Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series on The Art of Skinning. Read Part 1: An Education. Contributing Editor John Robison IV explores the backcountry, the culmination for a lifetime of education in the mountains.
Author’s Note: I am by no means a professional, or even all experienced. I’m sharing this partly for selfish reasons — to drill it all down while it’s fresh — and partly to share my perspective as a freshman backcountry rider for those who are interested in getting into backcountry skiing. This is not a comprehensive work, merely an introduction to an immense and complex subject.
In the backcountry, the things you carry can make the all the difference. Having a functional, efficient, and organized kit — and the required know-how to fully use it… — are a prerequisite to any backcountry tour. As the activity gains popularity, options for appropriate equipment and apparel seem to multiplying, led by innovative companies like G3, BCA, Patagonia, Black Diamond, Jones, and DPS.
But these precautions come with their own tree well of sorts — this is expensive stuff. That being said, there is also something liberating about owning all this equipment, speaking to one of the foremost advantages to backcountry skiing over the resort: once you have it… no more ticket lines, no more lift lines, and no more boundary lines, making it free. (There is that small thing of the enormous physical investment you’re putting in. But we’re grownups; earn your turns already.) A few bucks for gas and a big meal will get you the type of turns you’d maybe only find in bounds if you were first lift on a pow day. And forget about the exorbitant fees ski resorts levy for access to “their” mountain. However, this advantage is only an advantage once you’ve stockpiled your gear closet. I’m not made of money and the closest looks more like a hamper right now, but I am slowly accruing my kit*.
*If you’re unsure of what to snag or, like me, simply cannot afford all the latest and greatest equipment, rentals are a possibility, and there are also in-between solutions such as snowshoes (in place of skins and splitboards).
Anyway, last month I fell into a little luck and had the privilege of heading out to Cooke City, Montana for a yurt excursion. The best part? Luckily, the trip was put on by Patagonia to introduce their newly-designed Backcountry Touring line. That means great gear, albeit test gear, well beyond my budget.
Here, I parse out what worked, what didn’t, and what alternatives are best, namely recommendations from the pros, employing the strenuously compiled data from an admittedly informal and subjective poll.
The utterly essential kit in any backcountry skier’s arsenal: the beacon, the probe, and the shovel; each piece so indispensable that the three words often come out as one. These three pieces of equipment are the three steps to any avalanche rescue, in this order.
An avalanche transceiver — often referred to as a “beacon” — serves the dual purpose of TRANS-mitting a signal for searchers and, when activated, re-CEIVING a signal sent from another transceiver. The importance of this piece of kit cannot be overstated. Any and every team of backcountry travelers depends on them to stay safe in the mountains as long as there is snow that can slide. The rest of the equipment without the beacons is like a snowboard without bindings on a mountain without snow; basically the foundation is there but you’re going to have a nearly impossible time getting much of anywhere. In fact, before stepping out of the parking lot, every tour leader performs a “beacon check” to ensure that every party member’s beacon is transmitting and receiving properly.
The transceiver works by sending a signal that, when detected by another transceiver in “Search” mode, points the searcher to the transmitting beacon. In the event of an avalanche, the rescuing team all must switch their beacons to “Search”; they then systematically comb the avalanche debris field until a signal is detected. Almost all newer transceivers are digital, with a screen that shows distance to the detected beacon and a direction. Analog transceivers are still in circulation and can be just as reliable: the key is for the user to be familiar with exactly how their transceiver works and efficient in its use.
I’ve found that the most common beacon used by recreational skiers and riders is the BCA Tracker. It is simple, intuitive, and reliable, and retails for between $239.95 to $335.oo, depending on the model. The Tracker DTS started the digital revolution; the line has retained its popularity due to ease of use and reliability. However, the pros I’ve encountered have all seemed to carry Pieps transceivers. Pieps was the first to include three antennae, allowing for more precise detection. The line of beacons has a reputation for reliability, excellent battery life, and a slim, compact design.
