The beginner's guide to ski mountaineering
My first serious foray into the mountains came in the form of a mountaineering course on Mt. Whitney, via the Mountaineer’s Route. Each person in our group lugged a 60 pound pack almost ten miles into the Sierra Nevada backcountry, set up a high camp, and did lots of training and skill development before climbing the lower 48’s highest peak in winter.
The experience was everything that I had hoped for and I got hooked on mountaineering (and eventually alpinism) because of that trip, but I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. That void was realized in a literal fashion with every painstakingly postholed step while trekking up and down the snowy slopes in “slow shoes”--the nickname given to the plastic and metal flotation devices detested by climbers and skiers alike. Snowshoes, as they’re more popularly known as within the mainstream outdoor adventure community, are almost certainly the most inefficient form of assisted backcountry winter travel.
What was missing in my mountaineering equation, was skis. Alpine Touring Skis, to be specific. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to ski, and I didn’t know the first thing about using skis to approach backcountry climbing objectives in winter. So, I set out to learn; and over the course of the next four years, pieced together the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary to finally ditch the snowshoes for good. This is how I did it.
Learn to Ski On-Piste
If you’d like to be a ski mountaineer but don’t already know how to ski, this first step--while obvious--is key. The best place to start will probably be at the most easily-accessible ski hill. If you’ve got some experienced friends who are good teachers, see if you can get them to show you the slopes. Otherwise every ski mountain will have a series of courses and in-house instructors, which range from those geared toward total acolytes, all the way up to advanced. As with any endeavor, choosing the right mentor is key. Make sure you find a coach who’s well regarded by people you trust and be sure to develop a good rapport with them.
Additionally, there are excellent videos and manuals available to deepen your understanding of skiing; the most efficient method is a skill progression that’s built on mastering increasingly more difficult challenges. These skills are based around a core concept: there are only three things you can do to a ski. Put it on edge, rotate it, or pressure it. If you master those three distinct skills, then you can blend them together to ski any type of terrain or snow condition.
The best part is that these skills can be developed anywhere; not just on a ski hill. For example, I’m working with my coach while traveling through Vietnam on dryland skill progressions to “hardwire” the neuromuscular connections used in skiing--before I even get on snow.
If you can’t do these skills in your socks at home, it will be impossible to do them at 30mph in deep powder and flat light. Practicing for around 10 minutes a day, four times a week is enough to see dramatic improvement on the snow.
When hitting the slopes, start small, start slow, and learn to ski in control. You’ll add speed into the equation later; and learn to tackle varying snow conditions and environmental factors. Get comfortable going down green circles (flat to 20 degrees.) Then get comfortable going down the greens, fast (just be sure to obey mountain rules, and pay attention to signage designating slow areas.) Once you’ve mastered the greens, tackle the blues.
Blue square (20-29 degrees) runs are a great place to learn speed, precision, and control, because they are steep enough to allow for pretty fast skiing: point the tips down and bomb, or alternate runs with tight arcs, or wide, both of which will allow you to develop a feel for the skis’ edges.
When you can descend blue squares confidently with speed and control, you’re ready to graduate to black diamond runs. These are steeper (30 degrees and up) than blue square runs, and often introduce more varied terrain and conditions, such as trees (trunks, branches and “tree wells”--conical depressions that develop around the trunk of a tree, which can prove dangerous or fatal if caught); moguls (annoying humps of ungroomed snow that few people strangely find fun); and bowls (mountain features that tend to collect steep powder.)
Because black diamond (as well as the even more difficult and varied double black diamond) runs are typically the least-forgiving or least-maintained runs to be found on-piste, they most closely represent the types of terrain and conditions that are likely to be found in the backcountry. As such, it’s important to have confidence (and better-yet, mastery) of these before venturing off-piste into the terrain associated with ski mountaineering.
Learn How to Backcountry Tour
Once you’ve gotten the hang of skiing on-piste and are looking towards ski mountaineering, you’ll need to learn how to backcountry tour. What is the major difference between alpine skiing and backcountry touring? Most notably and importantly, the latter consists of skiing uphill (better known as “skinning”) in addition to skiing down--making previously inaccessible off-piste terrain accessible.
This feat is accomplished with special bindings that allow the heel to lift when going up, and lock into place when going down; special boots that allow the ankle to flex when going uphill, and lock into place when going down (noticing a trend here?,) and ascending aids, usually skins--adhesive strips of felt or plastic that attach to the bottoms of skis and allow them to glide forward while preventing backward slippage.
Backcountry touring can be classified into two modes: touring and downhill. Downhill is the same as in alpine skiing. Touring is simply travel through any terrain that’s not downhill--whether skinning uphill or on flats or rolling terrain.
Each mode, on its own, is significantly more efficient than snowshoeing; when combined, they allow mountain travelers to reach previously inaccessible places, with previously unattainable efficiency--outpacing even the most astute snowshoers and winter hikers.
There’s a lot to learn with backcountry touring, like using skins and ski crampons, efficient transitions, and kick turns, but these create an invaluable toolkit of skills for winter alpinistic endeavors.
Get a Backcountry Touring Kit
While learning to backcountry tour, it’s a good idea to rent demo setups and get a feel for the activity and equipment before going all-in, but when you’re ready to dive off the deep-end, having a dedicated setup will serve you well.
When considering what type of backcountry touring kit to get, there are two major schools of thought. Some prefer to be as efficient as possible while going uphill, so they choose the lightest setup possible. This is most-often achieved with skinny skis (like the Dynafit Tour 82) and minimalist bindings (like the Dynafit TLT Superlite.) The disadvantage of this is that skinny skis perform terribly in powder; they’re really only at home while skiing on firm snow.
