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Self Arrest Techniques

The Problem

It was a spring morning with about 2-3 inches of slush on top of a firm frozen base layer. I was traversing across a slightly moguled up Intermediate+ slope looking for something less tracked out. My ski tip stuck in the side of a mogul and I took a slow fall downhill. No problem (I thought). I expected to roll on my back with my skis overhead and get right back up but instead of rolling I started sliding. I was like an upside down snow angel sliding straight down the fall line, on my back, head first. I tried to dig in the tails of my skis but when I lifted the skis I slid faster so I put them back on the snow. I thought the skis would provide some resistance but the slush was so soft they did not seem to slow me down at all. I thought it was better to slide than cartwheel so I wasn't too aggressive in trying to flip or turn for fear of making matters worse.

I slid several hundred feet as my family chased me down the hill screaming for help. I was like a runaway ski flying down the fall line!

Fortunately I slid into a flatter section with a little grass or dirt and stopped. No damage was done and we went on our way. Looking back on the incident there could have been a much different outcome if there were trees or rocks or a cliff nearby.

What should I have done differently? How do you self arrest when you're sliding down hill head first, on your back with your skis and poles on?  (Steve Turner)


The Solution



Bob Lee, Pro Patroller:

The first thing to do would be turn over to your front, do everything you can to do this. Easy to say, I know, but that's what you need to do because you can't self-arrest effectively on your back, and in your case if you did hit something it would be with your head (which is bad). Then start digging in with your poles, if available, or your hands so that you swing your feet downhill of the rest of you. Even of you can't completely stop, hitting things with your skis/feet is better than with your noggin...even if you're wearing a helmet.


Bob Peters, Ski Instructor and Guide, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort:

Here is a sequence of me doing a pole self-arrest on a pretty steep groomed run. This particular spot is at the very top of Laramie Bowl at Jackson Hole. It's about 38 degrees and can only be groomed via winch cat. The photos were taken on a cold morning and the snow was hard and smooth.

While this shows me arresting from a feet-down position, you would find in practice on real snow that as soon as you start digging in with a pole, the drag will turn you over and spin you around so that you're going feet-first. That's really important because as Bob Lee says, you want lots of extremities hitting the obstacles before your core and head do.

Also, this shows me doing the arrest with my skis on. That's primarily because I was too lazy to leave them up there and then have to hike back up to get them. You may be able to tell from the photos that I'm trying very hard NOT to use my skis in slowing down because I'm trying to demonstrate that this method will work perfectly well when you don't have skis attached.

In this first one, I'm just standing there enjoying the day.

OOOPS! I fell.

Now I've grabbed one pole a bit above the basket with one hand while holding the handle with the other. I'm starting to apply as much pressure as i can to dig in the basket of that pole:

Now, I've shifted my "basket" hand down as close to the basket as I can and I'm applying every bit of leverage on that basket that I'm capable of. My feet are in the air (trying to show that the skis aren't necessary in this process), and you can see the groove my pole is leaving above me.

Here, I'm driving that pole and basket into the snow as if my life depended on it.

Now I've already slowed pretty substantially. I've got a huge amount of bend in that pole, which is an indication of how much pressure I'm applying (thank God for Black Diamond poles ):

And finally, I've come to a stop on a very steep groomed run and in a pretty short amount of space.

What's nice about this method is that it's extremely intuitive. You can figure it out almost instantly.

You can also practice it very easily. Just pick a nice steep (preferably short) spot with no obstacles or people below. It really does work.


Comments (8)

Will work much better if you grip pole just above the basket.
Nice photos - helps show the technique
Excellent advice from Bob Lee and great photos from Bob Peters. About 10 years ago I was hiking Tuckerman Ravine with two buddies. We ascended Left Gully, which approaches 50 degrees at the top, planning to ski down.
Pretty normal stuff, except on this day it was 26F and RAINING (you Westerners don't get the pristine conditions we get back East, lol). As you can imagine, the very ample snowpack was waterlogged and frozen up solid. Heck, every surface you could see was frozen up solid, including jackets, goggles, helmets, candy bars, you name.
So what were were we doing climbing/skiing a 45+ degree, rock-lined couloir in such conditions? Good question. I have no answer.
I did attempt to teach my two (younger, even more foolish) buddies how to pole self arrest. I made a point of taking off your pole straps, since as telerod15 correctly noted this makes it easy to grip just above the basket. (Any time you're on sketchy terrain where a slide may be dangerous, TAKE OFF YOUR POLE STRAPS!)
You know what happened. BOTH my buddies fell and slid. Starting from 45 degrees on an ice-slick slope they were moving pretty damn quick when they went by me, screaming.
One was face down and managed to stop himself with boot toes and fingernails after ~500 feet. No harm, just alot of gear scattered around. The other couldn't stop until he disappeared into the shrubs and rocks at the bottom. By dumb luck it was a shrub that got him, not a rock. Only sprained an ankle (and got to hike out a 3 mile/2500 foot trail with a 60 lb pack.)
I fell too, while collecting all their gear. Self arrested and slid maybe 15 feet. Feet below me I got back up and soldiered on. Collected all their stuff, flung it down the hill at them and was the only one who actually skied Tucks that day. The least of 3 fools? ;)
I credit a book by veteran backcountry skier/coach Lito Tejada-Flores for teaching me the pole self arrest. He saved my neck that day and made me the hero. Thanks, Lito, whereever you are!
great article- and great pictures, Bob! This is an important skill for anyone who skis steep terrain, not just in the back country. I might add 2 additional things that I was taught. First, if you have already learned self arrest with an ice axe, there is one big difference. With an axe and crampons you are taught not to dig in with your toes and feet (because the points on your crampons will catch and flip you around), so using your boots and skis is a bit counter-intuitive if this is a skill you have learned and practiced previously. Second, a trick that I was shown is that when you are first falling it can be difficult to grab the shaft of the pole with your other hand- things are flailing around and you may not be able to easily find and make contact with the lower end of the pole shaft. It's often easier to find and grab on to if you grab it just below the grip that your other hand is holding. Once you have done that you can slide your hand down the shaft to the basket.
Great advice, thx
In the story above it says "...I slid several hundred feet as my family chased me down the hill screaming for help"  Screaming for help?  From who?  
These are helpful, and I have had occasion to pole self arrest.  With the recent injuries and deaths in Tahoe, it would benefit to see techniques described and/or illustrated for when you've lost poles and skis, or poles.  Very scary when you fall and realize you're speeding up. 
This might happen if you try and self arrest and your pole goes to far into the snow1
BTW... This was a Leki metal pole and even though it was 3 years old the gave me TWO brand new ones.  Along with some powder baskets and new glove adapters for their quick release system.
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