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[pct-l] ice axe & safety?

On Thu, 10 Jun 1999 00:07:04 EDT Montedodge@aol.com writes:
>Sorry to hear about the fall of a hiker by new army pass. This 
>accident may 
>have been avoided with a light ice axe and strap on crampon

Not knowing the particulars of the accident at all, I'd like to offer
another opinion:

Brick said the hiker was a PCT thruhiker travelling north. Because of the
layout of New Army (on any topo), that pass is not quite safe to use
until mid-season most years, light axe or no. I easily hiked Cottonwood
Pass (the more southerly one mentioned in the PCT Guide) sans axe many
weeks ago, but would not use New Army most years for weeks yet. Once at
the pass, it's easy to see why: the last bit to the top is dramatically
steep, and has serious ice after other passes melt; in spring, there's
usually a nasty-looking cornice as well. To avoid it, and near-vertical
ice patches, one often must climb around on the rocks in early season;
the rock in that area is notoriously loose. Also, downclimbing without
pro on a steep, slick face is rather tricky, as you know. 

Both passes are signed, and it would be awfully hard to confuse the route
to one with the other. One _might_ , however, breeze by Cottonwood, which
is right on the trail, then realize the error and choose New Army as the
next trail down to Lone Pine (the next after that is over Whitney's Trail
Crest), rather than "lose miles" and backtrack to Cottonwood. The New
Army trail isn't even mentioned in the guidebook, or in Jardine, I
believe, probably because it's not considered a reasonable early-season
option for hikers...

This is not at all a comment on the sad loss of last weekend. Just wanted
to reiterate how important it is to take the time/effort to read
guidebooks carefully, pour over topos beforehand - and, if necessary,
retrace your steps, rather than take chances on cross-country routes or
High Passes off the standard trek. 

Most thruhikers are already carrying an axe for that part of the Trail,
but an axe is only an aid, not a guarantee of safety. The average
thruhiker is unlikely to have the experience necessary to tackle the
vertical ice at the top of early-season New Army, and no amount of
newly-purchased technical equipment would make it a safe undertaking.
(BTW,  by "strap on crampons" do you don't mean instep crampons, do you,
Monte? Assume not, for they would be useless, even dangerous on
near-vertical ice; they are helpful only to aid slick-soled shoes on
fairly level firm snow.  Also, it is nigh-impossible to self-arrest on
steep, hard _ice_ - or black ice....

Caution's the better part of valor, no? - even if it means a long, boring
(or embarassing) retreat. Perhaps the hiker actually planned in advance
to use New Army Pass, but in early season, it would be an odd choice for
a PCT thruhike. Personally, on a thruhike, I'd rather rely on a
good-sized safety margin (such as afforded by the conservative routes)
than equipment.

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