What is Ski Mountaineering? Backcountry Skiing vs. Ski Mountaineering

Ski Mountaineering
Backcountry skiing" is a term that is familiar to almost every skier, yet "ski mountaineering" remains a bit of a mystery to many. Simply stated, ski mountaineering is the use of skis for ascending and descending mountains. The "skis" used could be either specialized ski mountaineering gear (alpine touring / randonnee), standard downhill skiing gear, telemark gear (free-heel nordic), very-short figle skis, or even snowboards. In the purest form of ski mountaineering, both the ascent and descent of a peak are made entirely on skis, using climbing skins and perhaps ski crampons for traction on the ascent, and then descending a continuous ski route back down to the base. At times a complete ski ascent is not possible due to snow conditions, route selection, or equipment choice, thus requiring some climbing on foot, perhaps using crampons or snowshoes. In other cases, a continuous ski descent may be dangerous or impossible, requiring downclimbing or rappelling past the areas of difficulty. The goal of ski mountaineering is to use skis to enhance the overall mountaineering experience by increasing speed, efficiency, and (most of all) enjoyment in the mountains.

In contrast, backcountry skiing usually refers to skiing for its own sake, trying to find the best ski conditions and terrain regardless of the particular mountains where it occurs. Although the ascent and descent techniques are the same, the goals of ski mountaineering trips and backcountry skiing trips are usually different. Backcountry ski trips typically involve yo-yoing a single slope several times in one day once the good snow has been found, while ski mountaineering trips typically consist of a single focused ascent or traverse each day. Most ski mountaineers do either style of trip depending on which is appropriate for the conditions and the season.

Basic Information and Brief Reviews of Ski & Snowboard Mountaineering Equipment

Modern ski and snowboard mountaineering equipment makes it possible for any reasonably athletic person to do trips which a few decades ago were possible only for the most hardened climbers and backcountry travelers. Ski mountaineering gear is becoming consistently easier to use and lighter in weight, although perhaps also increasingly expensive. There are many choices these days in ski mountaineering equipment, but the most basic choice is whether to use alpine, nordic, or snowboard gear. Alpine equipment can be either standard downhill skiing gear or specialized alpine touring (randonnee) gear, whereas the only nordic gear suitable for serious ski mountaineering is heavy-duty telemark gear. Telemark gear has long been the standard in the US, although randonnee is rapidly gaining popularity. In Europe, the cradle of the sport, randonnee equipment has been the choice of almost all ski mountaineers for many years. In addition to the two "traditional" choices, snowboards are becoming increasingly popular in the backcountry, and snowboarding is usually the easiest of the three forms to learn for those with no previous skiing experience.

The best choice of equipment is the type one feels most comfortable using for a given trip, since most ski mountaineering trips can be done on any of the three types of gear. In some difficult snow conditions (breakable crust, partially refrozen slush), alpine skis and snowboards have major advantages over telemark, while for long high-country or icefield traverses telemark is often best. However, the weight difference between alpine and telemark gear has been greatly reduced, although snowboarders still require the additional weight of snowshoes or ascent skis if the snowpack is not well-consolidated. I will concentrate here on alpine touring (randonnee) equipment, since that is what I use and it is the most natural type for those with a downhill skiing background, which is certainly true of the majority of prospective ski mountaineers. Randonnee is also the natural choice for those coming from a mountaineering/climbing background, since randonnee gear can be used with plastic or (very stiff) leather mountaineering boots (see below). There is also now expanded coverage of snowboarding equipment, due to the huge growth of backcountry snowboarding and the available gear over the past several years.

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