Ski mountaineers on their way to skiing the Aussie Couloir on Joffre Peak near Duffy Lakes in Canada's Coast Range. Photo: Zeb Blais
As winter comes to an end and spring begins, adventurous backcountry skiers and splitboarders stop dreaming of big lines and start DOING them! The combo of longer days and more predictable (and often lower) avalanche danger means that the hazards are easier to manage, and we can start stepping out into bigger terrain without taking crazy risks.
But don't let the sunshine fool you - to manage the hazards of climbing and skiing bigger mountains requires skill! From efficiency in movement to safety techniques and proper gear, there is a lot more to ski mountaineering than your standard ski tour. The best way to learn: firsthand of course!
Ski mountaineering skills help us efficiently ascend and descend big mountain lines. They also increase safety. Photo: John Littleton
As you step up your ski mountaineering game in big mountains like Mt. Shasta, Mt. Baker, and peaks in the Eastern Sierra, the hazards at hand may be obvious, or they might surprise you. Extreme weather, altitude sickness, rockfall, icefall, navigation, firm and steep snow and ice, cornice collapses and avalanches are all objective hazards that increase the risks of climbing and riding big lines. This is an intimidating list, it's important to be prepared for these potential hazards and plan appropriately. Getting dialed with the knowledge and skills you need to climb and ski safely is a critical part of being able manage and avoid these hazards in the field!
Essential skills that will form the foundation of your ski mountaineering adventures include efficiency and safety skills. Efficiency is what allows us to make ascents of huge peaks without burning ourselves out and is an important part of staying safe in the mountains as well. We always want to have reserve fuel in the tank in case of an emergency, so the more fuel efficient we are the more gas we'll have left at any given point in our objective. Efficiency stems from basic movement - how we walk and position our bodies when we climb and ski and also how and when we use our tools, like ice axes and crampons. Even basic things like how often we take a break and the pace that we move can have a big impact on our efficiency.
Safety comes from both effective planning and using proper techniques and gear. We start by picking an appropriate objective for the conditions and the skillset of our team and factor in things like weather and how long we expect the objective will take us to complete. These estimates are based on planning tools and prior experience.
Once we begin our objective, we're relying on hard skills to make us efficient and increase our safety margin. Knowing how to navigate in the mountains and applying the appropriate crampon techniques not only increases efficiency, but it makes us safer as well! Knowing how to perform an ice axe arrest, either as a self-arrest or as part of a rope team on steep or glaciated climb, can be the difference between a casual slip and a fatal fall.
The best way to learn these skills is with hands-on, in person instruction from a professional. A course from an experienced, AMGA-trained guide will jump start your skills and get you into bigger peaks and steeper lines with more confidence and a better understanding of how to do it right. Practicing these skills in a safe environment with hands-on instruction and coaching from a professional guide is going to be a lot more reassuring than watching a few YouTube videos!
Skier climbs couloir. Photo: John Littleton.
A great place to gain these fundamental skills is through a Ski Mountaineering Course. You'll learn about the gear, ice axe techniques including self and team arrest, crampon techniques, mountaineering efficiency including the rest step, descending techniques for mountaineering, and the basics of rope team travel. These skills are essential to your staying safe and succeeding in your big mountain objectives!
Once you've got the foundation, build your experience with a guide! Peaks like Mount Shasta and Mount Baker are perfect places to learn firsthand how professionals manage the hazards that the mountains can throw at us. From steep slopes to crevasses, you'll get to put your ski mountaineering skills into action with a professional guide to coach you along the way. And, as always, if you hire a guide, you can pick their brain! You can glean a huge amount of experience from inquiring about their concerns, strategy and thought process as they move the team through the hazards of the mountains!
Practicing an extended rappel during a Blackbird Mountain Guides’ Rope Skills for Skiers and Riders Course. Photo: John Littleton
One of the best things about backcountry skiing and splitboarding is that the learning never ends! With a foundation of basic skills, you'll be able to up the ante as your knowledge, experience and movement skills grow. The sky is the limit!