User Review: MSR Snow Picket
Source: received for testing via the Trailspace Review Corps
I found the MSR snow picket to have some interesting and potentially significant improvements over older designs. This extension of their venture into anchors, in keeping with the full name of MSR (Mountain Safety Research) is a further development of their Coyote Picket, introduced in 1987, which in turn followed the 1969-70 MSR Snow Picket and Snow Fluke.
MSR also had an ice ax and ice screws in their line in the 1970s. MSR, a division of Cascade Designs, is better known these days for their excellent stove designs (with a couple of exceptions), innovative snowshoes, and tents. Cascade Designs also makes sleeping pads (Therm-a-Rest), SealLine dry bags, and water treatment systems.
- Relatively lightweight for length for “T” stock
- “Base” of T is flanged for additional strength
- The 7 holes are nicely spaced and chamfered to soften the hole edges for slings and carabiners
- Marked center hole provided easily recognized sling placement point for deadman
- The anodized aluminum hammering cap on the head reduces damage (mushrooming) to the picket and ice axe
- Picket held well when shock loaded in relatively soft snow, both in vertical and deadman placements
- Plastic sticker surrounding center hole to mark obvious center is not durable.
- Though lighter than many “T” stock pickets, angle pickets are generally lighter
Size: Picket – 23-7/8 in (S)
Weight: Picket 14-3/8 oz (S)
Suggested price: Picket - $30 for version tested (S), $40 for long
Cascades Designs Limited Warranty
OGBO at the testing site on Mt Hood, just above the ski area.
Background: Over the years, I have used a variety of commercially and homemade pickets and flukes, almost exclusively for practicing crevasse rescues (thankfully, only a couple of real retrievals of fellow team members and a few more retrievals of members of other teams).
One of the vital requirements is being able to quickly place anchors while in a self-arrest position. Both pickets and flukes were designed with this requirement in mind. Flukes are particularly rapid, especially when the cable is properly attached.
On challenging climbs where falls, injuries, or other incidents are possible, dependable protection in the form of anchors is vital. Because snow, whether fresh-fallen, softened by the sun, consolidated, or firmed into neve has less holding power than rock, water ice, or alpine ice, anchors for use in crossing glaciers or ascending steep snow slopes must present a large cross-section, while at the same time being light enough to carry a sufficient quantity for the climb at hand. This means that they are by necessity physically larger than can be carried on a sling like chocks or cams.
One of the main uses is for protection on steep snow slopes or when crossing a crevassed glacier, where the crevasses may be hidden under the snow or crossed by an iffy snow bridge, as well as having a solid anchor that can be placed rapidly to aid in retrieving an unfortunate climber who has fallen into a crevasse and needs to be retrieved quickly before hypothermia sets in.
Most teams carry a combination of flukes and pickets, sometimes one of each for each team member, sometimes only a couple of each in the whole party. Despite most snow anchors being made of aluminum, the weight for a team could easily add up to the weight of an old-school piton rack for big wall climbing. So an additional requirement to ease of placement, light weight, and ample cross-section (hence holding power) is ease of retrieval to move on to the next location.
The reason for having a mix of pickets and flukes is the variance of snow conditions. Both pickets and flukes are usually hammered into the snow using the head of the ice ax as shown in the photo below, which will damage both the top of the fluke or picket and the head of the ice ax. Alternatively, if an ice tool with a hammer head instead of an adze is available, the hammer head may be used to drive the picket into the snow.
Common method used to hammer pickets and flukes into position
Pickets come in various lengths, and are most commonly made from T-shaped aluminum stock, with some being made from an angular stock (not necessarily right-angle) to reduce weight. They have one or more holes sized to take a standard oval carabiner. More holes allows for variability in the depth to which a vertical placement can be hammered or alternatively placement as a deadman.
In general, a picket should be placed with a back-lean and as deep in the snow as possible (more surface area against the snow is better). If, for some reason, the picket cannot be sunk full length vertically, or if the snow is soft enough that the lever action of the exposed part is suspected of being too great, a deadman positioning is called for, with a sling placed in the hole at (or nearest) the middle, or even girth-hitched to the exact center. The new MSR snow picket is on the left in the photo below.
MSR's new picket (left) and fluke (right)
Details: Trailspace’s Chief of Gear Reviews, Seth, asked if I would like to review a pair of new snow anchoring devices. Despite the fact that it was summer, I was already planning to head for the Cascades to do some climbing on glaciated peaks. Most of the testing took place on the Zigzag Glacier on the slopes of Mt. Hood, not far from the Silcox Hut (upper portion of the mountain in the intro photograph).
I intended to use the lower reaches of the Palmer Glacier, but was informed on getting there that, with the intensive summer training of would-be junior Olympians using that area for their practice ski racing and snowboard gymnastics, that I would have to move over to the currently designated Climbers Route. The heat wave had spread from the eastern 2/3 of the continent toward the West, which meant that the surface 6 inches of the glacier surface was mushy, while the ice below that was basically neve, potentially a challenge for anchors.
I reviewed the short version of the picket (2-foot, 23-7/8 inches by my measurement, and 14-3/8 oz on my electronic scale vs. 14 oz on the spec sheet). There will also be a 3-foot version of the picket. Curiously, the press release describes the length of the 2-foot version as 90 cm (which is about 3 feet) and the 3 foot version as 60 cm (about 2 feet). Use caution reading press releases – talk directly to the designers and engineers!
