Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What is Backcountry Skiing / snowboarding?

Ski touring, Backcountry skiing, AT skiing, ski mountaineering, randonee … whatever you call it, getting into the backcountry on skis is becoming more and more popular.  I use the term backcountry to encompass both skiing and boarding and will discuss boarding specific things as they come up.

The idea of escaping into nature and away from the crowds—and enjoying untouched snow—may sound really good, but where do you start? There are two essential components, education and gear.

What I want to point out is that backcountry is not hiking in the snow for hours with your skis or board on your back.  Fighting your way up that powder covered slope for a single run back to the car.  Done correctly it is an efficient an fast means of travel uphill wearing all your gear, skis on your feet the whole time.  The first time you try it you will never wear snowshoes again.  Typically several runs up and down the slope are done in a day.  Sometimes a single run is done but it is very often truly magical experience sliding down a once in a lifetime mountain.

Every avid outdoor person eventually loves gear but first you have to figure out what type of skiing / boarding you'll be doing and learn how to ski or board (if you don't already know).  Education is very important in the backcountry because there is so many factors that effect your safety.  Snow conditions, terrain hazards, avalanche, access, weather... it's a large list.  In the backcountry there is no risk mitigation being done by resorts to ensure your safety nor is there a highly skilled ski patroller nearby to assist you.  You must be self sufficient and ready to handle the situation if the worst happens.

Typically you need to be at least a competent intermediate resort skier able to navigate those blue runs with some level of skill.  Once you can handle that your ready to venture out into the beautiful untracked slopes of the backcountry.  We tell people that because there are a few minor body posture changes that you need to master.  Typically wider skis or boards are required for the difference in snow conditions.  That means you will have a slightly wider stance and less grab to your edges.  If your a experienced powder rider you know what I mean.  Learning the downhill portion is the easy part. Once you feel your ready head out with a guide and find out if backcountry is for you.  They can offer advice, safety, and gear that you won't get anywhere else.

If you decide that backcountry is your new passion then further education is what you need to get farther and farther out.  A basic avalanche course will set you up to understand how terrain and snow work together.  This is an essential skill set.  It won't teach you to predict avalanches but it will allow you to check the avalanche forecast for your area and decide on a course of action for the day.  Skiing appropriate terrain on high hazard days will greatly increase your life expectancy.  You should also
consider a navigation course.  They are offered at many clubs and organizations.  Being up on the mountain and stuck in a whiteout is a humbling experience.  Don't just rely on a GPS, they have error tolerances that can lead you right off a cliff.  Plus or minus ten meters is plenty to get you in trouble when you ski down ridge lines or ten foot wide chutes.  Be warned!  A night in freezing temps trying to fight your way back to the car is unpleasant and happens often to those unprepared.

To get uphill most backcountry users go with a touring setup for their skis or a split board.  These are specifically built to travel in snow uphill.  In the world of backcountry there is three types of systems.

Tech touring systems refer to the binding where your boot mounts to the ski.  It is compromised of a two piece system.  The toe has a pinch type pin that clamps to the toe of the boot through special teeth built into the boot.  This is referred to as dynafit compatible boots.  Named after the manufacturer who invented the technology.  Now there are several reputable companies making these types of bindings.  The toe attachment allows the boot to rotate forward and back along the ski as you walk.  The heel attachment is adjustable.  It consists of pins that insert into the heel of the boot that can be moved in or out.  In the out position the heel is free from the binding to allow for a natural walking movement.  The only attachment to the ski in this position is the toe.  When you wish to ski downhill you simply move the pins forward and lock the heel down.  Now your skis are the same as resort skis.

Frame type systems use the more familiar binding system of the ski resort or alpine skis system.  The major difference is that the binding is built on a rail that attaches to the ski at the toe and has an adjustable lock at the heel.  These are the most popular binding in the US due to the impression that tech type systems are weak or will release at bad times.  This is purely a myth.  Most tech bindings wont release even when you want them to and are over engineered to fight this myth.  In my experience the frame bindings release far more often and are far more cumbersome to operate.  The major benefit of this system is that it works with any boot.  You do not need to purchase special boots to use the binding.  If you want to purchase the least amount of new gear frame bindings may be what you looking for.