The second step in any avalanche rescue, after locating the burial site with the transceiver — again, there is never enough emphasizing: the transceiver is far and away most important piece of equipment in this kit; step 2 doesn’t happen without it, and neither do any of the following steps — is to figure out exactly where to dig. Here the probe is essential as a piece of equipment to penetrate the snow deeply and quickly, in an effort to pinpoint exactly where a victim is buried before it’s too late. The situations in which a probe is required are precisely the ones in which dilly-dallying won’t do. Quick probe deployment is almost as important as the activating transceivers. Literally every second counts, so much so that probes are now designed to be assembled with a single pull of a cable that runs the entire length of the segmented shaft.
The Black Diamond Quickdraw Carbon incorporates the easy deployment design with an extended 320 centimeters in length. Weight is always a consideration in human-powered travel; the carbon-fiber construction of this model cuts down on weight while keeping the length required for travel in deep snowpacks. Some people complain about the fragility of carbon probes, but our guides in Cooke City stressed the importance of delicate, careful probing. This drives at one of the difficulties of avalanche rescue: working in a highly efficient and effective manner while maintaining calm control over one’s actions. Only with practice can the appropriate balance be struck.
Probes incorporating innovative new features are in development. Pieps makes the iProbe One, which itself contains an avalanche receiver in its tip, to more quickly and accurately show exactly where a victim is buried.
The Avatech SP1 represents an even more exciting evolution in smart probe technology — the probe objectively measures characteristics of the snowpack and slope angle using a sensor in its tip. While this doesn’t apply to avalanche situations (the probe is a research tool), the technology effectively eliminates the need to dig a pit. The snow stratigraphy information gathered is far more accurate than anything a human could ever subjectively observe. The information is then displayed on an interface on the probe’s handle and can be geotagged and uploaded to a database: every use will improve the community’s understanding of a region’s snowpack in a quantified and standardized manner.
Once a team has detected and followed a beacon signal and located a buried victim with a probe, the buried person still must be dug out of the snow. For this, having a durable shovel to move a great deal of snow quickly is hugely important.
Doc Al, one of the mountain guides working out of Cooke City with Beartooth Powder Guides (and a verified hard man), swears by a shovel that incorporates a hoe arrangement in its design. He demonstrated its efficacy — using his shovel put together as a hoe, Allen was able to move much more snow than he could with the traditional shovel. He also recommended the advantages in leverage gained with an extendible handle.
The Backcountry Access DC-2 EXT provides an extendible hoe/shovel in durable aluminum, checking all of Doc’s boxes. The disadvantages: an extra half pound on a comparable shovel without the hoe option, as well as $25 tacked onto the MSRP. Frankly, an extra $25 in my pocket is not worth digging out a dead body…
Apparel and Pack
A backcountry tour puts a different set of demands on one’s pack and apparel than a day at the resort would. More equipment is required and the activity is much more labor intensive. Heavy, unbreathable resort-wear just won’t cut it when you’re putting in a 1500-foot skin track.
My philosophy is that I’d rather be prepared for adverse conditions than enjoy the advantages of a lighter pack and suffer when a storm rolls in — thereby, as you might suspect, I tend to overpack. My backcountry kit has some pieces that come along every tour and some that are dependent on anticipated weather conditions. The most important takeaway here is to understand why the essentials are essential and to absolutely prioritize them above any equipment that might be seen as a personal “luxury.”
A typical day in the backcountry can bring such a variety of conditions; a versatile cocktail of clothing can ensure comfort. When deciding on kit I do my best to weigh versatility, durability, breathability, and weight.
In designing their Backcountry Touring 2015 line, Patagonia sought to build the perfect kit for backcountry travelers — working hard in the cold, but accommodating of the unique requirements that skiing and splitboarding demand on kit. A few pieces have stood out in my limited testing of them.
For a base layer, I swear by merino wool. It insulates so well, even when wet, and bafflingly never smells. Patagonia’s wool is sustainably sourced from sheep living in the grasslands of, well, Patagonia… so (as with most of what Patagonia makes), it’s a feel-good product too. I lucked out and snagged a mid-weight merino henley top with a hood, and a matching pair of lowers. At first the hood seemed excessive but it has proven its worth, and the button collar allows for venting when appropriate, a feature I appreciate. My only misgiving is that the layer is too warm for the 45-degree spring days we’ve been getting in the San Juans lately. For these I opted for a lightweight capilene layer.
