Ski Gear for Climbers, Using AT Equipment to Access Ice Climbs

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Backcountry ski gear to access ice climbs, how to.

Backcountry ski gear to access ice climbs, how to.

It’s only a thousand vertical feet uphill to the ice climb you’ve picked for the day, but it is winter. Without skis or snowshoes, booting is your option. But the snow is soft and you post hole. Max heart rate is soon achieved. The slope steepens. You sink past your knees, up to your waist. Behind you is a four-foot deep trench you’ve dug with your hands. You wallow, curse, howl — even pray. Above you the prize looms … With fibrillating heart and the blood sugar of a diabetic coma, you turn and shuffle home.

Approaching winter climbs doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, you can boot to roadside wonders quicker than the jerk can pull your morning espresso. But to chase the remote big peaks, backcountry ice, or spring snow climbs, and you’ll need a method to move over snow — rather than through it.

Enter those time honored foot planks, otherwise known as skis.

Options, options
Skiing spawns a confusing array of gear, technique, and terms. Free-heel skiing refers to what’s often called telemarking or “tele,” and means skiing without your heels latched down, often using the genuflect-style telemark turn. But tele boots do not climb well, negating them for one-boot-does-it-all climbing approaches. Alpine touring randonnee (AT) equipment also frees your heels for climbing, with the added feature of latching your heels for the downhill. Randonnee boots are passable as climbing boots, but are too stiff around the ankle for serious ice or rock. Solution: A few AT bindings (i.e., Silvretta 404 and 505) also accommodate some plastic or leather mountaineering boots, making randonnee AT gear the best choice for climbers looking to ski in and out from their routes.

Planks
If you’re looking simply to approach climbs, go cheap. Buy a used pair of beater alpine skis at a ski swap or used equipment outlet, have them run through a tuning machine, mount AT bindings that will accommodate your mountaineering boots, and you’re set for approach style backcountry skiing.

The best length and width of an approach ski depends on your climate. For the average male climber, a ski in the 170 cm length range is a good bet. Don’t worry about width if you’re using the ski for denser maritime snow. But if your approaches involved deep unconsolidated fluf, you’ll need width — at least 95 mm underfoot.

If you catch the ski bug and want downhill performance, forgo the budget skis and get out your wallet. Specialized backcountry skis are carefully designed to save weight and cut blissful arcs in all kinds of snow.

More, if you enjoy the skiing you may want to use AT ski boots for the apparoach and descent. In that case, carry your climbing boots in your backpack, or climb in your ski boots (lighter softer models of AT ski boots are fine for moderate snow and ice climbing, and stiffer models work as well if you’re motivated).

Boots and bindings

Backcountry skiing gear for ice climbing.

To build your setup, find a Silvretta binding with a 'toe wire'.\

A stiff, performance ski boot is terrible for crampon work. To approach ice or alpine climbs on skis, use a flexible leather or plastic mountaineering boot stuffed into an AT binding. Skiing in these boots is like working construction in ballet slippers, but such is the compromise.

Climbing boots are not compatible with all AT bindings. They only work in toe-wire bindings such as some Silvretta models. More, you’ll want to make sure your climbing boots have the correct heel height to work with an AT/randonnee binding, usually around 32 millimeters. See this diagram or check by simply comparing to a randonnee boot. This dimension has some flexibility, the final test being simply placing your boot in a binding and seeing if it works. If your climbing boots don’t have high enough heel, install a shim on the part of the binding that supports your heel.

The biggest concern in using AT binding with alpine climbing boots is that the safety release of backcountry skiing AT bindings is not designed to protect ankles in soft boots. So ski conservatively and consider not latching down the heel of the binding (this reduces leverage if you fall. Make sure your boot has enough welt to hold in the binding, just as you would for a step-in (e.g., clip on) crampon.

It is not uncommon for alpinists to use randonnee ski boots for the climb, especially at easier grades. But if you want performance, forget the fantasy of having ski boots that work as climbing boots.


Poles

A plethora of backcountry oriented fixed-length and adjustable ski poles are on the market. Adjustable models include those with a flick-lock length adjustment and those that twist. Flick-locks tend to be more reliable.

