Looking to reach previously unvisited corners of the winter mountains? Ski mountaineering requires a challenging combination of ski touring and mountaineering skills – but Andy Townsend at Glenmore Lodge argues it’s worth the effort to enjoy this most dynamic of activities
SKI MOUNTAINEERING is, at its most basic, a combination of skiing, ski touring and mountaineering. The ski mountaineer will still slide uphill on skins just like a ski tourer; and ski down, making left and right turns, just like a ski tourer. The fundamental difference is in route choice. Once the angle of the slope reaches 30° or more, the tourer would usually start to look for an alternative route, whereas the ski mountaineer will actively seek out difficult routes and more testing summits.
This gives you access to the whole mountain – including the sort of terrain, routes and summits that mountaineers the world over love and dream of. Unless you access them on skis, some will remain elusively remote and challenging to the foot-bound climber.
Scotland is blessed with the best ski mountaineering terrain in the world: really accessible and with plenty of variety. My favourite locations are the North Face of Ben Nevis – which has lots of really skiable gullies that are best climbed first – and the Loch Avon basin behind Cairn Gorm, which has very skiable gullies and routes mixing great skiing and mountaineering.
Even the most simple and straightforward ski tours will use ski mountaineering techniques: booting the final metres to a col, or caching skis before wandering up a snowy ridge to reach a summit. But an experienced ski mountaineer will happily strap skis to rucksacks and crampons to boots in order to climb a steep slope, or use a rope to help abseil over a cornice in order to ski the untouched powder below.
At its limit, ski mountaineering could also encompass climbing easy grade one gullies or easy winter climbs in order to ski back down past the open mouths of mountaineers pitching their way up!
Just about every manufacturer now has a range of backcountry skis which are equally suitable for ski touring or mountaineering. This was not always the case, but ski technology has improved so much that there is now a bewildering choice of widths, lengths and shapes. As a rule of thumb, the ski mountaineer should choose their ski setup based on their ability and the weight they are prepared to carry.
Choosing a lightweight ski seems pretty obvious, but be warned: it’s not that simple! A lightweight ski will certainly improve the uphill experience but it won’t make for an enjoyable time on the downhill, as the ski will lack the strength and stiffness to perform. Conversely, a heavy charging ‘big mountain’ ski will be hard work on the up but will be sensational for the down. So, for the aspiring ski mountaineer finding the balance between heavy and light is essential.
Avoid being tempted to go too wide or too short. A good width for all-round use is between 90 and 100mm – this is the dimension at the narrowest point of the ski, directly under the foot. If you go narrower, the ski won’t float in the soft snow and be harder to steer and going wider will give you more float but be slow to go edge-to-edge on firmer snow, making it harder to ski with style.
Choose a ski whose length from the ground reaches at least up to your eye level; any shorter and you risk being pitched over the ‘handlebars’ by the weight and bulk of your rucksack. The ideal length is somewhere between your eye line and 10cm above your head.
The majority of backcountry skis now feature a rocker profile at the tip. This is where the front portion of the ski rises up, allowing the ski to float upwards and ride over soft snow. It also make them easier to turn and pivot when the snow is firmer. The Orb, Camox or Navis Freebird skis manufactured by Black Crows (www.black-crows.com) are all ideal, lightened versions of their all-mountain ski range.
Anyone heading in to a specialist boot fitters to get their first pair of ski mountaineering boots is going to be faced with a bewildering choice. Like skis and bindings, there has been a massive amount of development in boot design. On the plus side, boots are lighter, comfier and more functional. However, some of the boots have become more specialist, targeted at a specific aspect of ski mountaineering.
Boots now range from very light racing boots to heavier freeride, fast skiing boots. The lightweight boots will make the up and mountaineering easy but they may feel like wellies when you’re trying to ski in difficult snow. On the flip side the heavyweight free ride boots will feel cumbersome on the ascent but the downs will be delightfully easy.
