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There is far more to ski mountaineering than quiche eating, mullets and Ray-Ban sunglasses. For many Brits visiting the Alps in winter, the biggest set back is trudging through waist deep snow and failing to get to any routes at all. British Mountain Guide and ski expert Guy Willett gives us ten reasons why ski mountaineering makes sense. He also talks us through the basics of what gear we need to get us going uphill in the mountains in winter.
Ski Mountaineering: You get some skis, stick 'skins' on the bottom (they slide forwards but don't slide backwards - like fish scales) and have 'heel free' bindings. This set up allows you to walk uphill on skis. But Why?!
Essentially, there are two kinds of people who might want to strap skins to their skis and join the quiche eating elite: Skiers who want to explore beyond the pistes and go further into the mountains, and climbers who want to access routes in the winter (particularly in the Alps, Alaska, Greenland and Canada). Maybe you're a climber who's looking for something more hardcore (eg Charlet-Ghillini on the Pre des Bars)? Or maybe you're just keen to climb more peaks and high cols in winter, but could do without the freezing cold belays, the hot aches, trudging through thigh deep powder, and those endless slogs back down once the climb is over... On skis, the descent could even be fun!
I've come up with a list of ten reasons (plus a cheeky eleventh) why Ski-Mountaineering should be on everyone's holiday timetable and skis should be on everyone's feet:
1. Skiing is safer on crevassed terrain; with skis on, your weight is spread over a bigger surface area.
2. Skis make great snow belays; they have much bigger surface area to bury.
3. It's much faster uphill than snow shoes/walking (done any trail breaking this year?)
4. It's much, much faster downhill - even with occasional wipe-outs. And skiing is much easier on the knees than downhill stomping. Many Alpine peaks with moderate glacial slopes (eg Gran Paradiso and Strahlhorn) are more efficiently climbed on skis.
5. It's less effort, so much more time and energy is left for the climbing.
6. You cover more ground. Can you imagine going up the Midi cable car, descending to the east face of Mt Blanc du Tacul, climbing a route such as the Albinoni-Gabbarou, abseiling off... and returning to Chamonix in a day? No chance for the mere mortal on foot but entirely do-able on skis...
7. It's a great alternative to climbing when there's too much snow to climb. When there is so much snow that climbing turns in to dangerous wading, skiing or ski touring is a great way to stay fit and acclimatised - and have fun in the process.
8. It's great for checking conditions. Being able to cover loads of ground in a day, you can really explore an area, checking out which routes are in condition and gaining valuable descent information.
9. A great leveller – there's nothing better than watching your mate, who's a better climber, taking a jacket filling head plant...
10. You get to buy more kit!
11. Girls dig skiers more than climbers... it's something to do with the thigh muscles (or so I'm told!).
So what extra kit do you need beyond the normal alpine climbing stuff?
Skis: The heavier and fatter the skis, the easier it is to ski difficult snow. The shorter, thinner and lighter the skis, the easier it is to go uphill. So a bit of a compromise is usually best. I find something like a Rossignol B3, that is about 84mm wide underfoot works well for most things. It's not so wide that it is a struggle to stay on in-situ skin tracks and doesn't feel like pushing snow-ploughs when breaking trail. But they are enough of a 'down hill' ski to keep the descents fun and easy.
If you are aiming to do a route with a descent down a different way (ie not a rap-route) then you will want to carry your skis on the climb. In this case as light and short (for clearance when swinging axes) as possible is the key, and there are several 'approach skis' on the market that work well for this.
Bindings: There are several makes of touring binding out there. For the purposes of a climber getting into ski mountaineering (rather than a skier) I think the Diamir Fritschi series of bindings work well, being simple to use and tried and tested. The Fritschi Freeride binding is the top of the range, but only necessary if you are keen on the downhill or heavy – the other models are cheaper and lighter, though less robust. If you want to go very lightweight and still retain good ski-ability, Dynafit are the way to go, but you must have ski-touring boots with the 2 pin-holes on the sides of the toe block.
Skins: Go for a pair that are made for the width of your skis and shaped to match their outline with just a small gap between the metal ski edges and the skin edges. Your retailer should be able to cut and fit your skins properly. If you have straight skins that are not shaped to your ski, you will find it hard to stay on skin tracks, particularly on steeper ground –very frustrating, as you slide back down the hill!
Couteaux: Also known as ski-crampons or harscheisen. Sometimes the snow is rock hard and skins are not enough, especially if traversing. Your choices are then, either take your skis off and put crampons on and walk, or put ski-crampons on and keep going (better, usually). Your retailer can supply you with the appropriate couteaux for your binding and ski set up.
Poles: I prefer a cheap pair of non-collapsible poles, as they are stronger, cheaper and can't go wrong. A bit of zinc oxide tape on the shaft helps grip when holding the pole half way down whilst skinning up zig-zags. Have small baskets if the terrain is steep or snow is hard. Bigger baskets help when skinning through deep snow.
Collapsible poles can be useful if carrying them up a climb, though you will still be carrying your skis on the outside of your pack...
Boots: By far the best option is to buy some touring boots and get them fitted to your feet – they will be really comfortable and warm. The heavier and more 'down hill skiing' oriented the touring boot, the worse it will be for climbing and vice versa. So I would recommend something in the middle like the Garmont mega-ride, which are surprisingly good to climb in and entirely reasonable to ski in. A decent boot-fitter, like 'Fall Line' in Chamonix, will recommend the best make and model to suit your feet.
Axe: If you are off to do a hardcore climb, you will already have appropriate axe/crampons with you. If you are doing a technically easier objective, perhaps a short and lightweight axe (eg Grivel Airtech) is suitable. Though these lightweight ski touring axes are undoubtedly inferior to climb with, they are much lighter, which is nice.
Crampons: Standard 12 point mountaineering crampons are perfect as long as the front and back bails fit properly. Again, lightweight aluminium crampons are a nice option, but only if the terrain is not very technical and not rock-hard ice.
Pack: It's useful to have a pack that you can easily strap skis to. For climbing, the best method is strapping one ski vertically either side of the pack, with the tips pointing upwards. Strapping the tips together helps stabilize them and give clearance for axe swings and foot kicks.
Guy has been skiing for 27 years and telemarking since 1998. With a number of rare telemark descents around Chamonix, in Alaska's Chugach range and in Arctic Svalbard, he is one of Britain's top free-heel ski mountaineers. He has skied steeps and couloirs in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, British Columbia, Alaska, Svalbard, France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. In 2006 he telemarked from 7100m on Tibet's Cho Oyu and in 2007 made 7 first descents in the Watkins mountains of east Greenland along with the 1st British/2nd overall descent of Gunnbjornsfjeld - the '8th summit' and highest in the Arctic.
Guy has been climbing since University days and has climbed in Patagonia, Pakistan, Khyrghistan, Alaska, the USA and all over the UK and European Alps. In 2003 Guy put up a major new route on Denali's 2000m Father and Sons wall, in cutting edge style - a lightweight 52 hour single push.