St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

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rdp32
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St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by rdp32 » Wed Jan 20, 2021 9:39 pm

I am thinking of heading up to Saint Mary's Glacier to practice with my ice axe and crampons. I have three questions:

1. Looking at the topo map, I'm guessing the glacier/snowfield itself is too mellow of a slope to practice effectively on? (see attached map for reference) If so, the slope to the right/NE side of the glacier is steeper and may work better... but should I be worried about avalanche danger on that slope? Basically, is there a particular area that you would recommend, or a particular area that you would recommend avoiding?

2. Give the current conditions and time of year, what time of day is best for practice? (my plan is to go on Friday, which has a forecasted high temp of 29 deg). I'm thinking if I go too early, the snow may be harder and slicker, whereas if I go too late, it will likely be too soft and slushy?

3. I still need to look up info for crampon technique (I am planning on reading that section of Freedom of the Hills, watch some youtube videos, etc. before heading out). If anyone has any suggestions on specific things to practice or specific resources to guide me, please let me know! (I've practiced with the axe before, so am mostly looking for tips on the crampons). I just have a pair of kahtoola KTS (strap on) crampons but I'm assuming I should still practice with them before heading out on a snow climb requiring them.

Thanks in advance for any tips!
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by polar » Wed Jan 20, 2021 10:29 pm

1. The glacier itself is fine for practice. If you're practicing self arrest, you don't need a massive steep slope, there are some short steep parts of the glacier on climber's left that's fine for practice. The slope NE of the glacier is rocky, not a great place to slide down. Avoid the steep slope west of the lake, people have died there in avalanches.

2. Morning is generally a good time to practice when the snow is hard and icy. When it gets soft and slushy, it gets pretty hard to slide on the glacier, that's when you may be tempted to move onto the steeper slope (don't).

3. Crampon technique is not very complicated, it's mostly French technique (keeping all the crampon points on the ice/snow), front pointing, and a combination of both. You also want to have a slightly wider stride so you don't catch your crampon points on your pants/legs. Having said that, the Kahtoola KTS you have are "hiking crampons", kind of in between microspikes and general mountaineering crampons. They don't have front points, so front pointing isn't really an option. In that aspect, they're closer to microspikes than to crampons. You can practice walking around with them, but that will take a grand total of 5 minutes maybe. I'm not sure if it's totally necessary to spend any time just to practice using them.

Also, I'm not sure what routes you have in mind when you say "snow climbs", but those KTS won't be adequate on some of the steeper snow climbs.
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by rdp32 » Wed Jan 20, 2021 11:13 pm

polar wrote:
Wed Jan 20, 2021 10:29 pm
1. The glacier itself is fine for practice. If you're practicing self arrest, you don't need a massive steep slope, there are some short steep parts of the glacier on climber's left that's fine for practice. The slope NE of the glacier is rocky, not a great place to slide down. Avoid the steep slope west of the lake, people have died there in avalanches.

2. Morning is generally a good time to practice when the snow is hard and icy. When it gets soft and slushy, it gets pretty hard to slide on the glacier, that's when you may be tempted to move onto the steeper slope (don't).

3. Crampon technique is not very complicated, it's mostly French technique (keeping all the crampon points on the ice/snow), front pointing, and a combination of both. You also want to have a slightly wider stride so you don't catch your crampon points on your pants/legs. Having said that, the Kahtoola KTS you have are "hiking crampons", kind of in between microspikes and general mountaineering crampons. They don't have front points, so front pointing isn't really an option. In that aspect, they're closer to microspikes than to crampons. You can practice walking around with them, but that will take a grand total of 5 minutes maybe. I'm not sure if it's totally necessary to spend any time just to practice using them.

Also, I'm not sure what routes you have in mind when you say "snow climbs", but those KTS won't be adequate on some of the steeper snow climbs.
Thanks polar. Yeah, I was planning on avoiding the steep slope west of the lake. I'm glad to hear the glacier itself should be steep enough as long as I go in the morning.

