Mountaineering Basics: The Plunge Step

1Trav­el­ing around on snowy ter­rain can be tricky. The var­ied hard­ness of the snow­pack and steep pitch­es of the moun­tains can leave many sur­prised, los­ing their bal­ance and falling down a slip­pery slope.

One of the basic aspects of moun­taineer­ing that you will need to become pro­fi­cient in is how to walk around. Let’s explore one way of alpine trav­el that will help you get down the hill more safe­ly: the plunge step.

The plunge step comes in handy when you’re nav­i­gat­ing down a steep pitch with hard­er snow, or either com­bi­na­tion of the two.  For soft snow and non-steep pitch­es, you can sim­ply step down as you would nor­mal­ly. Dis­cre­tion and expe­ri­ence will decide whether the plunge step is nec­es­sary.

It’s a sim­ple action of step­ping away from the slope and firm­ly plant­i­ng your heel into the snow. Don’t try to jump or drop — sim­ply step for­ward and let grav­i­ty pull you toward your next step.  Your leg should be firm to resist the upward force of the slope to your foot, but avoid lock­ing the knee to min­i­mize injury.

Mountaineering Basics- pTo help keep bal­ance, make sure you keep a steady cadence (rhythm) from step to step. Going too quick­ly or slow­ly will prove inef­fi­cient. Your spe­cif­ic rhythm is going to be found through tri­al and error.

At the same time, hold the ice axe with the palm down­ward and pick point­ing for­ward to help sup­port you. Dri­ve the spike of the axe into the snow with each step. This will great­ly help your sta­bil­i­ty, and also help you to self-arrest if you end up falling.

Be care­ful not to step too aggres­sive­ly espe­cial­ly in soft snow, where you have the poten­tial of get­ting stuck. Always adjust your down­ward force to the con­di­tions. Also, when the snow is much hard­er, you’ll want to adjust to a hard­er step to ensure trac­tion on the snow sur­face.

The most com­mon injury when per­form­ing the plunge step is a hyper-extend­ed knee. Be care­ful not to leave your knees in a lock­ing posi­tion when you step. Hurt­ing your­self high up in the moun­tains is not a fun expe­ri­ence, espe­cial­ly for your part­ners who will prob­a­bly have to assist you and car­ry your gear while you hob­ble down the slope.

The fol­low­ing video is a great demon­stra­tion for how to effec­tive­ly plunge-step with opti­mal results. Of course, there is no sub­sti­tute for going out an prac­tic­ing. You’ll find that after a bit of prac­tice, this rhyth­mic pat­tern will begin to come nat­u­ral­ly, to the point that you won’t even have to think twice about how much force you’re putting into the snow, or when you should spike your ice axe. Even­tu­al­ly the move­ment will become less awk­ward and and more like walk­ing. Just like any oth­er skill, the more you do it, the more auto­mat­ic it becomes.

As always, nev­er go alone, and if you are new to this amaz­ing life­time activ­i­ty, hire a guide or take a course.