When you're out of a trail on a hill the trail will often turn into switchbacks to make the climb easier. When you're on a snow slope it's common to traverse across it back and forth essentially making your own switchbacks.
Where I live there are various trails that area actually bulldozer created wide, steep fireroads. How do people climb these things? By going straight up them and breathing (gasping) real hard and stopping a lot. The other day I started zig-zagging up one. Suddenly all the effort went away. I was even able to work a rest step in by accident. It was so easy and I got up that hill in 90 degree heat without nearly dying. Seems so simple, but it was quite a revelation. Or course no one else was doing it and that surprised me as I was the only one to be able to ascend with any consistency and I wasn't dying at the top either. It was really straightforward, but you do have to get past the feeling ridiculous part, but there isn't anyone there to impress save for the fact that you are not collapsed in a pile..
Plus you're happier when you get up to where you are going.
I tend to do that more on downhills than uphills, particularly if my knee is bothering me. Often on the uphills I feel as though I'm making the hike twice as long in miles (and therefore steps and if I don't want to take more steps for pain-management reasons, well, then...) if I zigzag than if I just go straight up. I do see other people doing it from time to time, on sierra club hikes or with the group that's been doing the bay area ridge trail.
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