Patagonia’s new Dual Aspect Hoodie is my new go-to workhorse mid-layer insulation piece, designed to be worn under a shell and tucked into pants. It is durable enough that I’ve found it to be all I need for spring ascents. With this piece the designers at Patagonia are breaking ground in hybrid design: in high-abrasion areas (top of the arms, shoulders, front and back) the R1-style waffled material is durable and sheds all but serious precipitation. The areas that get less wear and tear also tend to be high heat zones — the bottoms of the arms, the sides of the torso, and the head. Here the Dual Aspect has a soft material designed to let heat dissipate. The piece is small and packable, lightweight, and durable.
As for outer layers, conditions determine what will be most appropriate. Patagonia employed new technologies in their Backcountry Touring line with the aim of “put it on, leave it on.” Adequate ventilation and breathability meant that this was my experience so far, though I haven’t tested these pieces in a myriad of conditions just yet.
Patagonia also included their SnowDrifter pack in the kit. These backpacks are designed for winter touring, incorporating snow tool sleeves, straps to affix skis or a snowboard and an ice axe, and glove-friendly handles and zipper pulls. For me, the 20L was insufficient: the 30L and 40L have the space for me to carry what I want to bring and key features like back-panel or side access and a hip belt. The packs are lightweight and durable but lack the frame (and volume) needed for burlier and longer-distance expeditions. Corey Simpson from Patagonia highlights the features of the SnowDrifter 40L.
Much thought has gone into what goes in my pack, and its organization. I always carry a first aid kit — there is no reasonable situation where this wouldn’t be smart to include. I also always have water, a warm layer (a down jacket to throw on over everything during breaks), sun protection, a spare pair of gloves, and a snack.
Frankly, the pack was probably the weakest component in the new Backcountry Touring line. It’ll do, but if I were shopping for a new pack I’d look closely at other options, such as the Osprey Kode series.
Skis and Splitboards
And so we arrive at the granddaddy of backcountry equipment — the skis or snowboard. The key term to bear in mind is “uphill mobility”: whatever the set-up, every rider must have the ability to move efficiently uphill in whatever conditions that may be encountered, be they deep powder, windblown crust, or re-frozen corn.
Both skis and snowboards designed for the backcountry have specially-designed bindings that allow the rider to convert their set-up into climbing mode. Climbing skins must be used — these are strips of fabric that hook over the tip and tail of the ski and grip the snow in a uni-directional way. That is to say, skins slide easily one way (forward) and stick to the snow moving backwards, allowing the tourer to climb a slope without sliding backwards downhill.
The splitboard was invented in the 1990s to enable snowboarders to access backcountry terrain. They ride very similarly to a single-body constructed snowboard, but have a few features that make them suitable for backcountry riding.
Of course, the most obvious is that splitboard is composed of two pieces that can be converted from “skin” mode to “ride” mode. The bindings are designed to be lightweight and to easily switch over; they actually form a critical bridge between the two halves of the board, ensuring stability and safety. Also affixed to the board are two “risers”, small bars that flip up and support the climber’s heel. These are designed to make uphill movement easier: rather than having to put their heel all the way down, the risers mean that the climber’s foot comes to rest on a horizontal platform every step.
In Cooke City I had the lucky opportunity to watch Bozeman skate shop World Boards’ owner Jay Moore flex his expert board skills and set up my Jones Solution — from scratch — in about 15 minutes. Overall the setup is intuitive, but there are a few moments where precision and a delicate touch are required to ensure it is properly done, namely, setting the binding pucks on the boards.
Jay used a pair of Spark R&D bindings on my board. These easily slide onto the board using a grooved puck system and are secured in both ride and skin mode with a metal pin that holds the whole contraption together. Converting the board took a few practice rounds before it felt comfortable, but overall it was simpler than I’d anticipated. The Sparks did the trick, but I’d love to give the Karakoram Prime set-up a try as well — these innovators out of Washington state developed an ultra-light, pin-less system. However, I’m not sure I’ll get my hands on a pair any time soon thanks to the $879.99 price tag.
