The snow might be melting away on the hills of home, but out in the Alps the ski mountaineering season is in full swing. Keen Chamonix-based skier Dave Searle offers some words of wisdom for anyone looking to push the envelope on serious big mountain descents.
From the moment I found out about ski mountaineering I knew I wanted to do it. For me it has been a long road to get to the stage I'm at now, but I've savoured every step. I've spent 4.5 winter seasons in Chamonix skiing, climbing, ski touring and ski mountaineering (I lost the .5 due to a knee injury) and when I look back I realise how much I have learnt along the way. Sometimes my learning curve has been steeper and less forgiving than I would have hoped, but I've had some amazing days out in the mountains climbing to high summits and skiing back down.
There is so much to learn about equipment, snow and safety techniques before you even get to the skiing part, which I'm still sure takes a lifetime to perfect. I never had the opportunity to ski when I was younger so when I got the chance to start in my early 20's I was hooked almost immediately. Chamonix has been a pretty full-on place to learn the trade. The mountains are huge and unforgiving and there are so many strong skiers and climbers everywhere it's often easy to lose sight of your own goals and feel like you're just going out to keep up with your peers.
When everything comes together and I'm able traverse a mountain with my skis on my back on the way up, and on my feet on the way down I feel the biggest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But what have I learnt along the way? What would I have liked to have been told before embarking on the journey to become a Ski Mountaineer? Here's a few of my tips and stories, hopefully useful to anyone who wants to go into the mountains on skis, be it as a mode of transport to get to a climb or as a way of sliding down steep snow covered mountains.
'When everything comes together and I'm able traverse a mountain I feel the biggest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction'
Judgement over Ability
Proper assessment of your own ability and what you're able to ski is critical. As a climber it can be easy to get yourself in some pretty 'out there' situations that you might not be able to ski safely. Know what you're able to ski; do plenty of research on the route you want to do and don't bite off more than you can chew. Remember if you're skiing a steep and exposed slope, you're always solo. You may be out with a friend but they can't help you if you make a mistake and fall. Learn to access the snow and the conditions as you go. I'm constantly asking myself what's going on with the snowpack, what happened before today and what it will be like on the aspect I'm going to ski. If you think it's going to be bad then what's your plan B or C or D?. Know when to turn around and have a plan of how to do it. Do you need more rope or equipment to escape quickly and safely if you can't ski down?
Know when to Bail
Turning around from a sought-after objective can be a tough decision, but when you remove ambition and ego then it becomes black and white. Especially if you know it's a decision that will keep you alive. A few seasons ago myself and Ross Hewitt bailed on skiing the Angelique Couloir on the south face of Les Courtes after a tedious and taxing 800m climb up the North East slope. We had got to the top too late and we knew it almost immediately. With the rising temperatures we had been experiencing during the week, we knew that in order to get the steep couloir in good and safe condition we had to be fast on the climb. With a few setbacks on the way up including collapsing bergschrunds and highly variable snow we ended up losing too much time. Arriving at the top of the couloir we went from the cool, shaded NE face to what felt like looking into a volcano on the south face. Random wet snow slides, loose rock and a fully transformed snowpack were not conducive to steep skiing in a narrow, long couloir. Downclimbing back down the North East slope, which sometimes is the best ski descent in the Mont Blanc Massif, was certainly a demoralising affair but ultimately the right decision. It was also something only a previous alpine climbing career could have prepared me for, downclimbing steep snow for hundreds of metres. Ross later admitted to me that he was nervous about suggesting we bailed because he thought I wouldn't listen or we might disagree. I think this might have been the start of our partnership which has been a strong one over the past few seasons.
'Turning around from a sought-after objective can be a tough decision, but when you remove ambition and ego then it becomes black and white. Especially if it keeps you alive.'
