Jack Geldard explains the different disciplines of skiing, and the specialised setup that each involves, focussing on skis and set ups that are suited to climbers.
Questions about skiing often crop up on the UKC and UKH forums: "Can I ski in my climbing boots" … "What skis should I get for climbing?" ..."What's a good ski touring setup for a beginner?". With the variety of types of ski and bindings, and the sheer amount of extra kit, this is a confusing subject for the uninitiated.
We had an article a few years ago on UKC called 'Moving in the Mountains', in which we answered various key questions about ski mountaineering, snowshoeing and general winter mountaineering. But now, with the Scottish hills swamped in some of the heaviest snowfall in years, the time seems right to revisit the subject as part of our ski season article series.
Skiing is a really complex sport. There are hundreds of different skis on the market, all with different characteristics, but the following is a VERY simplified version of what goes on, to help climbers and winter mountaineers to get a grasp of the various aspects of the sport.
The majority of 'skiers' go on holiday to ski resorts, take a lift up the mountain and ski down on pisted runs. They don't ski uphill, they don't carry their skis on their back, and they don't try to climb icefalls in their ski boots.
The skis that are used for this are in general heavy piste skis, and solid (easy) to ski on. They are designed to go downhill, on the piste, and they do that very well.
The bindings that are used for this (Alpine Bindings) are heavy, solid, and do not offer a 'go uphill' option.
These types of skis and bindings are unsuitable for climbers or mountaineers wishing to travel in the mountains. They are perfect for learning to ski in a resort.
The ski boots used for this type of skiing (Alpine Ski Boots) are heavy, don't have a walking function and don't have a rubber sole (so they don't have any grip when walking!). They are unsuitable for climbing, or indeed walking anywhere. It is possible to use Alpine Ski Boots for very short ski tours if you have to, but they are uncomfortable and heavy.
Off piste skiing and Freeriding are essentially the same thing, but 'Freeriding' is a cooler name. Usually they mean skiing downhill, in downhill gear, but not skiing on the manmade piste. A lot of off piste terrain is accessed from ski lifts, and the skiers just turn off the piste and 'freeride' their way down the mountain instead of following the pisted runs. The skis they use will be slightly different from piste skis, usually a little wider to give more float in deeper snow, but the set up is basically the same.
There is a cross over between freeride skis and touring skis. Many people tour on 'freeride' skis, as they want a slightly heavier, more skiable ski. And of course you can 'freeride' on lightweight touring skis, but they aren't as easy to ski.
Climbers who don't ski often confuse Cross Country Skiing with Alpine Touring. They couldn't be more different.
A lot of Cross Country (or Nordic) skiing is done on very specialised skinny skis, with tiny boots that are almost like running shoes. This is the sort of skiing that you see lycra-clad Biathletes doing. It is done on low-angle tracks in the bottom of the valley, not in the mountains.
These skis have no edges, can't cope with real inclines in any way, and are the most unsuitable (impossible) skis to take in to the big mountains. It would be like trying to win the Tour de France on a Unicycle, but more dangerous.
There are two main types of XC skiing; Classic technique and Skating. You can see these explained in the video below, but I wouldn't recommend them as a form of travel in the mountains for climbers.
There is another more relevant form of Nordic skiing though, and whilst researching this article I have been led to believe that some Scottish skiers use beefier versions of these skis to good effect to cover big distances on more gently rolling upland terrain.
The beefier version of Nordic skiing / ski gear uses skinny skis, but with edges. They are not suitable for steep mountain descents, but can be used for covering long distances on gentle terrain. Again, I wouldn't recomend them for climbers wanting to travel in the mountains as they would limit your options.
Now we are talking!
Ski touring is basically travelling on skis in the mountains. The skis are designed in general to be lighter than piste skis, and they are fitted with a type of binding that allows the heel of the foot to be released from the ski, meaning you can walk/glide on flat and uphill wearing the skis.
You can tour on freeride / off piste skis, and vice-versa, as mentioned above. The skis people tour on range from super lightweight carbon ski mountaineering race skis, through to pretty beefy freeride skis that you can ski very aggressively. Most people get something in the middle so they aren't too heavy for uphill, but aren't too light for downhill.
To go along the flat or uphill wearing skis you need to stick 'skins' on to the base of the skis. These are a furry strip with special glue on one side. The glue sticks the skin to the ski, but allows the skin to be peeled off without leaving any glue on the ski. They are reusable of course, and last a long time. The furry side of the skin grips the snow, and its directional bristles stop the ski sliding backwards, but allow it to slide forwards. Magic.
Ski Touring boots are similar to Downhill (Alpine) ski boots, but are lighter, not quite as easy to ski in (being lighter they offer less support), and have a 'walk mode'. The walk mode option is usually a switch on the back of the boot that either locks the boots solid (ski mode) or unlocks the boots to allow a slight forward and backward flex at the ankle for walking.
Ski Touring boots have a rubber sole with a tread, meaning that they are much more suitable for walking. You can fit crampons to them and climb in them, but they are much more restrictive than actual climbing boots.
