Cornice Stomping

| January 5, 2010

Stomping cornices is by far and away my favorite and most used snow stability assessment technique.  Test slopes are a close second, but there is a lot to be learned from dropping a big fat ol’ cornice directly onto a loaded slope and seeing what happens.  I like cornice stomping as it is something you can do on the fly as you are skinning along, plus it is perversely satisfying in a pyromania like of way. Cornholiomania perhaps.

If the slope below the cornice has little to no consequences, I’ll usually go right up to it and start stomping.  I’ve taken a few rides, but if it is a mellow little slope, it is almost more like cow-tipping and the learning experience is well worth it.  If the slope is more dangerous (longer, trees, terrain traps, etc), I’ll hold onto a partner’s poles or approach it more cautiously.


How a cornice first fractures tells you a lot about the snow.  In the photo below, the long shooting cracks are a sign of a brittle snow structure (at least on the cornice) which to me means to look out for stiff soft slabs below.

One of the biggest cornice surprises I’ve ever had occurred at the crest of Wolverine Cirque on a morning when the wind was howling.  We knew that the Cirque was going to be loaded and didn’t intend to ski it, but on the way over to take a look at it, a cornice the size of a semi-truck exploded right under my ski tips a good 20′ back from the edge.  We turned tail and went down the windward side, which turned out to be almost as treacherous as the wind had packed in little pockets that kept ripping out magic-carpet style and sending us for rides.

Backcountry etiquette dictates that you are suppose to just break a few cornices and leave the rest for later, or another party.  This can be easier said than done as stomping benders are hard to stop until you finally snap out of it in a “Whoa, dude, what did I just do?” moment half a mile later, as Sir Stompalot demonstrates in the photo below.  Go dog go!

A few years ago I had a chance to go out with the Solitude Patrol on their morning rounds and it was interesting to see that cornice abatement was one of their main strategies.  They’d start with stomping, then get into shoveling if need be, and if none of that worked, they’d break out the dynamite.
Help support and get into the stomping spirit with a pair of Scarpa Spirit 4 Alpine Touring Boots from Click on the photo below…


Category: 07 Avalanche Avoidance

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (11)

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  1. Ian Havlick says:

    hey Andrew-

    I LOVE doing this…but the past few seasons my touring partners and I have grappled with the idea of not letting the slope “heal” its weakness because of too much prodding, etc.. What are your thoughts on TOO much stompage, by too many people, leaving the slope below with a thinner, possibly weaker(faceted) snowpack? Popular areas like the Monitors on the PC ridgeline, etc must suffer from this a bit from time to time? other people’s take?

  2. Andrew says:

    Hi Ian – Yes, that is the rationale behind the BC etiquette comment – if you are not going to ski a slope, either because it’s not where you want to go or because it might be dangerous, then why continually destroy potential “backcountry bombs” (cornices) or trigger slopes which will most likely heal on their own, and thus hopefully become stronger with a deeper snowpack?

    I guess it depends on many things. In the photos I used, those were mainly test slopes (versus destination ski slopes) and since nothing slid, I don’t think it did anything to weaken the slope for the future. True, the cornices are gone, but they’ll be back soon enough.

    In areas like the PC ridgeline or Days Fork, I’d say it is common courtesy to leave some cornices for others and not go overboard on creating avalanches, especially if they are going to be tearing down trees or weakening the snowpack (leave this up to the Pros – The Wasatch PowderBird Guides).

    Another factor is that cornices tend to strengthen with time, so leaving a cornice for others to stomp doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be stompable tomorrow, or next week.

  3. Ian Havlick says:

    thanks for the followup. Yea i guess you touched on it in the article. publik skewl reeding skillz?

  4. brandon says:

    Any ideas why Powderbirds is supposedly loosing their helipad in LCC? Not sure what the current status of their permit application with Snyderville Basin is, but now they seem to be bypassing this by parking their heli’s at Redpine Lodge at The Canyons.

  5. Morgan says:

    I just got one of these have not had a chance to try it out yet. But it seems safer than stomping and a little easier than knotted rope. Dropping cornices it great, could be its own sport.

  6. ron says:

    tell me it ain’t so :(

  7. ron says:

    Re: Powderbirds “parking their heli’s at Redpine Lodge”…
    tell me it ain’t so… :(

  8. Andrew says:

    Hi Brandon – I’m not sure what the WPG status is with their existing hellishpad at Snowbird. According to them, they are not going anywhere, but according to friends of friends of friends, they are looking for a new spot, which would make sense considering their overtures into The Canyons.

    The Canyons site is interesting (right word?) as they either haven’t used it for years, or very, very rarely use it, but suddenly they are back like they have been there all along. This is a little odd – a bit like a mining claim that goes untouched for years, then suddenly the owner shows up and demands to start mining again right in the middle of a condo complex.

    At the recent public hearing, an acoustic engineer stood up and said “I never understood people complaining about noise when they choose to build a house next to an airport, but building an airport next to your house is a totally different situation.” I think WPG will have a hard time finding a new heli pad with neighbors who actually welcome them.

    The Redpine Lodge? That has to be really inconvenient for them and it is hard to believe they could operate out of there for long.

  9. Tyler F says:

    Although I do not ski the canyons offten I do work there at night driving snowcats and have never seen any WPG chopers at red pine. When has this been going on?

  10. Andrew says:

    Hi Tyler – it was news to me as well, but Jake H. (Head of Ski Patrol?) mentioned that they have occasionally landed there.

  11. gwest says:

    I’m a little late to the game commenting here. Cornice stomping often involves someone hold onto the pole handle/strap. We did this last weekend. And after the cornice broke (thankfully not taking my friend with it) He pulled on the pole just to help himself get back from the edge, and the pole handle came right off! Moral of the story: make very sure you can trust the pole handle (or in touring poles, the flicklock) before relying on it.

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