For the budget-minded, buy a pair of used alpine poles at a swap. Pole length is important. For downhill skiing size your sticks at about elbow height when you’re in street shoes; measure by inverting the pole and grasping just under the basket. You can tune adjustable poles for the terrain (using unequal lengths for traverses, for example). Some poles are available with snow-climbing aids, basically miniature ice-axe heads (called “self-arrest grips”), which are useful for climbing low-angled snow. Grips of this sort instill false confidence on steep, icy terrain, however, so when in doubt use real ice tools.

Climbing aids

On the backcountry sking approach.

On the backcountry skiing approach.

Some of the finest minds on earth have spent their careers designing devices to help skis go uphill. So far, the best muscle-powered solution is the climbing skin, simply a furry strip of fabric attached to the bottom of the ski. The fur naps to the rear, thus sliding forward and resisting backward movement.

They’re called skins because the first, invented more than 500 years ago by Northern Europeans, were merely strips of animal pelt lashed to their planks. Today’s skins most commonly attach via multi-use adhesive, but some attach with straps. Stick-ons are preferred by most backcountry skiers for their ease of attachment and reliability; the main disadvantage is that it’s easy to contaminate the adhesive during removal and re-application. Climbing skins are available with different pelts. Mohair (goat-hair on a fabric backing) lacks durability and traction. Nylon is stronger and climbs better, and is your best choice for an approach setup.

Ski crampons (used in combination with skins) are essential for an approach rig and useful for all types of ski mountaineering. These clever devices snap on and off your skis in seconds — they can change a brutal, icy climb into a stroll, and ease your mind above cliffs and crevasses. Most ski crampons lift up and down with your bindings, others stay fixed to your ski. The latter type are more secure. B&D Ski Gear is a good bet for ski crampons you can mount on just about any rig.

Get down
Downhill skiing can be an exquisite sport, but only if you avoid mashed cartilage and shredded ligaments. Forget the moshing extreme skiers you see in the movies (they don’t film the months of sheet-time between takes). The key to safe skiing is staying on your feet and being conservative. That’s easy for an expert, but is it possible for a newbie?

You might be a climbing zealot, but we'll bet the down will hook you as well.

You might be a climbing zealot, but we'll bet the down will hook you as well.

It takes several years, with many days on snow, for the average athlete to become a competent downhill skier. But you can learn the basics in a season. The keys are spending time at a resort, having experienced friends to slide with, reading how-to books, and perhaps taking some lessons. If you ski only to approach climbs, learn “survival downhill,” and don’t forget to practice with that nagging backpack. Stick with basics, make staying on your feet a goal, and you’ll soon be stable enough to get down from a climb or move gear on a glacier. The essentials:

Kick turn: If any single technique defines survival skiing, it is the kick turn. You use it to link traverses going uphill and down, and it helps you reposition in tight situations. To perform on a descent, get your skis exactly perpendicular to the fall line. Stomp a stable platform. Look downhill and plant your poles behind you. Lift up your downhill ski, rotate it 180 degrees, and set it down. You’re now pretzeled, with your feet pointing nearly opposite directions. Lift your other ski, rotate, and align your feet. For ascending turns, rotate your uphill ski first (known as an uphill kick turn). With skis in the 180cm length range kick turns are easier than they sound. Start your practice at home on carpet, then graduate to the slopes.

Kick turn, THE basic manuver for backcountry skiing.

Kick turn, THE basic manuver for backcountry skiing.

Traverse: This is the basic motion that leads to all controlled downhill skiing. By linking a series of slow traverses with intervening kick turns, you can get down almost anything. Learn on low-angled slopes. Stand with your skis across the fall line, edged in so you’re not sliding. Position your uphill ski slightly ahead of your downhill ski. Release your edges with an ankle roll and push with your poles. Let gravity pull you along, while using your ankle and ski position to keep you on a controlled glide. Challenge yourself by traversing ever steeper and rougher terrain; soon you’ll be scooting across the most radical runs at the resort. Stop your traverse in the middle of the most heinous terrain you can find, and execute a kick turn. Now you’re ready for anything.

Sidestep: Uphill, downhill, or flat ground, the sidestep is incredibly effective. To execute it, simply step to the side without crossing your feet. This technique will get you down a couloir no wider than your skis, allow you to climb — albeit strenuously — without skins, and save you from all manner of hairy situations. The key with sidestepping is elegance. Move precisely. Sidestepping is easiest with your heels attached to your skis, so latch your AT bindings for this maneuver.