Now you have skis with bindings that allow you to walk but the ski will simply slid backwards if you try to go uphill...  The way to prevent that is with a traction device called 'skins'.  These nylon strips
adhere to the bottom of your ski and provide traction for up hill travel while preventing sliding backwards.  There are a few different types out there mostly consisting of different mixtures of nylon and mohair (goat hair).  The original skins were made of seal skin hence the name we use today.  Most people start off with standard nylon Black Diamond STS skins which are universal fit and provide excellent traction.  Be aware that special skins precut to fit skis often don't have the adjust-ability you need in long touring days.  Snow builds up under the skin and prevents them from adhering to the ski.  Adjustable skins can be tightened to prevent this.

For our snowboarders out there you are not forgotten!  Still somewhat new but rapidly growing is the splitboard.  A snowboard designed to split down the center and turn into skis that you can use to travel uphill.  Once at your destination you snap the board back together and board down.  The uphill portion requires a bit of practice for most boarders as the balance and foot placements are not what your used to.  The uphill setup uses the same type of skins as the skiers.  Your boots and bindings can remain the same as any resort setup.  Voile sells a conversion kit that will allow you to use any snowboard binding.  They mount on a plate that has a pin on the toe to allow for proper walking while the board is split.  The bindings are moved from the center of the board to one on each side.  When you reassemble the board you move the bindings back to their proper place with a simple pin and rail type system. For most the first few times on these boards is frustrating but keep at it the benefit of having the boards on your feet for uphill travel far outweigh the learning curve.

As for boards there are so many options out there that it is not within the scope of this blog.  Typically skis are wider and longer than normal resort skis.  They are also much lighter in construction.  For skiing resorts you need a heavier ski to drive it on icy groomed slopes but iin the backcountry heavy means tired.  A pair of lightweight carbon fiber skis will increase the amount of distance you can travel and save your legs a lot of work.  Basically try out as many skis as you can before buying.  Skis are a personal choice and everybody skis differently.  Find the one that works for you.

Finally, ski mo or ski mountaineering is an advanced form of backcountry skiing and mountaineering.  Once you master backcountry skiing some people desire to head up into the massive mountain ranges of the world and ski big peaks.  This requires very specific gear and skills.  The ability to descend very steep often dangerous conditions is an awesome challenge and very rewarding.

Above all, have fun and get outside!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Skiing essentials!

How to put on your backcountry skis while on steep terrain... 

First always ensure your safety by looking up hill to spot any skiers or potential threats from falling environmental items (snow, rocks, or ice).

It helps to chop out a small ledge just below knee level uphill to place your skis when your putting them on.  Place your skis and poles above the ledge you created by driving them tail first into the snow as deeply as you can or up to the heel piece.  This secures them and gives you something to hold onto.  When your ready begin with your down hill ski.

Place the ski on the ledge you created perpendicular to the slope and drive the tail into the snow at a slight angle.  The binding should be centered on your down hill knee.  Now hold onto the other ski and use it for balance as you step up and onto the downhill positioned ski.  Remember always start with the downhill ski.

Once the downhill ski is on position it securely perpendicular to the slope and grab the uphill ski.  move the ski to the ledge and drive the uphill ski tail into the snow at an angle that puts the nose a foot or so off the ground.  This puts the toe piece within reach and secures the ski.  Insert your toe and  lock the binding then step into the heel.  Once secure you can switch to down hill mode on your toe.  Use your ski poles for balance during this maneuver.  If you have rail type bindings decrease the angle slightly so you can insert the toe of the boot and fluidly step into the heel.  Be careful as the tail will come out of the snow as you step down and you risk losing the ski.

The process is reversed in order to remove your skis on steep terrain.  Remember Down hill ski first when put-on on you r skis, and down hill last when removing you skis.

Pro tip:  Practice removing your skins and switching into ski mode without removing your skis, this prevents the possibility of losing a ski.  Be careful though it's easy to lose your balance during this maneuver so get it dialed on the flats first!