There are many different types of Ski Touring boots, some are very light and are better suited to climbing in, but offer less support for the actual skiing, some are pretty beefy and heavier, almost like Alpine Boots, but do have a rubber sole and a walk mode. These are more suited to skiers who want to do a little bit of uphill to access some more downhill skiing terrain.
As with boots, so for skis. The smaller and lighter the ski, the less solid it feels when skiing, as the less weight it has to punch through cruddy snow. However heavier skis are harder to push uphill, harder to carry, and they mean you will be slower and get more tired. Having more weight strapped to your feet is much more tiring than you might think! So it's a trade-off against how much you are focussing on the uphill aspects (you want lightweight) or how much you are focussing on skiing (you want beefier gear that skis well).
Added to this is the fact that occasionally you will be carrying your skis on your rucksack, either in terrain too technical to ski on or if there simply isn't any snow cover. Lighter skis are easier to carry, simple.
Extra note: There is another form of skiing called Telemark Skiing. This is done on normal skis, but with special boots and bindings. You ski with your heels not clipped in to the skis at any point. It is more difficult than normal alpine skiing. You can use telemark boots with crampons, and you can ski tour on telemark gear. As it is more difficult, I am not covering it in detail in this article. There is more info here: Telemark Skiing
It is 'possible' to ski wearing normal climbing boots, however for the vast majority of people it is MUCH easier to climb in lightweight ski boots.
To ski in climbing boots you will need to be a really advanced skier (I don't mean red runs, I mean if you don't already know about all types of skiing, then you probably aren't ready to do this safely!). You will need small, lightweight skis (big skis will be virtually impossible to control) and specific 'old school' bindings that will fit on to your boots. Also, the skiing will be a lot less fun, so if you are skiing in to a climb then you'll miss out on the full enjoyment of one of the best bits of the day!
Alpine photographer and all round mountain hero Jon Griffith is the UKC specialist in skiing with climbing boots. In fact he likes it so much he has ditched all his other ski equipment in favour of this radical lightweight setup.
You can read a lot more on the matter in one of his UKC Gear Reviews
Also see him putting his money where his mouth is taking his skis on a HUGE alpine day in this UKC News Report.
Skis come in different lengths, different shapes, and different weights.
When you are learning to ski you will most likely use piste specific skis that are generally quite small. If you then carry on skiing on the piste, you may get longer skis, but once you move on from pisted runs to using your skis in the mountains, things change very quickly.
To sum up in very basic terms, if you are skiing off piste and are already a reasonable skier then heavier, larger skis are more solid and easier to ski in rough terrain, and can be skied faster, more aggressively - jumping off rocks, 'shredding the gnar' and all that stuff.
Lighter skis (generally used for ski touring) will be much easier to push up hill, but won't be as sturdy under your feet in rough terrain. Finding a balance between these two will depend on how you ski, and what exactly you want to do with your skis.
The length of ski you want will mostly depend on your height. The width of the ski (measured at the front, at the waist or 'under foot' and at the tail) will depend on what you want to use them for - the wider the ski, the easier it is to ski in deep powder snow etc.
As a complete sweeping statement a typical all around ski to use for ski touring in Scotland or the Alps, or accessing climbs (for an average height man) might be between 85-105mm underfoot and around 178cm in length, just to give a very rough idea. (Let the debate commence!)
So What Ski Should I Buy?!
This is an impossible to answer question. There are literally hundreds of excellent skis out there. From Black Crows to K2 to Dynastar to Black Diamond, all the big brands will have a range of excellent skis that could suit you. See if you can hire some, try out your mates', and make your own mind up. Hopefully the above tips will give a you a starting point.
The trick is to find the ski you like the best. A good place to start is with a classic touring ski from whichever brand you choose to go with.
As an example, the classic and popular touring ski from Black Diamond is the Aspect. Here's the Aspect video:
Downhill (Alpine) bindings are generally the most solid. They are big plastic or metal lumps and they clamp down on your alpine ski boots. They offer no 'walk mode' and can't be used for going uphill. There are loads of different types, and generally they are the cheapest form of binding. They are also pretty heavy. These are the type of bindings you will get on your normal hire skis and really beefy versions of these are what people will use for jumping off cliffs and all that stuff.
Alpine Touring bindings are what we are most interested in.
The way Touring bindings differ from Downhill bindings, is they allow you to release the heel of the ski boot, and this means you can make a walking/sliding motion - enabling you to go uphill.
Touring bindings come in a few different types. I have broken them down in to three categories, and used some brand names here (a bit like calling a vacuum cleaner a 'hoover', there are other brands available), to keep this as simple as possible.
I also found this shop video on the three types of bindings, it's pretty good at explaining them - check it out:
These are perhaps the most complex type of binding out there and they work by clipping two pointed pins in to specially designed metal sockets on the front of your ski boots, and then by clipping the rear section of the binding in to a slot in the heel of the boot.
Most modern alpine touring boots are dynafit compatible.