Others prefer to have the best-possible downhill skiing experience. If touring in areas known for their deep powder, like Utah or the Rockies, this is usually achieved with wide skis such as the Dynafit 108 Beast. Wide skis are great for both skiing downhill in powder and for breaking trail. The disadvantage of wide skis is that they are heavy and they do not allow for efficient uphill travel (unless breaking trail.)
As with all things in life, it is possible to compromise; and like all compromises, this philosophy will not provide the ultimate efficiency going either uphill or down. What a balanced touring kit (like the lightweight yet versatile Fischer Hannibal 94 skis and Travers Carbon boots) will allow for is relatively efficient uphill travel, and relatively good downhill skiing performance--which equates to maximum fun.
Take an Avalanche Safety (AIARE) Course
Heading into the backcountry during winter comes with an entirely new set of associated risks, most notably those which are related to avalanches. The only way to totally eliminate those risks is by not going out at all--but that’s not the point. Instead, arm yourself with knowledge and learn how to make better decisions in avalanche terrain through an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) course.
Aspiring ski mountaineers should start their avalanche education by taking an AIARE 1 course, which is comprised of both classroom and fieldwork. In AIARE 1, students will be able to develop the groundwork necessary to prepare for and carry out a backcountry trip; come to understand basic decision making while in the field; and learn the rescue techniques required to find and dig up a buried person (in the event that an avalanche occurs and someone in the party is caught.)
Types of avalanches and their characteristics; identifying avalanche terrain; ways to spot and avoid common trigger points; travel techniques; and weather, terrain, and snowpack considerations all play into the equation of winter backcountry travel--these are covered in AIARE 1 as well.
Avalanches are one of the leading causes of death amongst backcountry travelers--so there is no denying the need for avalanche training. But, where should you do that training--and who should you train with? The answer: go where the snow is; go where the snow is most volatile. That’s Colorado; the Rockies consistently lead the US in avalanche fatalities--largely due to their notoriously unstable continental snowpack (which is covered extensively in AIARE 1.)
To tackle this stark reality, the state’s leading mountain guide service, Colorado Mountain School, which operates out of Estes Park, has committed itself to providing the most comprehensive avalanche training available in the country. While it’s never possible to mitigate all risks--training can help you to avoid them, and to deal with them should mishaps occur.
Combine Skiing with Mountaineering & Get Out with a Guide
When you’ve finally developed the ski-chops to confidently get out into the backcountry, it’s time to combine that with mountaineering and hone the fusion of skills. Look for objectives that are well-within your realm of ability for both disciplines--combining them is going to come with its own set of unique challenges. A sure way of finding the right objectives to start with is by going out under the tutelage of a certified mountain guide.
Though hiring a guide can be expensive, the benefits of hiring a great one are invaluable. Firstly, a guide will take responsibility for trip planning and help to mitigate risks before heading out and while in the field, allowing you to focus more on fully developing those newly-acquired skills. This will serve to reinforce concepts that you have learned by practicing them in varied, real environments and scenarios with the oversight of an expert.
Many guides--like Jeff Banks, an AMGA American Mountain Guide (the highest level of credential attainable by a professional mountain guide in the US) and guide training instructor--design their outings to be highly educational by infusing AMGA best-practices and extensive, expert firsthand knowledge into their clients’ goal objectives. An experienced coach can help you to jump the learning curve and point out potentially fatal flaws in your decision making, eliminating blind spots before they come into play. As the saying goes, perfect practice makes perfect; it’s hard to practice perfect if you don’t know what perfect is.
Once you’ve established the groundwork needed to charge into ski mountaineering, it’s time to strike out on your own--with a partner (or two,) of course.
Find Partners Who You Can Trust
Ski mountaineering can be both incredibly demanding and committing; as such, it’s important to find partners to go out with who possess similar or stronger skill sets than your own--and who you can trust.
This will ensure that each party member is accountable for themselves and others on the team. Would you get in the passenger seat of a car with someone who doesn’t know how to drive? It’s just as crazy to go into the backcountry with someone who doesn’t know the first thing about travel in avalanche terrain, or how to perform rescues.
The importance of getting out with the right partners is crucial, and cannot be stressed enough. At the minimum, everyone in the group should have completed an AIARE Level 1 course and a 1 day Avalanche Rescue Course. Be very choosy, you may be making life or death decisions together.
There are plenty of like-minded and similarly-skilled people out there, but finding them is often the crux. Local alpine clubs can be a great resource for meeting potential partners; another great option is joining local guided trips offered by guide services like CMS.
When wielded right, social media can be an even more powerful tool for meeting potential partners; my strongest, most trustworthy, and most dependable have developed after connecting on Instagram.
How do you sift through throngs of people standing in front of Lake Louise in the name of #adventure? Try using hashtag searches for specific objectives that you’re interested in, for example #dragontailcouloir, which is a classic skimo line in Rocky Mountain National Park. The more obscure the hashtag is, the more likely it will have been tagged by like-minded folks. Then, slide into those DM’s and plan an outing together. You may be surprised by how vast, engaged, and welcoming this spectrum of the adventure community can be.
While becoming a ski mountaineer may seem like a daunting task, it is totally achievable, and totally worth the work you’ll put in. When skiing at resorts, conditions are usually icy and tracked out, even on the best days. In the backcountry, however, the point is to ski untracked snow with a small group of your closest friends. Combine that with climbing; you get the best of both worlds: Ski mountaineering. Ski mountaineering opens up an entirely new realm of winter backcountry experiences; and an entirely new realm of alpine fun.