The most important reason for carrying an ice axe up in the mountains is to be able to “self-arrest” or stop yourself from sliding down and off the mountain if you fall. It is not, as some people think, a glorified walking stick with a pointy end for showing off in the parking lot. To be able to self arrest you need to have drilled the movements into you mind and body so that they are second nature. One way of doing this is through accessing what is sometimes called “muscle memory”
Self-Arrest and muscle memory
The term muscle memory is one that first become popular in police forces and the like. A lot of studies into the deaths of police officers discovered that when they were faced with the extreme stress of having a gun pulled on them by a felon or even worse, actually being shot at, many officers fumbled when trying to pull out their own guns in response. The adrenalin shock was just too much for them to access any sort of fine motor skills. The response was to drill them repeatedly so that the act of reaching for and pulling out a gun was no longer in their heads but almost ingrained in their bodies. The way they achieved this was through performing the action hundreds of times untill it became second nature. This is not to say it actually resides in the muscles, but just that the brain has got the action down so smoothly that it can perform it without any real thought under extreme stress. It stands to reason that this is what you want to achieve with your self-arrest. When hurdling down a steep slope, you don’t want to have to think about how to stop your slide, you want your body to just do it automatically.
The first thing to do is to figure out the right method of self arrest. I’m not going to post detailed instructions here (though if you want you can find them on the Web). The reason I’m not is because I think this is something that is best learned through practise under the supervision of someone who knows what they are doing. Ideally you should learn this from a qualified instructor and then practise it over and over. Start out on a gentle slope and literally flop down on your but and start sliding, then do your self-arrest. Do this a whole bunch of times and when you think you’ve got it down pat, then start adding variations. Fall down on your face (don’t puncture yourself with the pointy bits of your ice axe) and then stop your fall. Do the same falling backwards so you are heading down slope head first. Remember, what you are doing here is trying to teach yourself to perform these actions totally automatically and instinctively in any situation without having to stop and think. Remember too that when you actually have to use them, you won’t be sliding down a gentle slope all relaxed, but may be startled by a fall, winded, scared and tired.
When you get home go over what you have done in your mind. Visualisation is a powerful learning technique. The brain often doesn’t know the difference between practise and visualisation, so close your eyes and go over what you have learned. Imagine yourself performing each action. Do actual practise often and visualisation too to help reinforce it and if you do need to self-arrest, you’ll know how to do it.
Although I said earlier that I wouldn’t post instructions here (I don’t want you reading this once and then thinking its so easy that you don’t need to go out and do it) I am posting a video below, because I think that seeing it in action is a useful learning experience. The video below is produced by the British Mountaineering Council, which is the official voice of climbing in Britain and most climbing and alpine clubs belong to it. They have great safety resources on their web site so I’d urge you to visit it.