Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series on The Art of Skinning. Read Part 1: An Education and Part 2: The Equipment. 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.
We’ve got our kit assembled and have educated ourselves on the ways of the winter backcountry. Now, to begin touring.
In truth, backcountry skiing requires a great deal more engagement than resort skiing. There’s a chance I’ll check the forecast before heading to the lifts; usually, though, I just show up and make the most of the conditions. Touring safely in the backcountry is a much more involved process.
The tour really begins long before boots and skins are on — the team must thoughtfully select terrain to ski, weighing a number of different factors. Each member of the tour ought to have an understanding of the snow history of the area, to be aware of any weak layers in the snowpack or particularly dangerous aspects or elevations. Most regions in which backcountry skiing is popular have free avalanche forecasts published online every day. In Colorado, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center makes this (and much more) information available on their website.
So, the evening before a proposed tour, the team gets together and discusses the avalanche problems most likely the next day and the safest terrain options to avoid avy-prone areas. Terrain selection involves slope angle and aspect, elevation, consideration of nearby terrain (for example, if a massive bowl is directly above), weather conditions such as temperature, cloud cover, wind, and so on. To me, it’s imperative that each member be involved in this conversation — even the least experienced might see a dangerous terrain feature that others miss and save the day.
Once a route is selected (and others ruled out, definitively, no matter how sexy a slope might look come daylight), the group can prepare to head out for the day. At the trailhead equipment is loaded up and a beacon check is done, in which the group leader ensures that every person’s beacon works in both receive and transmit mode. And then the team heads out.
During the tour each member needs to keep awareness up; an approach is not a brainless slog. Rather, each person needs to be aware of the conditions through which the team is traveling. In some terrain it may be most suitable for the group to move together; elsewhere (i.e. beneath a slide path) each member should cross quickly and cautiously by themselves. Everyone must be aware of the weather and how it is changing. Each mode of perception should be employed and if something doesn’t feel right it should be discussed.
Skins only work up to a point. Once a slope gets too steep, the surface can’t grip the snow and the skinner will slide back with each step. At this point the skin track, or the trail breaker, will start switchbacks to maintain a tolerable track angle. For a hiker, a switchback is a mindless turn in the trail. For someone wallowing in bottomless soft powder with 5 foot long skis attached to each foot, however, turning around on a steep slope can be quite a chore.
Enter the kick turn. Skin just past the switchback, so your boots are at the point of the turn (rather than the tips of your skis). The weight should be on your skis for this maneuver, not on your poles — they are just for balance. Plant the downhill pole near the tip of the downhill ski and the uphill pole just inside the point of the turn, behind your uphill foot. Make sure you have a solid platform for your downhill ski and lift the uphill one, swinging it around to plant in the skin track above. It can be tricky to balance, but make sure you have sturdy footing before moving your downhill pole up, shifting your weight onto your uphill leg, and gently lifting your downhill ski up and around to settle in next to the other. Et voilá! Off in a new direction.
Above: Here an IFMGA Mountain Guide shows proper kick-turn technique in Chamonix.
At a certain pitch it may become safer to remove skis and bootpack (or even crampon) up the objective. At this point the pack you use becomes quite important — if you can’t securely attach your skis you could find yourself in a pickle. The Patagonia SnowDrifter 35L we tested in Montana had a few configurations for ski toting, including side-buckles and a big loop for loading the skis diagonally.
Once you’ve arrived at the top of your line, the final step in the approach is the transition. Converting from “climb” mode to “ride” mode is a process that takes practice to master, especially for splitboarders, who face a few more steps than just ripping off the skins. I didn’t appreciate the importance of efficiently transitioning until I was standing on a lake in a hollow as the Montana sun set. Frigid temperatures meant that every moment standing around was a moment closer to an unnecessary circumstance; here the difference between three minutes and five minutes transitioning was made clear.
Above: The author’s approach to Cooke City, where he and the crew climbed Mount Fox. Towards the end, Patagonia Snow Designer Christian Regester is shown transitioning his Icelantic Gemini splitboard from ‘climb’ to ‘ride’ mode. He is using Karakoram Prime bindings.
On this note: traveling in the cold backcountry it doesn’t take long to learn the importance of proper apparel and maintaining a steady body temperature. This means venting when necessary to shed extra heat and bundling up when taking a break to hold it in.
Each person has their own routine for transition, but forming a routine is the key — performing the same steps in the same order every time will make the action second nature and improve efficiency. Upon arrival at a safe stopping place I immediately will drop my pack and throw on a big insulation layer (in Montana, the iconic Patagonia Nano Puff down jacket), to keep what heat I’d generated during the climb in. Then boards come off and skins are immediately stripped, folded up, and stashed inside my shell. It’s critical to keep the glue dry and free of snow; warming them up in my jacket helps with this.
Once my skins are off, the next step is to convert the split board into a snowboard. This depends somewhat on the bindings, and familiarity is key. But with the Spark R&Ds I was using I simply yanked the pin out (which disconnected the binding from the board) and clipped the board together at all four points (tip, tail, and two metal clips on either end). Then I slid the bindings onto the pucks; it’s very clear when the bindings go on properly as the whole unit locks together. After this I slid the pin back through the holes on the toe side.
Last step: fold up and stow the poles and strap in.
Be sure to check back in for The Art of Skinning, Part 4: The Ride.