When choosing a boot the best place to start is barefoot! Choose the boot that fits your foot, ignore the colour and gadgets, focus on the shell shape. Is your foot narrow or wide, boney or podgy? Get the wrong shell shape and you will suffer with painful hotspots, rubs and blisters. Shells can be moulded, but be warned these modifications are minimal: you can’t put a square foot in a round boot!
Invest in custom footbeds, buy some thin ski socks and listen to your boot fitter. Thankfully, some of the manufacturers have designed boots that are both lightweight and stiff enough to allow skis to be driven hard. The Scarpa Maestrale 2 and Maestrale RS2 (www.mountainboot.co.uk) are both comfy mountaineering boots that at the click of a lever become stiff, race-inspired ski boots and are both compatible with frame and pin bindings.
These were once made of animal skins; the hairs point in one direction, which allows the skier to slide forwards and provides enough grip to stop them sliding backwards.
Thankfully, today technology has improved on mother nature. Modern skins have more grip, better glide and are lighter, some are even machine washable! Most ski manufacturers also offer pre-cut skins allowing for edge-to-edge cover and giving more grip when the track gets steeper.
Choice of skins is personal but some good advice would be to choose a skin from the area that you intend to travel in – if you are going to ski in soft North American snow then go for a brand like Black Diamond (eu.blackdiamondequipment.com) or G3 (www.genuineguidegear.com). If the majority of your time is spent on the hard-packed skin tracks of the European Alps then go for Coll-Tex (www.colltex.ch), Contour ( www.kochalpin.at/en/ brands/contour) or Black Crows.
While skis have been undergoing a dramatic revolution in design, so have touring bindings, giving the ski mountaineer a great deal of choice. All touring bindings will pivot at the toe – giving a smooth skinning action in ascent – and then lock down at the heel to allow the skier alpine performance for the descent.
There are two main designs available: frame bindings and pin bindings. The pin designs are lighter because they clamp the ski boot using special moulded sockets in the sole unit of the boot, meaning that they are only compatible with certain designs and models. An example of an easy-to-use pin setup is the Marker Kingpin binding (www.marker. net/en).
Frame bindings are more like conventional alpine bindings and therefore more versatile and compatible with a larger range of boot designs. They have the advantage of being fully certified, releasing from the toe and heel in the event of a crash in both lateral and vertical directions. These style of bindings are ideal for the occasional ski mountaineer who would want to use their skis for general use on and off piste, as well as for climbing mountains. The Marker Tour 12 is a perfect all-round binding, allowing for ski mountaineering trips and piste skiing all on the same ski/ boot setup.
Skiing techniques for ski mountaineering are similar to ski touring – but as the terrain is more challenging, you will need more skills and experience. After a few years’ experience of ski touring, you should have developed the required skillset. Or, if you are competent skiing on groomed red runs in all types of condition, you could book onto a ski mountaineering course.
Skinning (skiing uphill with skins on your skis) is a bit like lazy walking, quite natural and easy to learn on gentle slopes. When the slope gets steeper, a well-practised skin technique is essential. The skier’s weight must flow side-to-side in order to help anchor the gripping skis to the snow. Uphill kick turns are fundamental to success as a ski mountaineer, but many ski mountaineers and tourers find them challenging. A lack of flexibility is often cited as the excuse, but it is often a lack of posture, balance and confidence that will inhibit a ski mountaineer’s performance.
Once the skis are off and the crampons on, the ski mountaineer needs to be able to move competently on broken mixed terrain in a boot that will undoubtedly be stiffer and more awkward than a normal walking boot. As the terrain get steeper, climbing skills become more important: using a rope and harness, building belays or anchors in rock and snow and, most importantly, route finding. This almost subconscious ability to sniff out the easiest line which is both time efficient and safe cannot be learnt but must be mastered through many hours of practice. Or you may choose to follow someone who knows the route!