The Eight Ps
Proper Preparation and Planning Prevent Poor Performance and Potential Pain. In other words, do some homework on your goals. Read all the guidebooks and blogs you can, study photos and videos down to the last detail. Go on reconnaissance missions with binoculars and cameras. Study the map and work out where you might be able to escape if you need to. Where's the nearest hut and how are you going to get out of the mountains at the end of the day? The more information you have the easier it will be to get your mission accomplished. Learn from other people's mistakes, because it's always a lot easier than making them yourself. You often won't read about mistakes on the internet so you'll need to talk to people face to face. Know what's going on with the snow in the mountains; read the avalanche bulletin and weather forecast daily, even if you're not going skiing that day. Which aspect is the snow going to be the best on? Planning can be the crux and is something which is often overlooked. If I want to get something big done then I'll often need a whole day to get everything set in my mind, planned, checked, sorted.
Don't overlook the basics: wax your skis and the fur of your skins, it will speed up flat sections and make the day go faster, especially in the spring when the wetter snow sticks more easily. Sew up any holes in the hems of your salopettes; I've had a ski brake get caught in a hole on my ski pants (opposite leg) before and let me tell you it's a scary situation to be in. Sharpen your axes and crampons. Double check you have everything you need for the day. Change the batteries on your transceiver and head-torch (put in Lithium batteries, they cost twice as much but last up to six times longer and are better in the cold). Check the buckles on your boots regularly and use Loctite to stop the screws from coming undone if you change their position. Know how your bindings work down to the last detail and take the tools with you for field repairs. Having to ski down on improperly set-up kit can be terrifying. I once dropped into the SE couloir of the Aiguille du Gliere, a steep and exposed line in the Aiguilles Rouges, only to find, five turns in, that my bindings weren't set up right and I would occasionally go free heel after landing a jump turn. I didn't have the tools to fix the problem so suffice to say it put me on edge the whole way down and I didn't enjoy the descent one bit. Blowing a ski off for the same reason could cost you dearly, at best a long ski down on one ski and at worst game over. Attention to detail is not over rated and could save you a lot of hassle or even your life. You wouldn't climb on an axe with a wobbly pick so why ski on questionable or unchecked ski kit?
'Listen to what the mountains are telling you and don't just carry on regardless, that's when accidents happen'
Speed is Key
Time is often a luxury you don't have on big days out. Being able to wait for the conditions to get better is the optimum position to be in, especially during the spring when snow conditions change quickly due to the sun's heat. Being late could cost you your chance to ski the slope in good snow or even safely. When myself, Ross Hewitt and James Mcskimming climbed and skied the Y Couloir on the Aiguille d'Argentiere two years back we were happy we had busted a gut on the climb up because we were able to kick back and wait for the snow to soften a little more before descending. If you're slow you could miss the chance to ski the best snow if the sun leaves the face and a crust begins to form again. Learn to move fast on the ups and change overs (going from skiing to climbing), the skiing takes however long it takes. A simple change from skiing to skinning often costs people more time than it should. It's a matter of practice and ultimately getting it done fast and efficiently. Watch a video of a pro Ski Mountaineering race for how it can be done. On days where you're changing your skins on and off a lot make sure you keep them dry from the start as time lost trying to get your skins back on as the glue slowly fails can be easily avoided with a careful approach from the off.
Listen to Gut Instinct
Perhaps not that many people get a bad gut feeling but I can almost always tell if something is a bad idea from the feeling in my stomach. If I'm worried about something then it usually goes wrong. I've learnt to listen to gut instinct, and turn back when it tells me. Distinguishing between nerves about a descent or climb and a bad gut feeling is the difference between the good and the great and takes a long time to understand; I still don't. I had been up several times to ski the Col Des Courtes, a steep and exposed face at the end of the Argentiere Glacier. The first two times we had bad gut feelings about the snow conditions from observing the snow on the glacier on the hike up. On the third time I remember having butterflies in my stomach on the way up because I knew how steep and exposed the top face was from the previous trip to scope it. However the conditions and weather were perfect and I had been rigorous in my preparation. I knew it was just nerves and not a bad feeling. The butterflies disappeared after the first turn and it turned out to be one of the best descents I've ever had. Listen to what the mountains are telling you and don't just carry on regardless, that's when accidents happen. Better to turn around early and try another day than to push on into a bad situation that could be impossible to get out of. Get to know your partner, learn what they are comfortable with and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Communication is very important and perhaps they are able to spot something you may have missed or vice versa.
