Backcountry skiing is a tough sport. Hemingway said ... “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Adding skis is just adding weight to mountaineering, though the descent is far more exciting than walking down. Some things about winter backcountry travel are obvious, or at least should be obvious – like carrying a beacon, shovel and probe and knowing how to use them, and watching avy conditions closely – but often the subtleties are just as important. Here are a few backcountry skiing tips I’ve learned from years of making turns in remote mountains.
1. Carry four rubber Voile straps
Four rubber Voile straps are always in my backpack. I prefer the ones with the metal closure because they last longer. These straps have dozens of uses. They can secure iced-up skins to your skis using two straps front and back. You can also use a twisted strap as a ski crampon. And when you’re bootpacking, A-frames are more stable than H-frames; use a strap to hold the tips of your skis together. Confused about the difference? This photo illustrates it perfectly.
2. Put your skins in your jacket, when yo-yoing slopes
Putting your skins in your jacket while skiing helps to keep them dry, sticky and ice-free. It also makes for smooth transitions.
3. Use an insulated bladder system to stay hydrated
Using an insulated bladder helps to keep liquids readily accessible while on the move ... as long as the tube doesn’t freeze. A few tricks help prevent an ice-blocked tube include:
- Blow air into the tube each time you’re done drinking. If there’s no water in the tube, then it follows there will be no ice in the tube.
- Put hot water into your bladder.
- Keep the mouthpiece tucked underneath your jacket.
4. Put your downhill ski on first
Putting your downhill ski on first keeps all your gear above you, and not cartwheeling down the slope below you. You can have your uphill leg below the ski slightly to protect it from sliding down the hill if it slips. In steep terrain, be sure to make a solid platform before putting your skis on. Use the adze on your axe if you need to.
5. Duct tape, duct tape, duct tape, duct tape.
Stuff breaks, duct tape fixes, usually at least well enough to get you home. Duct tape also work wonders for preventing blisters on your heels. I like to roll duct tape onto my ski poles, below the grips. That way this ultimate MacGyver tool is easily accessible. I try to distribute the tape evenly on the poles so they stay balanced for skiing. Another good option for tougher fixes is bailing wire, but don’t spin that around your poles; keep it in your pack.
6. Bring a paper map
Bring a paper map and make sure it’s a full resolution 1:24,000 series. You can see most large cliff bands on detailed maps. With the prevalence of technology, I can’t stress enough the importance of bringing an actual map and a compass. Smart phone and GPS units are great, but batteries don’t do well in the cold. Be sure to practice good old fashioned map and compass orienteering often so when you do need this skill you have it at your disposal.
7. Fuel your body
For your body to perform you have to give it fuel. This tip should be obvious, but it's one of the most common mistakes people make. I like to bring a selection of energy foods, including gels, candy and bars. (Highly recommend Kate's Real Food Bars). I also like real food on my tours, such as a sandwich. And, don’t forget to hydrate. A good rule for water or electrolyte replacement drinks is 1 liter per 1000 feet of gain. This is especially true at higher elevations.
8. Don't ski the trees, avoid them
Who doesn't love tree skiing? However, this is a horrible misnomer. You want to ski between the trees and not the trees themselves. In deeper snow packs this isn’t really a joke. Be aware of tree wells. A fall into the space around the tree can lead to burial and possible death. Every year there are non-avalanche related snow immersion deaths (narsid). Give the trees some space. Always maintain voice contact with your partners and stay close together. If you have to go back up hill to rescue your buddy you’ll need to be sure to travel with skins.
9. Be prepared to spend the night
Make sure that you are prepared to spend the night out, because you never know what twists your adventure may take. This means bringing warm clothes such as a down jacket, balaclava and extra gloves. Extra socks aren’t a bad idea either. And, don’t forget a headlamp. I also carry a lightweight bivy sack. It only weighs a few ounces but will retain 80% of your body heat, and can make a snow cave almost enjoyable. A small stove for longer trips is also a good idea. Hot liquids can keep hypothermia at bay. Bottom line: a rescue is never guaranteed and you should be ready to be self-sufficient.
10. Pack your brain
There are so many factors to consider in putting together your day: the line, the group, the route, alternate routes, avy conditions, weather, gear, food, start times, possibly camping. The list goes on. The mountains are dynamic and you need to think on your feet. Slow down to speed up. The small things, like forgetting to switch your boots to ski mode, can lead to more serious consequences. Above all, humility and having the wisdom to know when to turn around will keep you skiing another day. Remember, as long as you avoid injuries and fatalities, any day on skis is a success.
What are your favorite backcountry skiing tips?Fritz Sperry is a veteran ski mountaineer based in Colorado. He's authored two guidebooks, Making Turns in Colorado's Front Range and Making Turns in the Tenmile/ Mosquito Range, and blogs at MakingTurns.com.