Sideslip: The sideslip involves releasing your edges while you are standing with your skis across the fall line — you skid down the slope. At advanced levels you can sideslip down just about anything. Precision is key. Don’t graduate too rapidly while you’re learning. Master each slope angle with a slip so exact you can drop down the fall line with only inches of fore/aft movement. You get that control by using micro ankle rolls and subtle pressure on the tip and tail of your skis.

Snowplow: Last on this list of survival ski techniques, but perhaps most important, the snowplow is usually the first turning position learned in alpine or telemark skiing. With good reason. It can be used as a turn, it’s a great way to stop, and it yields a controlled downhill glide that’ll get you down amazingly steep terrain.

First, practice a straight running snowplow on a low-angled resort slope. Point your skis downhill, and spread the tails apart with heel push. Make a wedge with your tips and edges. Done correctly, you can stand still without sliding. Release your edges with an ankle roll, and you’ll start gliding downhill. Experiment with edge pressure and angle, and you’ll see why it’s called a snowplow. Challenge yourself with ever steeper terrain, and you’ll be surprised at what you can plow down. The trick for steep terrain is to control your speed. Keep it super slow — often slower than walking. Once you’re comfortable with going straight, try the snowplow turn by moving a bit of weight to one ski.

Observe the ski patrol working a toboggan down the steeps. You’ll see them sideslipping and snowplowing, while moving at a speed so slow it’s painful to watch. That’s survival skiing.

Getting up
You’ll be able to climb with skis and skins the first time you try, but efficient ascension involves as many subtleties as going downhill. At home, practice applying and removing skins (stripping fur) until it’s second nature. If you know you’ll be using your skins as soon as your car is parked, put them on at home. But don’t store your skis with the skins stuck on, as a chemical reaction can sometimes occur and leave slime on your ski bottoms.

Fur care: Stick-on skins cling like industrial magnets to dirt, tree branches, and your hair. To prevent sticky nightmares, store each skin glue-to-glue. To apply, hook the tip-loop over a ski then pull the skin apart as you apply it. To remove, pull about half from your ski tail, fold it glue-to-glue, then do the other half.

Extreme angles: Climb the steepest angle you can without awkward and inefficient motion, but know that the key to efficient uphill with climbing skins is to NOT obsess on how steep you can charge uphill. A somewhat gradual climb involving longer traverses is frequently much more efficient. Maximize traction by keeping your ski flat on the snow and not wobbling from edge to edge. Snap on your ski crampons if the going gets icy or your skins are slipping.

Sticks: Use your poles for balance, keeping one planted to the rear to catch you if you slip. Use your legs. Muscling on your poles for uphill progress will tire you out and may cause elbow tendonitis.

Flatlands: Wax your climbing skins by rubbing on alpine wax for glide on low-angled terrain or in sticky snow. For short sections of hard-packed flats, leave your skins in your pack and skate.

Foot travel: Vibram soles can be more efficient or safer than skins in certain conditions. If your path starts looking like a low-angled ice route, or a flat trail is rutted and hard-packed, try stowing your skis on your pack and using your feet and possibly crampons.

Uphill kickturn: As with downhill skiing, the kick turn is essential for climbing. The downhill version described above will work as a direction changer when you’re headed up hill. But the uphill version is easier and better once you master it. Assuming you’re starting from a climbing traverse, plant your poles firmly and stomp out a small platform. Once in a secure stance with no possibility of a back-slip (the key), lift and rotate your uphill ski to your new travel direction, then follow with your downhill plank. Experiment with pole positions and slope angle, and you’ll rapidly figure a technique that suites the flexibility of your hips and knees.

Okay you non-skiing climbers out there, that’s about it for the basics! Just beware of one thing (I can testify, because it happened to me), once you get set up with decent gear, you might end up liking ski mountaineering more than straight climbing. You have been warned.

Comments

29 Responses to “Ski Gear for Climbers, Using AT Equipment to Access Ice Climbs”

  1. Kidd September 27th, 2010 8:54 am

    What about special made approach skis? Equipment which I was able to rent in Europe going back over a decade. Skis like the Kong Grimper which comes with light alloy crampons for hard snow and ice conditions and climbing skins, all for one price. Or the K2 Approach which has a rachet style snowshoe binding that also come with skins, and a ski crampon option. And then there’s the ever famous Zig-Zag and Climb system which comes straight out of WW2 when Germans were fighting on the Russian steppes in winter. This system is a folding ski that hinges in the middle for backpack storeage, and adapts to all types of soft boots and the binding can be removed and used as a regular crampon for climbing steeper slopes.