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
The terrain that a ski mountaineer can access is endless and can give the most rewarding skiing available. But to be a master of the backcountry there are a lot of skills to get to grips with. A solid foundation in ski technique is essential, to allow you capacity to cope with good and difficult snow.
Ski mountaineers don’t go looking for difficult snow, but it is part of the mountains so they need to have well developed coping techniques.
A strong and accurate side slip or stem turn will help, but most importantly you must have a bomb-proof downhill kick turn. Like its uphill cousin many people struggle with this guaranteed ‘get out of trouble’ technique. It used to be taught to beginners around the world but as ski teaching techniques improved it got left behind and became unfashionable. To the would-be ski mountaineer, this most basic but advanced ski turn is a must have skill.
As well as being able to turn, step or jump your skis you need to be confident in controlling your speed through choice of line and turn shape. Mastering your skis will make the descent effortlessly efficient and enjoyable. Ignoring your ski technique, forgoing the hours of piste based practice and the descent will go from effortless to arduous endless torture in the blink of an eye.
TRAINING AND FITNESS
To the uninitiated, ski mountaineers might appear to be god-like mortals, with honed bodies and an endless supply of energy. In reality, ski mountaineering is such an efficient way to travel in the mountains that stamina is more important than fitness.
Obviously a good background in mountain and ski fitness is important but the ski mountaineer does not need to be a huge cardiovascular skinning machine. The secret to efficient travel in the mountains is maintaining a steady, relaxed pace, not rushing and then resting. Lots of summer and autumnal hillwalking, putting in long hours rather than necessarily steep slopes is a good place to start. Road and mountain-biking are also great stamina builders giving strong legs to help with the skiing.
Some gym work is also a great way to get your legs ready for skiing but if you don’t have the time or gyms are not your thing then watching telly while squatting in a skiing stance is a good substitute! Add a wobble board or cushion to the squatting and you begin to train your proprioception balance as well.
If training is not your thing then going on a ski holiday is a good compromise. Lots of hours spent skiing will get your legs ready whilst the occasional gentle skin will work on your lungs. Don’t forget to do some stretching and flexibility exercises.
Ski mountaineering takes place in avalanche terrain, so obviously, the most important safety consideration is planning to avoid avalanches. The SAIS ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ guidelines (beaware.sais.gov. uk) are a fantastic tool to help steer your planning and preparations so you never have to go face to face with an avalanche. But in order to use these effectively you will need some other key skills.
You may be able to identify avalanche-prone slopes but if you can’t navigate, then how do you actually steer clear of them? Skis make travel in winter efficient but they make navigation really complicated, they disrupt your timing and make it difficult to follow a compass bearing. Many ski mountaineers will look to technology to fill in their gaps in skill or knowledge and while this is a good thing, don’t overlook the basics.
You will need to be expert in ground-tomap interpretation, be able to identify route choice and do all this and more while travelling on skis in a whiteout with no visual references. Phew!
WANT TO GIVE IT A GO?
Ski mountaineering beautifully combines the two sports of skiing and mountaineering – so perhaps the best safety tip is to become proficient in both disciplines. If you are a mountaineer, improve your skiing and if you are a skier, up-skill your mountaineering knowledge. There are lots of courses available in the UK and abroad that will help improve your skills and knowledge. These courses don’t have to be confined to winter: summer alpine mountaineering is a great way to improve your knowledge of glaciers and climbing in crampons. Orienteering in your local park will help improve your navigation.
Most important of all is to get some professional instruction. Ski mountaineering is not a ‘game’ you can learn on the job: the consequences are simply too serious. Mountain Guides who are certified through the IFMGA or UIAGM (see the British Mountain Guides website at www.bmg.org.uk) are the only mountain and ski professionals who are qualified to instruct and lead ski mountaineering tours around the world. Booking on to a guided trip is a great way to get to grips with the wonders of ski mountaineering.