The splitboarder also has another need that resort-bound riders do not: poles. I was very impressed with the Black Diamond Compactor pole — they seemed bombproof and have a very simple and reliable locking mechanism, even for use in extreme cold or nasty weather. More than that, the poles fold up quite small, which allowed me to stash them easily in my pack when we reached the summit and were ready to ride.
Skiers have it a bit easier than snowboarders when it comes to upward mobility. The only difference between a standard set of alpine bindings and ones suitable for touring is a releasable heel, allowing the skier to walk normally and have the ski slide along underneath the foot. Telemark skis were the original touring skis, but the development of Alpine-Tele (AT) bindings has meant that more and more backcountry skiers are able to ski with their heels locked down and still climb.
Touring skis should be light and suitable for a myriad of conditions, from deep pow to crust. My personal observation suggests that many serious backcountry skiers — including almost all the pros I’ve encountered — love skis made by DPS, most usually the Wailer series. The reports indicate that these things do it all, performing in wildly varying conditions, ultralight for uphill travel, and so on.
As for bindings, there are two general classes of AT bindings. For the recreationalists, “frame” bindings such as the Salomon Guardian 16 mean that they can use their resort set-up in the backcountry and enjoy the downhill stability of an alpine binding at a reasonable price. The trade-off: weight. Which is a big deal for a long-distance tourist — an extra pound on your feet adds up on a 5,000 foot day.
Skiers looking for a much lighter and more backcountry-oriented binding (i.e. one better for uphill travel and less suitable for the resort) will consider the “tech” style AT binding, originally developed by Dynafit. These bindings use a system of pins to interface with a special boot, which provides the rigidity that the frame binding incorporates. The advantage: a much lighter set-up makes a huge difference on long tours. The disadvantage: the tech setup is less burly for big descents and does not have the same release capabilities in the event of a fall. Examples include the G3 ION and the Dynafit TLT Speed Radical. Or if you want to go insane style, get the 75 gram Dynafit RC-1s.
Climbing skins are as important a piece of kit in the arsenal as any. The fit is critical: if the hook on either end of the ski falls off it allows snow to get in between the ski base and the adhesive part of the skin, rendering the glue useless. On our tour we would often stash our skins in our jackets for descents, to keep them warm and easily-accessible. Our guides in Cooke City used G3 MoMix climbing skins ; the 70% mohair 30% nylon hybrid meant that they could glide much more easily downhill than I could with my all-nylon Alpinist Splitboard skins.
Alternatives and Accessories
Every backcountry skier and rider has their ideal setup. It can take quite a while to figure out what works best for you. One rider on our trip eschewed the splitboard in favor of the foldable Mountain Approach skis: small stowable skis used with the snowboard strapped to the pack. His initial judgment: good, but not for long tours. Or a rider could go with a good old fashioned pair of snowshoes, to be swapped out for the snowboard on descent. The point is, creativity can go a long way in finding what works best for your body, application, and pocketbook.
Many skiers and riders that spend a lot of time in the backcountry have invested in equipment to maximize their chances of survival in the event of an avalanche. The Black Diamond Avalung II is a snorkel-like harness that, if buried, you breathe into. The tube transports expirated breath to a release valve on your hip; the idea is to avoid suffocation by forming an ice barrier in the air pocket you form around your mouth as the avalanche comes to rest. Results are unclear regarding its efficacy, and I tend to think that if I have to ride with a snorkel in my mouth then maybe I shouldn’t be riding that terrain…
More recently, backpacks with airbags designed to be deployed in the event of an avalanche have become popular. Statistics show that people only partially buried have a much higher survival rate than full burials — airbags make the skier or rider one of the largest and least dense pieces in the flow and therefore more likely to stay on top. However, airbags such as the BCA Float are quite pricey and quite heavy, and only get one use before they must be refilled. Their efficacy is a bit more apparent than that of the Avalung.
Having functioning and appropriate kit is as important as knowing how to use it. This stuff will save your life in the backcountry, and allow you to visit some of the most beautiful and inaccessible places on earth.
Be sure to check back in for The Art of Skinning, Part 3: The Approach.