  2. Lou September 27th, 2010 10:20 am

    Kidd, that stuff can work, but we favor real skis with rando bindings as approach gear. Reason being you have a full-on skiing setup so you can make real turns and have fun when the situation dictates.

  3. Nick September 27th, 2010 8:00 pm

    “But if your approaches involved deep unconsolidated fluf, you’ll need width — at least 95 cm underfoot.”

    hehe 95cm underfoot would make for one heck of a ski.

  4. Lou September 28th, 2010 6:28 am

    HA! Good catch!

  5. Kidd September 28th, 2010 7:48 am

    Just trying to let people know what’s out there.

  6. Lou September 28th, 2010 11:14 am

    Snowboards on each foot would float (grin).

  7. Zoran September 28th, 2010 2:18 pm

    You know that Hagan offers approach skis line.
    In US company http://informsports.com/ give us an option to order those awesome skis. I am interested in Extreme model. Nanook model is complete setup with bindings and skins. See here:
    http://www.andy-kirkpatrick.com/blog/view/hagan_nanook_appraoch_skis/

    I think Hagan is not making them anymore but Informsports secured certain number of sets for this upcoming season.

    Also, Dynafit offers ST model (130cm). It’s made of aircell core. Hagan skis are made of wood (poplar), which makes them very attractive. I’ve seen guy on Denali West buttress (lower camps) with 130cm skis and high altitude boots (Asolo GV). Nice …

    What do you think Lou? It’s easier to carry 130cm skis here at West Coast.

  8. Mark September 28th, 2010 7:48 pm

    I’ve wondered about mounting my Silvretta 300s (no I won’t sell them) on a pair of the widest scale skis folks are making these days – outbounds or whatever – and using those as approach skis. If you were approaching on the road the scales would be great, and on steeper ground you could use skins or crampons. And they are light and short and soft for plastic boot control.

  9. Alex October 3rd, 2010 9:33 pm

    I think the “outbound” skis are a great idea, actually. This what my father-in-law uses as a touring ski out in Montana. He has them mounted tele, but with the Voile hardwire binding which still have the toe pins. When touring he takes the heel bail off and uses a pair of leather boots. Way more comfortable, light, fast. And he can ski decently well on the down-hills too! I would think as an approach set up it would be perfect. If I were to even bring skins it would be a) if I lived somewhere with the fluff not the marine snow pack (I would just get crampons), b) even then I would get I pair of shorty skins. If you are going for light and easy, may as well not commit to a full skin…

  10. Alex October 3rd, 2010 9:35 pm

    Added to say- I wasn’t suggesting that I would mount these with tele bindings for an approach ski. Just saying I knew of people using these skis with soft boots (the leathers) and really liked the way they performed. I would definitely mount them with AT gear if they are going to be an approach ski…

  11. Scott October 4th, 2010 10:38 am

    Short skis and silvretta 500s are the way to go.

    Rig up a cord system from the front of the ski to the back of the knee to keep you from falling backwards and it skis tolerably with a climbing boot. Without the cord, I wouldn’t do it, since backward falls can be rough on the knee ligaments.

  12. Tomba October 11th, 2010 8:51 am

    Regarding mounting Silvretta 500 bindings — I’m looking for the mounting plates for K2 Instynx skis with K2 inserts which I can use to mount the Sivretta 500 Easy Go bindings to these skis. Anybody know where I can find them ?
    I found some 7tM plates – would those work ?

  13. Lou October 11th, 2010 10:15 am

    Tomba, why do you need plates on those skis?

  14. Tomba October 11th, 2010 10:22 am

    So I can switch them from Tele to AT and back using the binding mount inserts.

  15. Lou October 11th, 2010 12:03 pm

    Oh! Contact B&D http://www.bndskigear.com/ he might have something that can be made to work for you. ‘best, Lou

  16. Bernie Rosner November 22nd, 2010 11:51 pm

    Lou, loved your article, I’m a beginner of alpine touring and have many questions, but let me start with one:
    You are talking about waxing the skin… can’t you wax the skis before you start to climb when you are still on a moderate (almost flat) approach?

