Traveling 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.
To 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.