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So You Want To Try Ski Mountaineering

Author: Tom Murphy

October 25, 2016

You’ve been touring the zones just outside of your home ski hill these past couple of years, finding your favorite trailheads for tours with nobody but your ski partner in sight. And now as ski movie premier season gets you super psyched for the coming ski season, you’re dreaming about getting a little more technical, a bit higher in the alpine, skiing steeper lines, tougher objectives. But in addition to the snow stability, you need know a lot about your objectives and their difficulty before you head out. And it helps to work on your ski mountaineering skills ahead of time, in less consequential terrain. Here are a few points to think about as you take your skiing higher into the mountains.

1. Find mentors and learn from the more experienced people you go out with, whether they’re climbers or skiers or both. If you need to learn to climb steep snow, partner with someone who already does for a couple of outings and absorb all you can. Every time I go into the mountains with someone new I pick up something new.

2. Practice taking skis off and putting them on in steep terrain. You may ski a couloir that you didn’t climb up and find there is a cliff in the middle, or a rollover that’s bulletproof ice, or just a rocky choke that you don’t want to jump over because the consequences of a fall are too great. You’re going to need to take those skis off mid run and get them on your pack and then either boot pack back to the top or downclimb past the obstacle. Then it’s time to put those skis back on. Practice this on your easier tours in less committing terrain.

3. Practice skiing with more weight in you pack around the resort or on easier terrain. Skiing with a larger pack can be a challenge, and preparing yourself for it on less consequential terrain will help you be comfortable when it’s time to ski something more committing. Plus, you’ll just get stronger.

4. Practice your rope handling, rope management, building snow anchors and knots. You want those to be second nature when you have to set a rappel in the middle of a cliffed-out couloir. Sign up for a course or hire a guide for a day to help you get more dialed and confident.

5. Work on your communication skills ahead of time. For ski mountaineering, it’s good to have established signals and ways to communicate with your partners. discuss signals and communication with your partners so you are speaking the same language when you are up on that windy ridge of that objective you been dreaming about and the weather gets nasty. Using radios can ease communications in windy conditions or when further apart. Remember, it’s a tool not a toy. The BCA link radios, with their separate mic make for a great base option. If you’re looking to really go all out, a quad band shortwave radio like the Kenwood TH-F6A will require an amateur radio license but will also allow communication with the outside world (and directly with aircraft) in a rescue scenario.

6. Learn your equipment inside and out. Being able to make field repairs and improvise gear when it’s lost or broken becomes all the more critical as you get in to higher consequence terrain and further afield. Get the right tools to fix bindings, carry plenty of ski straps and have several solutions for common equipment failures. Have your friends bring their gear over and do a repair night in the garage where folks share their tricks and tools for their backcountry repair kits.

All these can be practiced in less consequential environments. Just like anything else, the more you work at it the easier it will get and the more comfortable you’ll be!

Header photo by Krystle Wright, body photo by Tom Murphy.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy has been climbing, skiing and ski mountaineering for about a decade. Owning and operating Outdoor Odysseys Sea Kayaking ( throughout the summer months leaves his winters open for snowy adventures. “There really is no reason to ever walk down hill on snow…ever,” he says. His love affair with sliding downhill began with family vacations at the age of three. Fresh out of college this passion became a full blown love affair with a seven-hundred-inch year at Alta, a season only cut slightly short by a shattered femur. Now having lived and worked in some of North America’s best ski regions, Tom has posted up in Leavenworth, Washington. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t send dispatches from AK, BC and the centers of the storm… wherever that may be. Tom enjoys high fives, uses coffee recreationally, and appreciates sharing tents and skiing deep snow with good friends in the high mountains.