When I said "snow climbs", I was referring to easy/moderate snow climbs. I don't have an exact list yet, but places like Atlantic peak, Cristo Couloir, etc (basically the easier climbs in Cooper's Snow Climbs book). I don't have a good feel yet for what level of climbs the strap-on crampons are good enough, so if anyone wants to give your opinions in that regards that would be welcome here as well. Otherwise for now I'll just get comfortable with KTS's that I own and very gradually work my way up (up to this point, I haven't even needed any traction beyond microspikes).
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by jaymz » Thu Jan 21, 2021 12:02 am

Polar gives good advice. From my understanding, the climber's left part of the glacier (that would be the north side of the lake; on your map it's the oblong orange blob running W>E at the bottom of the glacier outline) does have slide potential; it's a pretty obvious drop off when you're on the glacier itself. I could be wrong about that, though, and have the avy danger confused with the steeper slopes on the W side of the lake. The more avy-savvy here can chime in and correct me if so!
Can't speak to the effectiveness of the crampons you have, as I've never really worn anything like the KTSs, but if you're planning on doing climbs where being flat-footed isn't always efficient, comfortable, or possible, it's nice to have front points (say, if you have to kick in steps or if the slope steepness is too awkward and the snow's too hard to French step).
On a related note, if you're practicing self-arrest, make sure you take the crampons off first. It's super easy to catch a point and suddenly find yourself cartwheeling.
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by dubsho3000 » Thu Jan 21, 2021 1:32 am

jaymz wrote:
Thu Jan 21, 2021 12:02 am
On a related note, if you're practicing self-arrest, make sure you take the crampons off first. It's super easy to catch a point and suddenly find yourself cartwheeling.
This is what I was thinking too, so I'll give it a +1. You can tear ligaments, impale yourself, cartwheel, etc if sliding down snow with crampons on.
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by Snow_Dog_frassati » Thu Jan 21, 2021 9:59 am

jaymz wrote:
Thu Jan 21, 2021 12:02 am
Polar gives good advice. From my understanding, the climber's left part of the glacier (that would be the north side of the lake; on your map it's the oblong orange blob running W>E at the bottom of the glacier outline) does have slide potential; it's a pretty obvious drop off when you're on the glacier itself. I could be wrong about that, though, and have the avy danger confused with the steeper slopes on the W side of the lake. The more avy-savvy here can chime in and correct me if so!
One really important consideration right now is remote triggered slides are possible. I do know people have died in slides at St. Marys and there is definitely overhead hazzard. It's important to remember just cuz you aren't on a 30° slope doesn't mean you aren't at risk of triggering or being caught in a slide.

Honestly my first thought when seeing your post's title was that i was i didn't know about avy hazard on St Mary's rn'. That said' I'm really risk averse when it comes to avalaches - Colorado just presents us with a lot of uncertainty and the cure to uncertainty imo is often avoidance. The sledding hill on Hoosier pass is certainly steep enough to practice but not 30° nor is it connected to 30° slopes and that is where I'm going to probably go to mess around a little bit with some partners soon. Whether or not saint Mary's is actually dangerous depends a bit on what the snow loading is like etc but thats too much risk management and thinking imo for a skills practice day
Last edited by Snow_Dog_frassati on Thu Jan 21, 2021 10:09 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by 9patrickmurphy » Thu Jan 21, 2021 10:05 am

The glacier (not really a glacier) isn't very steep (I was able to skin straight up it in March last year, no ski crampons), but that probably makes it a good candidate for self-arrest practice. Not sure how beneficial the crampon practice will be seeing as you walk up the whole thing in good boots without spikes as long as the snow isn't bulletproof. I've been thinking about taking my axe to ski resorts to practice self-arrest there, St Mary's is pretty moderate, maybe it would be labelled a blue if it were in-bounds.