Keep your finger on the pulse... always
What's going on with the snow? Which aspects and altitudes are safe and where is the snow good? What's been happening over the whole season and how is it changing right now? How are you feeling? Tired or distracted? Maybe it's better to switch objectives if you're not on the ball or even come back another day. How is your partner doing? What's the weather doing, is that storm rolling in early? Were you expecting it to be this cold/hot and how will that affect the snow and the mountains? It's all about asking yourself and your partner every question. I'm always checking the snow with my poles when I'm hiking up or skiing down to see how it's changing with different aspects/angles or as the day goes on. If I'm skiing a traverse section then I might cut above the track to check stability and snow depth. When I skied the South Couloir of the l'Eboulement we were expecting the snow to soften in the sun whilst we were on our way up. It did soften but neither of us noticed the approaching cloud which quickly blocked the sun's rays when we were nearing the top and meant the snow quickly turned back to nasty crust. Keeping your finger on the pulse is important both for safety and enjoyment.
Light is still right
Just because skiing is another aspect of alpinism doesn't mean it's different to climbing - the same rules apply. Shedding every unnecessary gram will save your precious energy on the way up and down. Heavy boots and skis are great for big turns and freeriding but you don't need a heavy set up dragging you down on the way up. Dynafit (tech) type bindings are still king of the Skimo scene. They are the lightest by a long way and they have other useful benefits like being able to lock the toes on for really step descents - a handy feature if you're on terrain where a ski coming off could cost you more than a bruised ego. They also tour way better than any other bindings on the market in my opinion; trust me I've used them all.
Consider a thinner rope; if you're only ever going to be abseiling down steep snow then 6mm Kevlar ropes are worth a look. Know their limitations and consider how you might have to change your system to get someone out of a crevasse. There's plenty of weight saving to be had if you can get your head around what is a relatively new concept. Crampons and axes are also heavy bits of kit so consider using alloy types to save the grams; but again be aware of their limitations on hard ice and rock.
Learn the Jump Turn
This can be a tricky one to master and difficult to find the right place to practice. The conventional way of turning skis doesn't work on slopes over 40 degrees (anything steeper than the steepest black run) as you'll gain too much speed when the skis are pointing down the hill. Jump turns are too complicated to explain here but you'll know when you can do it. It's all about turning the skis 180 degrees in the smallest space and shortest distance. This obviously gets more difficult the steeper the slope gets. There are many different ways of doing it and a good instructor or guide should be able to show you how - or learn from a friend or mentor who knows their stuff. Keeping the tips of your skis on the snow is optimal as you can feel what the snow is doing further down the slope. Building up from that is the tricky part. Getting your poles in the right position and coordinating them during the turn can be a difficult thing to get right too, and getting it wrong could mean you hit them with your skis and end up in a worse position. The best places to start practicing are steep, smooth pistes where the consequences of getting it wrong are low.
And Most Importantly...
Have fun and enjoy what you're doing. Ski with people you enjoy skiing with and don't feel like you're being pressured into something you don't want to do. Strive for the best snow but also be able to ski the bad safely. The possibilities are endless and if you're keen then ski mountaineering can be enjoyed all over the world. Good luck and stay safe.
About the author
Dave Searle is a 25-year-old climber and skier based in Chamonix. He has been climbing for about seven years, working up from scratch to climb some of the biggest faces in the Alps. Dave enjoys all aspects of climbing and skiing, but for him the best days are fast and light ascents of long routes on big mountains, and blasting about the mountains of Chamonix on his skis. He also really enjoys UK Trad climbing and Scottish winter, and sometimes misses them out in Chamonix.
Dave is sponsored by Blue Ice
For more, see his blog