The Adventure

Glissading tips for summer mountain adventures

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, Mar 30, 2010

Regardless of the season, sliding on snow is so much fun.   The summer adventure version is called glissading, a French word that descibes sitting, crouching or standing while sliding down a snow slope.  Many mountaineering words originated with the French, who have a way of making the sweaty sport of mountaineering sound fancy.   Whatever you call it, in the right conditions glissading can be the world’s greatest amusement park ride.

Once, in the right conditions, I glissaded for nearly 2000 meters from the summit of Mexico’s Popocatépetl volcano.    Riding down a white velvet cone under a sky so dark blue as to be almost black while feeling the euphoria of breathing thin air at 5000 meters above sea level is one of my most cherished mountain memories;  with global warming the snowfields have melted from Popocatépetl - likely never to return.

At least for now, all over the mountains of North America snowfields linger all summer long. They are tempting playgrounds, and can range in consistency from bulletproof ice in the morning, to oatmeal-like slop in the afternoon.  If you time it right, you can complete a big hike or climb with an effortless and exhilarating slide all the way to the bottom of the mountain.  Unfortunately, every year people jump onto slopes that are too steep, too firm, or end in jagged rocks - and their glissade ends with an abrupt and painful stop.  

Here are a few tips to keep your glissade safe and fun:

  1. Look at ALL of the slope you are sliding on:  Cliffs are invisible from above.  Usually I only slide down a slope that I just climbed up, or at least saw in its entirety on the ascent.
  2. Take your first step with extreme caution:  There is often no visible difference between soft snow and hard snow in the summer time.   Kick the snow from a safe perch on a rock, the take your first steps carefully, paying attention to the consistency.
  3. Experiment in a location with zero consequences:  Try sliding on just the lower part of the hill before going for it from the top.  You’ll often be surprised how fast you can go on even low-angle snow.
  4. Know your runout:  At the end of the slope, does the snow end abruptly on a steep hill?  Into trees? Or does it gradually flatten out on an open slope so even an out of control glissade will end safely?
  5. Don't use an ice axe unless you are experienced with one:  That's because it hurst less to fall on the snow than to fall on your ice axe.
  6. If you know how to use an ice axe, don’t have too much faith in it:  Consider an ice axe a way in increase your control slightly, not a way to save yourself from disaster.  Sure, Stallone and a couple of guys on K2 famously saved themselves with their ice axes, but if you get out of control an ice axe will only poke holes in you.  
  7. Consider your clothing:  Putting on rain pants and jacket will keep you drier and make you slide faster – if sliding faster is what you want.  
  8. Try this at home:  Playing in the snow every chance you get will give you an intimacy with the substance so you’ll have a better feel for snow that will slow you down versus snow that will let you go way too fast.  
  9. Go with a guide:  This way you don’t have to worry about the first 8 tips.  

A CMH summer adventure is an ideal way to try glissading.  After all, you’ll have a guide and a helicopter to get you there.

 Photo: Glissading with CMH in Canada's Columbia Mountains by Topher Donahue/Alpinecreative.

Tags: Adventure Travel, CMH Summer Adventures