These bindings are very lightweight, keep the boot very close to the ski, and ski very well. However there have been reports that the front release is not as beginner friendly as normal style bindings, and the bindings are quite complex to use and fiddly.
Here's a quite long but interesting video on how to use Dynafit bindings:
These types of bindings are favoured amongst those skiers who want freeride performance with the ability to tour. They are big chunky plastic bindings, are very solid to ski on but are quite heavy. They are ideal for those wanting to do short tours to access off-piste terrain. It is of course entirely possible to tour for miles on Marker style bindings. They have been known to be difficult to get back in to ski mode if they have become iced up whilst touring, but a penknife or other thin implement can clear the ice from the grooves.
Here's a nice little video showing you a 'Marker F12' binding:
These are a sort of lighter weight version of Marker style bindings. They are beginner friendly, mid weight, and easy to use. They don't offer the same aggressive performance as Marker Bindings, or the lightweight and responsiveness of Dynafit bindings, but they have been very popular for a long time. The bar under the foot does mean you are quite high off the ski, which reduces performance, but as an all around beginner touring binding, these work just fine.
Although Fritchi have now released a pin binding similar to the Dynafit binding (called the Vipec), their old style bindings are still extremely popular.
Downhill boots are generally heavier, more solid and easier to ski in, offering more support. They are difficult to walk in, have a smooth plastic sole which fits in to alpine ski bindings, but is useless for walking on snow and ice, and are difficult to move around the mountains in.
Having said all that it is possible to tour short distances using downhill boots, and they can be useful when used in conjunction with a heavier ski and a Marker style binding to give an aggressive ski set-up for downhill skiing, if you just need to tour for 15 minutes to access your chosen ski line.
Touring boots are generally lighter, have a walk mode (the boot pivots at the ankle joint) and a ski mode (the boot locks solid like an downhill boot).
Touring boots come with a rubber sole, they are fairly manoeuvrable, and with many models it is quite possible to climb up to a reasonable standard whilst wearing them. They don't ski quite as well as alpine boots for the downhill bits though!
You can get touring boots that are VERY lightweight, and offer limited support whilst skiing, and you can get touring boots that are very heavy, almost like an alpine boot, but with a limited 'walk mode' function. Most mountaineers would want something in between. Something you can ski with, but also something that isn't too heavy and cumbersome for cramponning around on snow slopes, and maybe even doing the odd pitch of ice!
As an example of this you have the Scarpa ski boot range. At the 'heavy but good for hard skiing' end you have the Freedom SL. In the middle you have something like the Maestrale. At the super lightweight end you have the Alien.
Climbing with skis on your back can be difficult, awkward and heavy. In fact, it's usually all three. Climbing easy slopes carrying skis is a common occurrence in the Alps on many ski tours and easy climbs, and commonplace in the UK where you might typically be walking a while in search of skiable cover. But climbing technical ice or couloirs is a bit more challenging. Here are a couple of points that can help make it a not so unpleasant experience.
1: Get a good rucksack. Some rucksacks hold skis better than others, and a rucksack that holds skis on either side, securely and without too much faff is a bit of a godsend. Be aware that super lightweight fabrics on the sides of rucksacks can easily be shredded by the edges of your skis. Always take a ski strap (or a sling or similar) to tie the tops of the skis together, forming a triangle, as this is much more stable and easy to carry. Bear in mind that if the skis stick down too low underneath your rucksack, then the ends of them might catch on the ground when you are descending steep ground facing downhill. This can throw you off balance (sometimes not a good idea!).
2: Choose the length and weight of your skis. All skis get in the way when climbing to some degree. The shorter and lighter the ski, the better it is for climbing with when on your back, but the worse it can be for skiing. In my personal experience (bear in mind I am tall) any ski over 170cm in length will feel long when being carried, and also get in the way of a swinging ice tool (when you raise the tool backwards to make a swing), and make technical climbing more difficult. You have to modify your swing to avoid whacking the skis, which isn't too bad once you get the hang of it.
Remember 190cm badass freeride skis are significantly harder to manage on your back than 172cm touring skis.
If there is one thing that this article has shown, it's that there are a lot of different bits of ski kit out there. Of course, buying lots of different skis for different purposes is expensive, and also unnecessary for many. Most climbers will want one pair of cover all skis and boots, to do a bit of everything. So what to buy?
Clearly they will need to be an all around ski, not too fat, not too thin, not too heavy, not too light. They will need a pair of touring bindings on them, that's for sure, and if you're only buying one pair of ski boots, you would be wise to make them touring boots.
For skiing in the mountains away from resorts you also need some avalanche safety gear (and you'll need to know how to use it).
Here's a kit list:
And depending on your chosen terrain, you might also need some winter climbing gear too. But whatever you buy, remember - it's only skiing! It ALWAYS comes second to climbing ;-)
'For me big mountain skiing isnt just about jump turns on steep slopes it's about negotiating your way past huge seracs and assessing crevasse dangers at lightening speed whilst feeling the avalanche conditions underfoot. This shot kind of captures that- the whole face of this serac would actually release about a week later at the break you can see.' Photo: Jon Griffith
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