You’ve spent years dialing in your skills at the ski area, and now you’re ready for the next step. You have your backcountry essentials - beacon, shovel and probe - and you’re signed up for an avalanche class as soon as the snow flies. Now all you have to do is figure out how to get up the hill.
Climbing skins are a necessary tool when it comes to accessing the backcountry. These adhesive backed strips of fabric stick to your skis or splitboard and have tiny rearward facing directional hairs to let you slide forward without slipping back. With practice, you’ll be able to skin up almost any slope you’d care to slide down in almost any snow conditions.
Before you head out, make sure your skins fit your skis or board and are trimmed properly. (You can also buy pre-cut skins, offered by select ski brands). Familiarize yourself with the tip and tail hardware and make sure they’re adjusted properly. Check that you have them facing the right direction – the hairs in the plush surface should face rearward, giving a smooth feel when brushed from tip to tail but standing up and providing friction when brushed from tail to tip. Once you set out on the trail, remember to unlock the walking hinge on your boots and switch your bindings into tour mode before you start uphill, both for mobility and comfort.
You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them. We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or the equivalent, and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. You should always do a beacon check as you’re leaving the trailhead as you learned in your avalanche safety course.
Well, yes and no. Once you’re properly set up with skins, alpine touring bindings, and alpine touring boots (or a splitboard with hinging bindings), it’s pretty much like hiking with a bunch of gear on your feet. Instead of picking up your feet, though, it’s more efficient to slide or shuffle your skis without lifting them. Think smart about choosing your uphill route—pick a line that minimizes your risk from exposure, avalanches, and weather. Make sure your group communicates your plan and spreads out for safety.
Aim for a long, smooth and rhythmic stride when possible. If you’re first in line and setting the skintrack for others, try to keep your line of ascent smooth, consistent and not overly steep – look ahead and plan your line around trees and rocks before you get there so you don’t have to make last minute corrections. Just like hiking, it helps to develop a rhythm of skinning and breathing, for instance inhaling on each forward step. Shorten your stride when it gets steep or the traction gets sketchy. When uphill kickturns (read below) are necessary, try to space them well apart if you can; multiple kickturns within a short span of time will have your companions grumbling if they could have been avoided.
If you’re following someone else, stay in the track and take advantage of the path of less resistance. Following a well set skintrack is almost always easier, both physically and mentally, than going it alone. Offer to take over the trailbreaking periodically in deep snow or when you sense the leader tiring. If you need to bootpack for some reason or relieve yourself, it’s considered poor etiquette to do it in the skintrack – move off to the side so as not to spoil the track for the next person in line. If you happen to bring your dog along, don’t let them do their business in the skin track, either.
Skinning is an art and an acquired skill. Flaws in technique are usually revealed pretty quickly when the track gets steep or icy. When you begin to feel yourself losing traction, concentrate on standing up straight and weighting your heels just in back of your bindings – this is where the bulk of your climbing traction comes from. Some people find it helpful to think in terms of pulling their toes up while skinning on steeper slopes. This technique seems counterintuitive to many people – their natural instinct tells them to lean forward over the tips – but leaning back works. It also feels natural to put more weight on your poles as the terrain gets steeper, but this reduces the ability of your skins to grip the snow. Learn to trust the grip of your skins. This will come with practice. If you find yourself on a sidehill with lots of pressure on the very edge of your skis, it often helps to relax and “roll” your ankles so that you have more skin in contact with the snow surface.
Most alpine touring bindings are equipped with risers that allow you to adjust the angle of your boot for skinning. Most have two or more levels to choose from, depending on the angle of the slope. Don’t be afraid or too lazy to use these when the going gets steeper. Using the right level reduces strain on your hamstrings, helps prevent blisters by reducing the movement of your heels inside your boots, and makes it easier to put weight on the rear of the ski for better grip. While risers shorten your step, they allow you to stand up straighter, adding grip and comfort on steeper terrain. Like changing gears on a bicycle before you get to a hill, anticipate terrain changes when you can and flip your risers up BEFORE you reach an especially challenging section; adjusting them in the middle of a steep slope adds a degree of difficulty.
Steeper terrain is usually climbed in a series of traverses – gradual zigzags across the hill at an angle that allows good skin grip. This approach is often more efficient and faster in the long run than skinning straight up a slope. When you’re traversing and run out of room, you’ll need to perform an about-face. If it’s not too steep, you can simply change direction gradually by alternately making your skis from the “V” and “A” or “||” positions as you skin.
On steeper slopes, the uphill kickturn is the most efficient way to change direction. This technique requires balance, flexibility, and sometimes a fair amount of nerve. Beginning ski tourers often develop a fear of this maneuver, but you’ll need to learn it sooner or later. Practice on lower angle slopes at first and work up to steeps – it’s also easier to learn on firm but not icy slopes and progress gradually to deeper snow.