Worth asking the question - what's the glacier looking like right about now? I wouldn't be surprised if there hasn't been enough snow to fill in all the sastrugi with the super dry winter we've had so far. Please let us know what it looks like if you go up this weekend!
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by TomPierce » Thu Jan 21, 2021 10:22 am

OP: OK, see the unshaded open slope just below the topmost blue line on your topo? It diagonals to the upper left. That's what I'll call the "throat" of the glacier. When you hike up to the lake, it will be to your upper right, diagonally right when facing the lake. That is the way you access the upper part of the terrain, eg. James Peak, etc. It is generally safe from avalanches, as the constriction there tends to funnel the wind and compact the snow. The risky area of SMG is to the left of the throat, where the terrain steepens quite a bit. Not so much directly across the lake, but between the throat and the headwall directly across the lake. I've seen several slab avalanches there over the years, obviously more so in heavy snow years. I think SMG is generally a good area to hike/practice, just steer clear of the steep section.

Another tip: SMG is notoriously windy, esp in the throat, so if you hike up there to practice, climb James Peak, whatever, be really sure you stay in the center/center left (left when descending) of the throat. It'd be easy to get a bit disoriented in a whiteout there and drift into slide terrain, which will be to decender's right.

Practice areas: One popular area is well up the throat, to the ascending climber's left. Way above the problematic slide area. It's a bit steeper there on the side of the throat but has a good runnout, ie a concave slope, so you shouldn't get out of control by going too fast. And I agree morning is probably best, harder/slicker snow. Nylon pants will help you slide too, but note that such sliding is hard on gear, ie you might get rips in your pants. Watch out for rocks!

Have fun, be safe.

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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by ltlFish99 » Thu Jan 21, 2021 6:20 pm

dubsho3000 wrote:
Thu Jan 21, 2021 1:32 am
jaymz wrote:
Thu Jan 21, 2021 12:02 am
On a related note, if you're practicing self-arrest, make sure you take the crampons off first. It's super easy to catch a point and suddenly find yourself cartwheeling.
This is what I was thinking too, so I'll give it a +1. You can tear ligaments, impale yourself, cartwheel, etc if sliding down snow with crampons on.
+10 On the above recommendation.
Never practice self arrest with any type of crampons on your feet.
The CMC has thier snow/ice portion of the basic mountaineering school at SMG.
There is a good spot north of the head wall, and maybe a little east. It is about 20, possibly 25 degrees at most, but perfect for self arrest practice. Especially early in the morning, or later in the season, September when it is nice and slick.
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by CaptCO » Fri Jan 22, 2021 1:42 am

It’s pretty easy to learn on 14ers honestly.. if you’re not comfortable doing so just hit a resort
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by JQDivide » Fri Jan 22, 2021 12:57 pm

CaptCO wrote:
Fri Jan 22, 2021 1:42 am
It’s pretty easy to learn on 14ers honestly.. if you’re not comfortable doing so just hit a resort
The idea is to learn and practice BEFORE you take an ax on a 14er.
Many people have hurt themselves trying to use one, or worse, without knowing how to properly use one.
And besides, you're on a 14er to hike, not to add a couple hours of learning and practicing.

Joel
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Re: St. Mary's Glacier---crampons/axe practice

Post by rijaca » Fri Jan 22, 2021 1:51 pm

JQDivide wrote:
Fri Jan 22, 2021 12:57 pm
CaptCO wrote:
Fri Jan 22, 2021 1:42 am
It’s pretty easy to learn on 14ers honestly.. if you’re not comfortable doing so just hit a resort
The idea is to learn and practice BEFORE you take an ax on a 14er.
Many people have hurt themselves trying to use one, or worse, without knowing how to properly use one.
And besides, you're on a 14er to hike, not to add a couple hours of learning and practicing.

Joel
Joel, I've taught several others to use crampons and self-arrest while hiking a 14er. The Angel of Shavano is an ideal place to learn. And why can't you use a 14er to learn and practice new skills.
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