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How to Glissade Without Dying: Do’s and Don’ts for Colorado 14ers

Everyone loves a good thrill, and what could be more exhilarating than sliding down a mountainside? Welcome to the world of glissading – a quick, and often fun, method of descending a mountain. But as with any mountain-related activity, it carries its own share of risks. This blog post aims to introduce you to the basics of glissading, helping you stay safe while enjoying the ride. Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

What is Glissading?

Glissading is essentially a controlled slide down a snow or ice-covered slope. It’s a popular method among mountaineers for a quick descent. When executed properly, glissading can save energy and time – but if done incorrectly, it can lead to severe injuries or death. On many peaks, including Mount Shasta, glissading is reportedly the most common cause of injuries.

What Gear Do You Need to Glissade?

To glissade safely, you will need the following gear:

  1. Mountaineering Boots: Proper boots are crucial for providing good ankle support and protecting your feet from the cold snow. Mountaineering boots are designed to withstand extreme conditions and will ensure you have a safe and comfortable glissading experience.

  2. Snow Pants or Gaiters: Snow can easily get into your clothes while glissading. Snow pants or gaiters will prevent snow from entering your boots or pants, keeping you dry.

  3. Ice Axe: An ice axe is your best tool for self-arresting, should you start sliding uncontrollably. The head of the axe is used to dig into the snow and slow down or stop your movement.

  4. Helmet: A helmet is recommended to protect your head from any unseen obstacles under the snow or from a potential fall.

  5. Gloves: Protect your hands from the cold and any potential injuries with a sturdy pair of gloves. Waterproof and insulated gloves are the best choice for glissading.

  6. Sunglasses or Goggles: To protect your eyes from the reflection of the sun off the snow, sunglasses or goggles are necessary. They also protect your eyes from the cold wind during your slide.

When it comes to glissading, the right gear is essential. It not only makes the experience more enjoyable but also ensures your safety. Remember that while glissading can be a fun and quick way to descend a mountain, it can also be dangerous if not done correctly. Always prioritize safety over speed.

Never Wear Traction While Glissading

When preparing to glissade, it is crucial to remember to remove any traction devices, such as crampons or microspikes, from your boots. These devices, while excellent for ascending or traversing icy or snowy slopes, pose a significant risk when glissading.

Traction devices are designed to grip into the snow or ice, providing stability and preventing slippage during climbing or hiking. However, during a glissade, you want to be able to slide smoothly down the slope. If your crampons or microspikes were to catch on the snow or ice while you are moving at high speed, the result could be a violent and potentially dangerous tumble.

The catch could also twist your ankle or knee, leading to severe injuries. In the worst-case scenario, the sharp points of the traction device could impale part of your body.

How To Glissade

Glissading Do's and Don'ts

Here are some other essential lessons and best practices to keep in mind if you are still learning how to glissade:

Do: Check the Slope and Path

Always visually inspect the slope before you glissade. Look for hidden obstacles, drops, or overly steep sections. Ensure the path is clear of rocks, trees, and crevasses which could be hazardous during your descent.

Don't: Glissade on Unfamiliar Slopes

It’s crucial to only glissade on slopes you’ve just climbed, as you’ll be familiar with the terrain. Glissading on an unknown slope increases the risk of encountering unforeseen obstacles or dangerous conditions.

Do: Be Mindful of Your Speed

Maintaining control of your speed is key to safe glissading. Use your ice axe, hands, or feet to manage your pace. The aim is to slide at a speed that’s enjoyable but slow enough to stop if necessary.

Don't: Use Trek Poles instead of an Ice Axe

While trek poles can be helpful for hiking, they are not suitable substitutes for an ice axe during glissading. An ice axe is essential for controlling your speed and performing a self-arrest, a crucial safety maneuver, during the descent.

Do: Learn Self-Arrest Techniques

Learning to use your ice axe to stop a slide, a technique known as self-arrest, is a crucial skill for safe glissading. Practice this technique in a controlled environment before attempting to glissade on steeper slopes.

Don't: Glissade on Glaciers

Glissading on a glacier carries significant risks due to hidden crevasses. Additionally, the ice is often extremely hard and impossible to dig into to break yourself or self-arrest. Always stick to safe, non-glacial slopes when planning to glissade.

Do: Sit Up Right

By keeping your center of gravity low and your body upright, you’ll maintain better control over your speed and direction during the glissade. This position can also help to reduce the risk of injury.

Don't: Ignore Signs of Danger

Never overlook or dismiss your instincts or signs of danger. If you feel uneasy or see signs of unstable snow conditions or worsening weather, prioritize your safety and choose not to glissade.

Common Injuries from Glissading

Glissading can lead to various injuries, from minor abrasions to broken bones or even life-threatening conditions like hypothermia. Take caution to avoid obstacles and stop glissading if you find yourself losing control.

How to Glissade: Technique 101

Here is a step-by-step explanation of basic glissading techniques.

  1. Get Into Position: Start by sitting down at the top of the slope, legs in front of you and slightly apart. Keep your feet up and off the snow to avoid snagging on any hidden obstacles.

  2. Hold Your Ice Axe Correctly: Grip your ice axe by the head with both hands, the pick pointing back towards your shoulder. This ‘self-belay’ position allows you to plant the shaft of the axe into the snow to control your speed, and to quickly transition to a self-arrest position if needed.

  3. Start Slowly: Push off gently, allowing gravity to initiate your slide. Start slow until you are comfortable with your control over speed and direction.

  4. Control Your Speed: Use your ice axe as a brake by pushing the shaft into the snow. Keep your grip on the head of the axe, with the pick pointing backwards, ready to swing into the self-arrest position if needed.

  5. Steer Your Path: Use your feet and hands to help steer and maintain balance. Slight shifts in weight can alter your direction. Always look ahead to where you want to go, not at your feet.

  6. Stop Safely: When you are ready to stop, dig the shaft of your ice axe into the snow, lean back, and apply pressure. This will gradually slow your descent.

  7. Practice Self-Arrest: If you find yourself losing control or picking up too much speed, it’s crucial to perform a self-arrest. This involves rotating the axe so that the pick is facing forwards, then driving it into the snow as you lean onto the axe head, arresting your slide.

Remember, like any outdoor skill, glissading requires practice. Always practice these techniques in a safe, controlled environment before trying them on more challenging slopes. And remember, safety is paramount. If conditions are not ideal, save your glissade for another day.

How to Glissade: The Last Word

Glissading can be an exhilarating and efficient way to descend a mountain, but like all mountaineering activities, it comes with risks. By learning and following the right techniques and safety measures, you can ensure a fun, and more importantly, safe glissading experience. So gear up, practice, and when you’re ready – enjoy the slide!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A: Glissading requires minimal equipment but there are key pieces that can make the process safer and more controlled. These include waterproof clothing (to stay dry during the slide), sturdy hiking boots (for foot protection), and most importantly, an ice axe (for controlling your descent and stopping if necessary).

A: While you technically can glissade without an ice axe, it is highly recommended to have one. An ice axe allows you to control your speed and direction during the glissade and provides a means to self-arrest, or stop yourself, if you start sliding too quickly or lose control.

A: Glissading is a method used by hikers and climbers to descend a steep snow-covered slope in a controlled slide. It’s essentially sliding down a snowy mountain on your feet, buttocks, or stomach, using an ice axe to control your speed and direction.

A: To glissade down means to slide down a steep, snow-covered slope in a controlled manner. This is typically done while descending a mountain. The technique involves using an ice axe to control your speed and stop if necessary, turning what could be a long, arduous descent into a quick and fun experience.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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