When skiers and snowboarders first start heading out into the backcountry, it’s not unusual to see some people struggle with the equipment, technique and pacing required to walk up hill on snow. It’s no reflection of your skiing or riding ability, it’s just a different set of movements and mechanics and as such, requires practice before you become efficient at it.
It all starts with the equipment. Your climbing skins should be cut to fit your ski specifically with a 2mm clearance on each edge. Any less than that and you won’t be able to edge on a side hill. Any more than that and you’re going to lose friction and start sliding backwards on the skin track.
The choice of skin also affects the outcome. The three classes of skin material are Nylon (synthetic), Mohair (natural fibre from goat’s wool) or a blend of the two. There’s a lot of debate on which skin has more grip with various factors such as temperature and snow surface, but everyone agrees that Mohair skins are lighter, more packable and glide better. Synthetic skins are cheaper, more durable and tend to grip better on the steeps.
If you’re using an alpine boot on the skin track, your step efficiency is going to be limited by the forward lean of your boot. It’s not as noticeable when ascending a steep skintrack, but trying to glide on the flats — even with your alpine boot fully unbuckled — is inhibiting and you have to take lots of little steps in place of large, efficient glides.
A walk mode on your boot makes all the difference in the world. It lets you take bigger strides, is safer for climbing steep bootpacks by being able balance on the whole sole of the boot (rather than just the toe) and it’s just more comfortable for standing around, walking into and out of the lodge or dancing on the bar if you’re so inclined. Don’t forget to properly undo your boot buckles and release the power strap to get the most out of your walk mode range.
Now on to the bindings. Many folks who begin to dabble in backcountry will use an AT binding such as a Marker Baron or Salomon Guardian that is durable enough for daily resort turns, but can also switch to walk mode for when you head out beyond the boundary. AT binding design has gotten better over the years, but people still tend to overuse the heel raisers. When on a steep skin track or ridge climb, flipping up the heel raiser lets you take steps with less effort, but people forget that it can become detrimental once the terrain starts to flatten out. Like switching gears on a mountain bike, you want to have the optimal heel height for the terrain you are currently on, meaning you should probably change the heel raiser height more often than you do. It’s a hassle at first, but the more you do it, the quicker and less fiddly the process becomes.
Finally, if you intend to head out into aggressive terrain in hard conditions, invest in a pair of ski crampons. These sharp hunks of metal slide into the binding (more readily available for Dynafit models) and will let you traverse and ascend boiler plate slopes with confidence.
This column was first published in The Whistler Question on January 12, 2015