Zeb Blais, IFMGA Mountain Guide and Director of Blackbird Mountain Guides, taking a crew of ski mountaineers for a climb during a recent Ski Mountaineering Skills course on Donner Summit in Truckee. Photo: Ali Agee.
Ski Mountaineering is intimidating. It doesn't even sound like a sport. It sounds like a Bachelor of Science degree that you settled for because you couldn't handle Biomedical engineering. It sounds like something that requires extreme suffering and toughness: an activity where the prerequisites include enduring weeks trapped in a wind battered tent, losing toes to frost bite, rappelling from an anchor made of a frozen snickers bar, or, worst of all, having a degree in snow science.
In reality, ski mountaineering isn't that hard. To be a ski mountaineer, you need the skills to recognize hazards and manage them as you summit mountains and ski down them. It's doesn't start with skiing K2: a progression in ski mountaineering should begin with small objectives.
First and foremost, we need to recognize the hazards involved. There are a lot more hazards in ski mountaineering versus backcountry ski touring. If you understand the hazards, many of them are easy to avoid. Hazards include:
- Long, Steep, Firm Slopes
- Cornice Collapses
- Crevasse Falls (in glaciated terrain)
- Icefall (Rime ice from rock cliffs or serac fall on glaciers)
- Inclement and extreme mountain weather
- Altitude Sickness
Beyond recognition of hazards, ski mountaineering is about managing the hazards! To manage this long list of dangers, we have tools and techniques that help us maintain a margin of safety while summiting and skiing big lines.
Zeb Blais demonstrating front pointing technique and the high dagger position during Blackbird Mountain Guides' Ski Mountaineering Skills. Photo: Ali Agee.
These fundamental techniques are straight forward, hard skills that can be learned quickly with instruction and coaching in a course like Ski Mountaineering Skills. These fundamentals include:
- Mountaineering efficiency including the Rest Step
- Crampon Techniques and footwork
- Ice Axe Techniques including Self Arrest and Team Arrest (for Rope Team Travel)
- Descending techniques for mountaineering (plunge step and flat footing)
- Basics of rope team travel (when and how to use a rope with a team of skiers)
- When and how to transition from skinning to ski crampons and from ski crampons to boot crampons
- How to transition to skiing down when climbing steep, exposed terrain (like a couloir that you can't top out)
- How to managing avalanche hazard with AIARE Avalanche Courses
- How to rescue someone from an avalanche with an Avalanche Rescue Course
- How to prepare for an accident with a Wilderness First Aid Course
Big Mountain Ski Mountaineering on Mount Baker. Serious lines like this require confidence in assessment of conditions and hazards at hand - experience is essential! Photo: Zeb Blais.
Once you have this foundation of skills, you're ready to start building experience. The key is to start small. Choose simple terrain with a limited number of hazards to manage. Recognize the hazards at hand and make sure you understand how to manage them before getting into complex terrain and unwittingly opening yourself up to having an accident. As you progress into bigger and more complex objectives, hiring a guide can offer key insights into the increased hazards that complex terrain holds. A guide will provide sound strategies for managing hazards as you step out into bigger and more hazardous terrain.
As your experience and skills grow, you'll be able to make good decisions about terrain choices and conditions that will help keep you out of harm's way. It's important to cultivate these skills over time through lots of experience in the mountains. Over years of working as a fulltime IFMGA mountain guide, my experience has been shaped by the things I've seen and by interacting with other professional mountain guides who have deep levels of experience in various terrain, snowpacks and mountain conditions. This experience cannot be stressed enough and provides insight and intuition for making sound decisions in the mountains.
As you progress as a ski mountaineer, there are a couple things to keep in mind:
Recognize when you have the right amount of experience to make a sound decision and when you have uncertainty. In times of uncertainty, pull back from exposed and hazardous terrain!
Seek mentors, take courses and hire a guide to build experience and refine skills as you step up in terrain and exposure! This will expand your understanding of the mountains, will help you stay safer and accomplish bigger goals and will reduce the amount of thrashing you do during your time in the mountains!
We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences on ski mountaineering! Reach out in the comments below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!