To perform an uphill kickturn on moderate slopes, pick your spot a few strides before you reach it. Slide your downhill ski into position with the starting point of your new trajectory just ahead of the toe and make sure you have a solid footing. Slide your uphill ski forward and keep sliding it farther than for a normal stride before flipping it around and in the new direction of travel (we told you this requires some flexibility). Now that you’re standing with your feet facing in different directions, transfer the majority of your weight to the higher ski (the one you just set down) and make sure the skin is gripping (sliding the ski back a fraction of an inch helps “set” the skin). Now comes the tricky part – transfer all of your weight to the uphill ski and straighten your lower leg while bringing it alongside the upper one. In deep snow it can help to “tap” your heel sharply on the heelpiece or climbing riser of the binding and let the tip of the ski pivot upward on the free hinging toepiece – this will bring the tip of the ski above the snow surface. Bring this ski into line with the other and take another stride in the same motion. It helps to watch experienced skiers do this a few times in slow motion if you can get them to demonstrate – different skiers have different techniques for this crux move, and you may find one or the other better suited to you.
On steeper terrain, it’s usually not practical to continue the forward motion of the uphill ski before you initiate the kickturn because it will run into the hill and you won’t be able to change its direction. This is especially true in deep snow when the snowpack is a foot or more above the level of your skis. Instead, slide the uphill ski backward and pivot it around your lower boot in a curve until it faces in the new direction (your skis will be forming an “X” with one directly over the other). Then slide it forward until the tail of the uphill ski clears the lower ski, plant it, and transfer your full weight to it. Bring your downhill ski into line with the same “tap” of the heel to raise the tip, and you’re on your way.
It takes a bit of experience before you’ll recognize when to use the first technique and when to use the second. Both require some practice to master, especially when the snow’s deep or the grip is tenuous. Don’t give up, the people ahead of you who look like they’re doing this effortlessly didn’t learn it in one day either!
Seldom does a tour involve only uphill travel with skins, there’s almost always some flat or downhill sections thrown into the mix. Since stopping to take off and put on your skins takes time and energy, it’s usually more efficient to leave them on and just go for it, but unless you’ve got prior telemark experience, skiing downhill with heels unlocked and skins still on can be a little unnerving. You are going to want to keep your weight back enough so you don’t fall on your face, but be careful if your boot cuffs are not locked. If it’s steep it can help to lock your bindings into “ski” position for control.
Most of the time, climbing skins and an occasional bootpack will get you up anything you want to ascend on a tour. Once in a while, conditions demand a little extra grip. For traversing or sidehilling on icy spring slopes and bulletproof windcrust, when a slip means sliding and losing hard-earned vertical (or worse), there are ski crampons. Ski crampons are aluminum devices with teeth like a garden rake that attach to alpine touring bindings and allow you to grip the snow surface with the tenacity of a pit bull on the mailman’s leg. They are usually specific to the brand of binding you have and must be sized correctly for the width of your ski. You might carry these in your pack without using them for most of the year, but for the few times that you need them they are indispensable. If you are planning on a heavily travelled tour with frozen, early morning starts (e.g. the Haute Route) you will want these for sure. When using ski crampons on uneven terrain, carefully placing your ski so the crampon contacts a high section of snow is critical. You can also improve the depth of the crampon's bite by setting your binding heel risers on the low or flat setting.
If ski mountaineering trips (steep and icy approaches and glacier travel) are your goal, you’ll probably want to add conventional boot crampons and an ice axe to your quiver. Most universal or automatic crampons will fit most AT boots and most will adjust to fit a wide range of sizes, but there are exceptions – always bring your boots along when trying them to be sure. An ice axe can also add security in sketchy conditions; skiers tend to use short axes as they don’t normally bring them out until it’s quite steep and they spend a lot of time strapped to your pack. In addition, many ski mountaineers use ski poles with a small ice axe pick on the grip - popular examples are the Whippet by Black Diamond and the Condor by Grivel.
Like a pit stop in a NASCAR race, making smooth and efficient transitions is part of the “art” of ski touring. There’s certainly a time and place for taking your skis off at the top, letting the skins dry in the sun, and having a beer and sandwich and a little nap, but there’s also the fast-and-light school of touring and a whole slew of techniques for covering as much territory as possible in a day. Even if you’re not racing, it’s super satisfying to dial in a smooth and efficient transition routine that seems effortless and doesn’t waste time or motion.
Here are some hints:
As for those untracked powder turns with no one else around, enjoy it. You’ve earned it.
We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:
— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them.
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