    Bernie

  17. Lou November 23rd, 2010 4:30 am

    Bernie, we wax skins with GLIDE wax.

  18. Greg Louie November 23rd, 2010 11:14 am

    Bernie, I’m not totally sure what your question is, but if you’re talking about waxing skins it’s definitely possible to rub on wax in the field – in fact most people wait until they notice clumps of snow sticking to their skins before they stop and get out the Glop-Stopper. By this time water has usually permeated the fibers and stays there for some time (probably until you get home and dry them out).

    However, the purpose of the wax is to stop snow from sticking and promote glide, not for climbing as in classic XC skiing.

    It’s preferable to rub and/or iron wax on your skins in the privacy of your home when the skins are still warm and dry.

  19. Ivan Gill November 26th, 2010 7:17 am

    Great article. Technique is everything when skiing climbing boots and ski mountaineering bindings. I have been skiing on these set ups for 20 years on every type of terrain imaginable, even on the slopes with a lot of goofy looks and comments-all of which stop when the skiing starts and they see I can out ski most of them on hardcore slope skis. The secret to success is exactly what Lou says-survival ski. Ski in complete control and ski true to your technique. We (the military) teach old school snow plow to stem-christie to long traverses with kick turns. Start with nothing on then progress to heavier packs until your bombing down the slopes with a large 70lb expedition ruck. Approaches will be nothing after a few good hard learning days on the slopes. and, most of all, have fun.

  20. DJ W December 5th, 2010 5:52 pm

    :idea: Very cool. Thanks for the link Lou; thank you for the countless hours you’ve spent doling out wisdom for the aspiring walker. Love your woods, by the way. The Weminuche was kind to us this summer.
    For bliss,
    DJ

  21. Lou December 5th, 2010 5:59 pm

    DJW, glad you can use this! I’ve been reading Steve House autobio (for the second time, getting ready to review) and he mentions skiing in/out from climbs more than once. Am wondering what he uses for boot/binding. The book isn’t about gear, and that’s good, but I couldn’t help but wonder (grin).

  22. Dave January 9th, 2011 3:36 pm

    Lou … I’ve been using glop-stopper on my skins, but I’ve noticed that since doing so, it seems that something is eating away at the glue along the edges of the skis … could this be caused by the glop-stopper ?

    Thanx …

  23. Lou January 10th, 2011 4:51 am

    Dave, could be, different brands of skin glue have different tolerance to sunlight, heat, and chemicals. You really don’t want to get any chemicals on the glue. And by the way, I’ve never found any difference between Glop Stopper and regular alpine wax in terms of performance. Could just be me, but that’s my story…

  24. Bar Barrique January 10th, 2011 11:39 am

    I find that “Glop Stopper” wax is a bit too hard for mohair/mohair blend skins, so I often use paraffin sealing wax from the grocery store.

  25. Mark W January 10th, 2011 11:46 am

    Bar, may I simply suggest you rub with more force with whatever skin wax you use? Even if you seem to overdo it, excess wax will just wear off rather quickly. I personally find Glop Stopper too pricey, so I use alpine glide wax. Grocery store paraffin likely is quite good too.

  26. Lou January 10th, 2011 12:10 pm

    Not scientific by any means, but I think I’ve gotten my best results from Nikwax SkiSkin Proof, just be careful when you put it on not to get any on the glue.

    http://www.nikwax.com/en-gb/products/productdetail.php?productid=70&activityid=-1&itemid=-1&fabricid=-1

    I also use paraffin from the hardware store, or a candle.

  27. Mark W January 10th, 2011 1:33 pm

    I just heard a glowing report of the Nikwax skin treatment for mohair skins–especially in spring when they can ball up.

  28. Mike C March 22nd, 2012 11:43 am

    What options exist to strap an approach shoe into a ski??? Preferably with some kind of support to provide edge control. Basically I want to strap approach shoes onto BigFoot ski boards and ski back down after climbing Sierra rock routes. Is this a terrible idea???

  29. Dave March 22nd, 2012 1:52 pm

    I’ve been using the Rossi Freetrek approach skis for about 8 years, mostly in the Daks of NY. Won’t go out without ‘em, but have to re-learn skiing every winter … never skied till I got these. Had same problem as others with the Glop Stopper on edges of skins … found that an easy fix is the BD Gold Label glue in a tube … does an excellent job !

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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