, at least you’ll be safe should you fall on snow (I can think of one tricky slope up on Sonora Pass’s northbound descent), and you can keep on using it the rest of the summer with an accessory change. So, hiking poles not only help you in a variety of ways, they can even save your life!