Emergency Self-Arrest with a Safety Rock

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 25 November 2011

Emergency Self-Arrest Device: The Safety Rock

Scramble to Lake Catherine under Banner Peak

Necessity is the mother of invention. I developed this approach to self-arrest after putting myself in a position where I required protection to get out of what I got myself into.

Keep Scrambling

I always pack an extra day's food between resupply points. I also bring a small, light daypack that I can pack water, food, the proper insulation, and my camera. I learned through many scrambles off the Tahoe to Yosemite, Pacific Crest, and John Muir Trails that it is well worth the extra weight to carry a daypack.

Scrambling gear heading up the NW side of Banner Peak.

I would have had some amazing pictures if I had packed a daypack earlier. Water and a power bar always won the contest over the camera for room in my scrambling buttpack. Carrying a daypack has ended that contest, and has made my scrambling safer too. Carrying an extra day's food and my daypack allows me to pick a place to explore on each section between resupply points down the trail between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney.

A Fine John Muir Trail Scramble

A really interesting place to explore between Tuolumne Meadow and Reds Meadow along the John Muir Trail is Lake Catherine on the Northwest side of Banner Peak. I find some pretty cool things on the way up there.

Unique grass growth pattern with strange rock.

This is a regular side-scramble for me every time I head down the John Muir Trail. Some years there is a considerable little wall of hard snow sitting below the channel through the rock that finally leads to Catherine Lake under the Northwestern shadow of Banner Peak.

Entrance to the Lakes

The gap on the NW side of Banner Peak leading up to Lake Catherine.

One year I kicked footholds into the snow to get up there. Once you get to the channel in the rock leading up to the shattered rock bowls holding Lake Catherine and the little lake behind it to the Southwest, the snow ends. I figure that the bowls collect up heat that melts the snow, while the NE facing approach to the bowls protects and holds snow.

I was concerned about going down the snow beard when I exited. The snow was steep, and at the base of the snow beard there was the shattered, sharp talus rock that characterizes the terrain. Losing traction meant sliding down the snow into the sharp rock at a high speed. I was pretty worried about the cost of failure.

Shattered rock and steep snow below NW side of Banner Peak.

As I explored the rock bowls holding Lake Catherine and the other little lakes I was considering how to minimize the danger of crossing the steep hard snow on the way out. The only resource up there is shattered rock. Big pieces, small pieces, long pieces, and short pieces. The whole terrain is composed of shattered rock.

Lake Catherine, John Muir Trail scramble, behind Banner Peak.

I started keeping my eyes open for a piece of rock that would serve as an aid for self-arrest. I figured a 15 to 20 inch long spike-shaped rock would suffice. I found a 15 inch long rock that was pointed at one end, had a triangular shape, and was about 2 inches wide at the thick end. It fit comfortably in my hand and had no sharp edges. It was like having a stone-age head of an ice axe in my hand. I figured I would deploy it exactly as I would handle my ice-axe in a self-arrest situation.

I could use it as a self-arrest device if I fell while descending on the hard, steep snow. All's I would have to do would be to flip onto my back, and firmly insert the rock into the snow under my left armpit, holding it in place with my arm and stabilizing the upper part of my self-arrest rock with my right hand. Physics would do the rest.

I made the descent across the steep snow without any problem, but I was very reassured by carrying my self-arrest rock and having a good plan to deploy it.

If you find yourself crossing a steep hard beard of snow across high-altitude talus, search the shattered rock around you for a self-arrest rock. Make sure the rock will not cut you or your hand during high impact deployment.


All Mountain Safety Topics

All Mountain Safety News


Current High Sierra Hazards



Powered by Drupal, an open source content management system


Latest News: RSS FEED

Syndicate content

Support Tahoe to Whitney

The Tahoe to Whitney Trail Guide and Magazine are walked, written, funded, and supported by my efforts, with the help of kindred spirits and my sister.

We offer valuable Trail Guide, Skills, Weather, News and Analysis.

My goal is to get you out to see your natural and social potential. Help me keep this unique resource accessible and expanding towards its potential. We've a lot of miles to cover ahead...

If you feel these efforts are valuable, I'm cordially inviting you to support them, here:



I am currently working towards publishing the completed guide between Tahoe & Yosemite as an e-book, while converting this "blog" to a fine magazine format. You will like the results! Help Tahoe to Whitney reach its potential!


Why Support Tahoe to Whitney?
Mission Statement