Climbers guide to self-arrest techniques in winter

04 December 2018 mountains in winter

Self-arrest describes a technique used by climbers to either slow down or stop a fall, in situations where a rope belay has not been used. The best method of performing self-arrest in snow is by using an ice axe. However, an avalanche shovel handle, snow picket or even sharp rock can be used. And if no objects are available for breaking, the climber could even use their hands or feet. However, this really would be a last resort.

Self-arrest is popular amongst experienced climbers because a rope belay isn’t necessary. Meaning quicker navigation through deep snow is possible. However, beginners can still practice this technique. Mainly, to ensure minimal impact on the rope during a potential fall.

Is it possible to self-arrest without an ice-axe?

Yes, this is possible through using your hands and feet in the snow. However, this technique is not generally recommended. However, when choosing it as the last resort, you should consider a number of things:

  • Be sure to wear gloves, even during summer and particularly on firn slopes. Breaking a fall using bare hands can be incredibly difficult, particularly on firn slopes. And ultimately you may not be able to slow yourself down
  • Ensure to dig hands and feet into the snow facing the direction leading to the snow layer
  • The body must be raised above the snow surface, similar to how a pushup would be done. Do not lay your body on the ground while placing your hands and feet parallel to the surface. This will not provide sufficient grip on the snow or slow you down
  • You will need to consider slope conditions such as grade, length and character to determine if performing self-arrest can be justified
group of people walking in winter conditions
Questions and answers about performing self-arrest with an ice axe

Will I need any specific equipment to perform self-arrest?

Preferably, a 70cm hiking axe should be used, with a well-proportioned head and adze. However, self-arrest is also possible with a smaller axe which could be more easily gripped during a fall.

How do I perform self-arrest in hard snow?

When carrying out self-arrest in hard snow (firn) you will need to use the head of your axe as opposed to the adze which is more suitable for softer snow. Sometimes, harder snow can exist underneath a soft layer. Ensure to still use the axe head in this case. Above all, make sure to wear gloves so that you don’t cut your hands on the hard snow.

What do I need to know about reducing danger associated with sliding down a steep slope?

There are a number of important factors to think about here. Such as slope grade, characteristics, clothing and gear being worn. You may want to consider wearing a particular type of clothing containing grooves. This will generate greater friction against snow and therefore slow you down, resulting in a less severe injury.

Is wearing a harness a good safety measure to reduce impact after falling?

A harness with carabiners and quickdraws can be used to slow you down upon falling. However, ensure that quickdraws hanging off you don’t become tangled in your legs. Also make sure that your harness doesn’t become tangled in your crampon points.

two people climbing snowy mountains
Other questions and answers about self-arrest

Are the consequences of not performing self-arrest severe?

Put simply, yes, they can be very severe. If you experienced a fall down a 45-degree slope 20 meters long, this would accelerate you at an eventual speed of 70km/hour. Moreover, if you were to collide with an object at the bottom, this would be equivalent to sitting on a car bonnet as it crashes at the same speed.

Is there any specific way to hold an ice-axe?

Be sure to hold the axe by its head and using the end of the tool in the opposite field of view, ascent, descent and traverse. Also be sure to fasten the axe to your hand using a lanyard. A quick way to grip the tool while the bottom pike is facing the floor.

Are there any techniques I shouldn’t use to hold the axe?

A particularly common mistake when holding an ice-axe is gripping the shaft in one hand and the head in the other. Such a technique means that if you need to swap your hands while falling, you can potentially lose your axe as it could become dislodged from your grip. Furthermore, you will also become dragged against the snow.


How can I learn more about self-arrest?

North East OA offer a number of Winter Mountaineering courses where you can learn more about self-arrest. Including Scottish Winter Mountaineering, Introduction to Winter Climbing and Learn to Lead Scottish Winter. To learn more about these courses, please visit their respective pages where you can also book them online.