At this writing, I still have a few minor questions that Seth has relayed for me to MSR that await responses. When the responses get to me, I will add any needed relevant notes. Because (1) snow pickets and flukes perform similar functions and (2) MSR provided both the new picket and new fluke at the same time, the reviews for both (this Snow Picket and the Snow Fluke) overlap and contain several identical sections.
First thing I noticed out of the shipping container with the picket was that basically it was very similar to the older versions of MSR pickets (the Coyote model) – formed out of aircraft-grade T-shaped 6000-series aluminum with the stem of the “T” having a reinforcing flange for the full length.
MSR has made a few interesting improvements. One is the black anodized aluminum hammering cap on the top. Given that on many climbs involving snow or ice, climbers often have just their ice ax and do not carry ice tools with a hammer head, this provides protection against mushrooming of the top of the picket as well as protecting the head of the ice ax. See the second image in this review to see the all too common method of using the ice ax to drive in pickets and flukes.
When I first looked at the hammering cap, I thought it was plastic. However, the development person at the Cascade Designs booth at the OR Show assured me it was aluminum. Ever the scientist, when I got home, I had to test it. A resistance check with my DMM showed infinite resistance (or zero conductance, as you choose to term it). Many plastics of course show the same, as would an anodized surface. So I made a small scratch and I pounded the corrugated top surface a number of times with my framing hammer, both of which exposed tiny shiny spots that I could check the resistance/conductance.
Sure enough, the resistance between exposed metal spots was in the fractional ohm range, as you would expect with aluminum. Anodized surfaces will also show infinite resistance (or zero conductance), so I checked several of my anodized aluminum cookpots to confirm the high resistance/low conductance. I am now convinced that the hammer cap is aluminum.
I will note as well that the repeated framing hammer blows produced no mushrooming, which gives confidence that repeated placements, hammered into the snow with an ice ax head or ice tool will allow a long life of repeated placements of the picket. Some of my personal pickets do show mushrooming.
The second change I noticed was the shaped point at the bottom of the picket. The pointed tip is also a change from the older Coyote model (I checked in my neighborhood REI, which has the Coyote in stock at present), as well as many other T-stock pickets.
As can be seen in the third image, the sample provided had the pointed end coated in red to provide for rapid and correct orientation for a vertical placement (remember the old adage that in an emergency, your IQ drops to single digits). When I asked about this at the Summer Outdoor Retailer Show, I was told that the production version would not have the red tip, although I personally think it would be a good idea.
As typical these days, there are a number of chamfered holes placed along the stem of the “T” section for placement of carabiners or slings. In vertical placement, the point of attachment is the hole closest to the snow/ice surface to reduce leverage and potential failure of the anchor, as in the image below. Usually, if at all possible, the picket is sunk all the way to the top-most hole.
The reason for chamfering the holes is to enlarge the contact surface between the carabiner or sling and the picket. One slight criticism is that the chamfering was strictly angular, where in my older personal pickets it is more rounded and smoother. The sample may have been an early release for review, since other, older MSR pickets have had smoother hole edges in my experience.
Picket in vertical placement
For testing purposes, I placed both the MSR and an older personal picket in the vertical orientation as in the photo above, then applied body weight, followed by a run beginning with several feet of slack to provide a mild shock test. Both pickets performed the same, showing no displacement.
This of course does not provide the same severity of test as a factor 2 free fall into a crevasse might (I am not willing to jump into a crevasse deliberately when solo on the mountain, though the solidity of the placements gave me confidence in the security provided by both the MSR and the personal picket).
Picket placed in trench for deadman usage
For the next test, I set up a deadman placement. During crevasse rescues, this is actually the most common placement. As in the photo above, a horizontal trench is dug transverse to the fall line several inches deep (depending on the consistency of the snow) the length of the picket. Then with a sling attached to the middle of the picket (in the hole in the middle of the picket, or if it is one of the old pickets without a middle hole, girth-hitched in the middle), a trench is cleared transverse to the first trench, so that the pull on the buried picket is in a direct line. Without this alignment trench, the sling would just pull the picket straight up out of the snow. The trenches are filled with snow and tamped down, as in the next photo.
The MSR picket has a red plastic sticker on both sides of the central hole for easy identification, as can be seen in the earlier image of the picket and fluke side by side. It appears to me that the sticker will not last more than a few placements of the picket. This is of little concern, since it is quite easy to estimate which is the center hole.
Picket and most of sling buried for anchoring
I again applied body weight and several running tests to shock load the placement. Examination of the placement showed only minor compacting of the snow, as expected. In my experience, the deadman placement has always proven dependable during training sessions, including dropping 100 kg weights 4 or 5 meters into a crevasse on a single deadmanned short picket set 5 meters from the lip of the crevasse (the rope usually digs into the lip in such a test, which makes hauling the weights, or a human victim, back out a real chore even with the 6:1 mechanical advantage of a C-Z pulley setup with high quality pulleys). I should note that the stretch of a dynamic rope does reduce the shock load.
The end result of one of these runs is shown in the wide photo below, taken by a curious climber returning from a training foray up on the Palmer Glacier in preparation for his ascent attempt the following day, who I convinced to use my camera to take the photo.
The new MSR Snow Picket has several significant improvements over older versions. It performed better in my limited tests than my older gear. As with everything, the new gear will cost more than the old. The price on REI.com for the older Coyote pickets is $20 and $25, compared to the press release prices of $30 and $40 for the same lengths of the new pickets.
If you are heading off for some glacier travel or ascending glaciated and snow-covered peaks, I would choose these new MSR anchors over the older designs.