Backcountry Skiing by Volken, Schell and Wheeler

A review of the latest release in the Mountaineers Outdoor Expert Series – Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering. Jim is an accomplished backcountry skiier with experience in the Alps, Norway and the Canadian Rockies. He desccribes himself as "an avid consumer of mountaineering literature"

Back Country Skiing, 29 kb

This book, published by the Mountaineers, is written for people coming into ski touring and ski mountaineering from either a skiing or a climbing background, and aims to give them the skills to begin travelling in the backcountry.

In its 300 odd pages there are chapters on equipment, avalanches, navigation, skiing uphill and downhill (although basic downhill ski techniques are not covered), shelters, weather and rescue techniques. North Americans take avalanches much more seriously as a threat than we tend to in Europe and, as you would expect from an American book, the chapter on avalanches is extremely thorough.  There are useful sections on how human dynamics affect route choice in avalanche terrain and on overall route planning, as well as the usual material on snowpack and terrain.  The section on kit is comprehensive but does rather assume that the reader is going to completely re-equip with new gear, rather than stick Fritschi bindings on your old skis and go and get on with it as I and most of my friends did when we were starting out.

I did like the tips on dealing with awkward problems, for instance skiing crust and planning your skin track, and I wish I had read the section on skiing roped up before my recent trip to Alaska! There are 15 pages devoted to kick turns, but I think you would struggle to learn this technique (or is it an art?) solely from the book, however there is a useful trouble shooting section for perfecting your turns.

The section on ski mountaineering techniques is again very thorough, and covers snow, rock and ice anchors - 21 pages are devoted to this, which is excessive if you have done even a moderate amount of mountaineering before, but insufficient if you have never done any.  I think you would struggle to build a safe anchor solely on the information provided here, it is probably more useful as a reminder than for learning from scratch. Maybe it is an American thing, but the authors do feel the need to litter this section with mnemonics such as THINX snow belays and EARNEST principles of anchors.

The section on planned shelters is really an introduction rather than covering all the intricacies of camping on snow, and there is no mention of the European Hut system, with its many traditions and peculiarities.

One of the things that really annoyed me about this book was the excessive technical detail.  For instance the use of the Werner Munter method of calculating route times including the use of a calculator accurate to 2-4 decimal places; how to calculate the mechanical advantage of a 6:1 haul system (but not allowing for losses due to friction anyway) and  “Let's get technical. Principles of function of a PTFE (Goretex) membrane”.  No, I tell you what, let's not bother with how Goretex works and have a few more inspiring colour photos and useful anecdotes to amplify the technical information.

In addition to the technical material provided I would have liked to see a section on recommended areas to go around the world, and a comprehensive kit checklist as an appendix.

In summary this is an informative but not very inspiring book that probably offers more to the skier coming into ski mountaineering than to the climber, who is more likely to be aware of crevasse, avalanche and terrain hazards.  It serves as a useful reference volume, especially the material on avalanches.

Book Details

Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering

Martin Volken, Scott Schell and Margaret Wheeler

ISBN: 978-1-59485-038-7

344 pages, 215mm x 180mm, 175 b&w photos, 20 charts, paperback, £15.95

About the Authors

Martin Volken is an IFMGA certified Swiss Mountain Guide, founder and owner of Pro Guiding Service and Pro Ski Service of North Bend, WA. He also works as an instructor/examiner for the AMGA, authored the ski touring guidebook Backcountry Skiing: Snoqualmie Pass, and pioneered several first ascents, descents and ski traverses in the North Cascades.

Scott Scheell is a certified AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide and has led numerous single- and multi-day trips in the Cascades, the Coast Range of British Columbia and the Alps.

Margaret Wheeler is a certified AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide and has been guiding for Pro Guiding Service since 2002.

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