DOWN TIME – GOOD TIME
(In praise of Glissssssssssading)
Island Bushwhacker 16:2 May 1988
By Sandy Briggs
High on the
list of a mountaineer’s favourite substances, right up there
with sun-baked granite, porridge*, and wick-away underwear, we
find spring snow – ‘winter snow with a tan’
one might almost say – that lovely consolidated stuff which
covers the mountain sides after the powder is gone and before
the flowers (and bush) reappear. Spring snow! You can walk on
it! You don’t need skis or snowshoes, just step up the slope
in the little pockets, the mini sun-cups whose edges are outlined
with wind-scattered needles and pollen – overhead not a
cloud and the morning sun is gilding the beckoning mountain-tops.
The terrain becomes steeper, a gully perhaps, and you tie on the
crampons, a gleam in your eye as you tiptoe to heaven –
that line where the white meets the blue. On the summit you bask
in the sun, no need to rush away. Might anyone guess, looking
at the cap pulled over your eyes, that yours is no idle idleness?
At last it is ‘down
time’. Crampons stowed safely in day-pack and ice-axe in
hand you step, nay leap with a yell onto the sun-softened snow!
There are days when to live is to boot-ski. Steady, in balance,
link turns, steer round a rock, jump a small moat and everything
works, what a ride! You get off, one might say, on the gravity
of the situation.
wisdom regarding glissading is, however, rather more conservative.
There are, we are told, three types of glissade – standing,
sitting, and uncontrolled – and they usually follow each
in rapid succession. Many of you probably spent, as I did, long
wintry hours sliding down hills with various friction-reducing
devices intervening between the snow and your childhood buttocks.
I am writing about having fun. I do not wish to tell you now that
this, upon your having grown up, has suddenly become a reckless
and hazardous thing to do. Nevertheless, those of you who have,
even once, poked yourself in the eye with your toothbrush, (and
probably those of you who haven’t) would undoubtedly concede
that every activity is potentially dangerous, and that ‘forewarned
is forearmed’. All this is to introduce some comments and
tips from an inveterate glissader.
I first learned
to glissade on my bum. It was great fun, but I wondered why so
few people would join me. Then I discovered my jeans were all
wet and that holes had been worn through to my wallet. The advantage,
though, was that over a couple of winters of sliding at every
opportunity I got a lot of practice at maintaining and controlling
a self-arrest with my ice-axe. It’s important to be able
to stop. Bum-glissading is for the army-surplus woolies, or cheap
nylon rain pants for a faster drier ride. A sitting slide on hard
snow definitely constitutes misuse of your new breathable-fabric
overtrousers. And make sure you wear your gloves or mittens. It’s
not true that snow can’t draw blood.
Then there are the times you come to a tempting glissading slope
and you are still wearing your crampons. Resist the temptation
or remove the crampons. Yours knees and ankles will last longer
You must, of course,
evaluate the likelihood of your little frolic starting an avalanche.
On good spring snow this is usually not a problem, but if the
sun has created a substantial layer of loose wet surface snow
then it becomes more of a judgment call. Err on the side of safety.
Obviously it is possible to have a really nice bum-slide in the
powder of winter. I remember a wonderful thousand-footer that
I did in Switzerland some years ago. Far from braking with the
ice-axe, I was using it like a kayak paddle to accelerate my descent.
The skiers could not keep up to that one, and the peculiar single
broad track straight down the mountain-side became the topic of
conversation of the amused and bemused observers on the sun-deck
of the hotel below.
driving and diving, is much safer if you can see where you are
going. Fortunately most of us are not called upon to make life-or-death
choices such as led to the glissading epic of Ernest Shackleton
and his two companions during the dramatic first crossing of South
Georgia Island in 1916. They glissaded into gathering darkness
without knowing whether or not the slope ended in a cliff, without
the benefit of even one proper ice-axe between them, and they
lost, according to one participant’s recollection, nearly
three thousand feet of elevation and covered a distance of about
a mile. They gambled and won, though they shredded their trousers
in the process. Those of us who glissade under more mundane circumstances
should probably consider the game too risky if we can’t
see, or don’t have prior knowledge of, the whole slope right
to the run-out at the bottom. Sliding blithely over a cliff or
into the top of an unexpected couloir can ‘ruin your entire
day’. Icy patches and frozen snow in shady spots can accelerate
you painfully and make stopping impossible.
It is easy to misjudge
the true fall-line of a snow slope. If in doubt, roll a snowball
down first. (Even this isn’t foolproof.) When a glissader
collides with a rock or a tree the laws of physics are obeyed,
and they favour rocks and trees. Beware of holes and moats near
rocks, as well as crevasses and bergschrunds on glaciers. A hole
might grab only your lower leg, but will want to keep it while
the rest of you tries to go sailing past.
But what about the
standing glissade, or book-ski as I prefer to call it? There is
a classic glissading position described as standing in a half-crouch,
one hand on the head of the ice-axe and the other on its shaft,
with the spike of the ice-axe trailing behind you as a rudder
and a brake. I have actually seen a few people doing this well.
Nevertheless to me it looks and feels unbalanced and is strenuous
to maintain. My own preference is to stand fully upright and ‘go
for it’, holding the ice-axe in one hand yet at the ready
to go into a self-arrest if necessary. If inconsistent snow makes
balance a problem it is possible to gain stability by dragging
the spike, (the bottom end), of the ice-axe behind you, hanging
on to its head or upper shaft with one hand. When doing a sitting
glissade you can slow down by rolling to the side in the self-arrest
position or, in softer snow and with the same hand positions,
simply press the spike of the axe into the snow beside your hip.
If you have new boots you will have trouble boot-skiing. The edges
of the soles are too sharp and grip too well. A few weekends of
rock-glissading (scree-running) should solve this ‘problem’.
H.W. Tilman had
his memorable bathes, I have my memorable glissades. One I have
already mentioned. Another took place one summer evening in the
gully below the north snow-field on King’s Peak, Vancouver
Island. The snow was perfect and there was even a small crevasse
to jump over. I remember one day sun-bathing for over an hour
on top of Mt. Slesse and later, after a rappel, boot-skiing rapidly
down its upper slopes on a serious of six-foot steps. Then there
was the long natural luge-run leading to Shovelnose Creek from
the ridge north of Mt. Fee. In many places spring snow lasts well
into summer, and no patch is so small as to be overlooked by a
true enthusiast. Glissading the walls of sun-cups can help break
the tedium of a long march.
I have read that
even the mighty polar bear has been known to slide repeatedly
down a hill for no other discernable purpose than to have fun.
Let us guard against taking ourselves too seriously, that we too
may follow this instinct – to go out in the snow and play.
*I was kidding about the porridge.