Budgeting v. the Ski Touring Learning Curve

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 24, 2015      

Aaron Mattix

Given the WildSnow penchant for charts, graphs, and data collection, perhaps an equation could be derived to track the ratio of money spent up front on gear/fitment/training v. ease of transitioning into backcountry?

Given the WildSnow penchant for charts, graphs, and data collection, perhaps an equation could be derived to track the ratio of money spent up front on gear/fitment/training v. ease of transitioning into backcountry? Click all images to enlarge.

So you’ve decided on exploring backcountry skiing, but are leery of laying down your hard-earned coin for a bunch of gear you barely understand. Given a sufficient fund of enthusiasm and resourcefulness, you can collect the gear, and experience you need, while minimizing collateral damage to your finances.

First, and foremost, it should be recognized that you are trading off convenience for cash. Understand that you will be offsetting financial cost with sweaty armpits, burning legs, chest-deep flailing, fumbled buckles, cold snow in places that should be warm and dry, and immense heapings of humility.

This strategy only works if exploring the backcountry is an itch you can’t scratch, the question that won’t go away, the koan you can’t put down. IT IS NOT: a strategy for getting your significant other into the sport, who has said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I would give it a try sometime

What I offer is my experience, not expert advice. I came to the world of ski touring in my early 30’s, my only prior experience with snow being a report I wrote on snowboarding in seventh grade. To spell it out boldly, there is as many (most likely more) mistakes as excellence in my method.

First spend time at a resort, and polish your skill level up to at least low-level intermediate. Be able to reliably make it down groomed runs in full control, then start exploring the powder and open trees at the resort before your first foray out of bounds.

Snowboarding was my point of entry, as the gear can be had much cheaper, and is not quite as specific (virtually all snowboard boots already have a “walk” mode, by virtue of their softer construction).

  • Board bought from a buddy: $25
  • Bindings from a too-short board a friend gave me: free
  • Boots from craigslist: $60
  • Snowshoes: passed along by an elderly friend: free
  • Second hand pants a size too large: free
  • For less than $100, I was able to posthole my way to the top of the nearest untracked slope. My method of navigation was to grab an aspen tree and pivot, recover from crash, aim for next aspen tree, repeat. It took me roughly as long to get down as it did to get to the top, so I figured one lap was good enough to call things even.

    The beginning.

    The beginning.

    As a ski touring beginner, I had no idea of the inefficiencies I was enduring. It was simply the means within my grasp to get to the top of the hill. More than any blog post or spreadsheet, the existence of a better way was most clearly illustrated the first time I went back to the same spot with a friend on a splitboard setup, who cruised along top the snow, while I punched thigh deep holes.

    A splitboard would have been the cheapest next step, but knowing my proclivities for bushwhacking, and general exploring, skis were the logical endpoint. I had crossed the threshold from vague interest in playing on snow to committed pursuit of backcountry exploration. With this series of investments, the expenditure curve rose sharply, while the frustration curve flattened significantly, and access to terrain opened exponentially.

  • Surface Walk Free skis off Cripple Creek Backcountry’s consignment rack: $115
  • Garmont Endorphin boots (4 buckles, bro!) off craigslist: $100
  • Atomic Tracker bindings on Internet sale: $180
  • mounting: $50
  • G3 Alpinist Skins: $125
  • G3 Via poles: $80
  • Though each of these expenditures was nearly as much as I spent on my second hand snowboard set up, they were easily staged out. Purists of thrift may note that items such as poles are often to be found in surplus. Relying on hand-me-down gear has the tattered glory of dirtbag tradition attached to it, but there is dignity and gumption-building in collecting your own set of dedicated gear.

    For the beginner’s tabula rosa, each piece of gear is an introduction to its basic function, and the starting point from which you can say, “I wish it would do this better

    Earning our turns.

    Earning our turns.

    I started with frame bindings (Atomic Tracker 13), because it was the cheapest entry point I could find into touring bindings, not for cliff-hucking beef. The weight factor really didn’t even enter my mind until my first hut trip. On the seven mile skin in from Hunter Creek trailhead to the Fritz Benedict hut, I finally realized that whatever “fast & light” gear was, it was not what I was dragging on my feet. This season, I have upgraded to Dynafit Speed Radical bindings, and TLT 6 boots; awaiting new skis to complete my own “fast and light” set up. The WildSnow preference for tech bindings may come across as elitism, but the more time spent earning turns, the more apparent the lightweight advantages of the tech binding become.

    My experience illustrates the vector of the cost:benefit ratio. The willingness to exchange capital for efficiency of movement rises sharply the more committed one becomes to exploring the sport. As a beginner, one is able to enjoy tremendous leaps in proficiency, even on low-level equipment. Would the learning curve be easier on better equipment? Certainly.

    If the goal is to become proficient at ski touring as soon as possible, start with the best gear you can afford. However, this approach denies the beginner the chance to experience the full spectrum of improvement in gear. By starting on low-budget, less-refined gear, one grasps a sense of the history of technical progression, and the reasoning behind gear evolution.

    (Guest blogger Aaron Mattix grew up in Kansas and wrote a report on snowboarding in seventh grade. His first time to attempt snowboarding was in 2012, and soon switched over to skis for backcountry exploration near his home in Rifle, CO. His skill level is “occasionally makes complete runs without falling.” In the summer, he owns and operates Gumption Trail Works, building mountain bike singletrack and the occasional sweet jump.)


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    19 Responses to “Budgeting v. the Ski Touring Learning Curve”

    1. Bob Shattuck November 24th, 2015 12:18 pm

      Yep, My big thanks to Craigslist and rich guys that buy the bling then realize there’s too much sweat involved; pair of G3 Zen Oxides, Fritschi Freerides, BD skins and he even dropped them at my door, $175 . . . get the gear, get the training, then get some turns! ( now if I could just get the car to get to the snow on my own )

    2. Bob Shattuck November 24th, 2015 12:21 pm

      I should add, find a few folks that know more than you, as well.

    3. Travis November 24th, 2015 12:27 pm

      I can identify with this. I grew up in northern Illinois with a stack of Patagonia catalogs next to my bed. When I moved out to the PNW a few years ago I dove straight into the world of skiing. My first pair of skis were an well loved pair of La Sportiva Lo5 with Dynafits bindings, and for boots I had a slightly too big pair of TLT5s. I remember pizza and frenchfrying my way down the green runs of Crystal Mountain and trying persistently to master clicking back into my bindings after each crash. While I am no expert skier, I have certainly found my favorite pass time. Motivation is everything when it comes to skiing.

    4. Ryan November 24th, 2015 12:54 pm

      Your gear list forgets the most important or at least important if you want to live: beacon, shovel and probe.

      You might want to accrue more years of snow experience before giving advice…

    5. Sather November 24th, 2015 1:30 pm

      Lighten up Ryan

      Great post and I’ve got 25 yrs

      Dachstein BC extremes forever

    6. VtVolk November 24th, 2015 3:04 pm

      I fully embrace (and have learned through) the bootstraps approach you’ve laid out, and have slogged up hill in all manner of less-than-tech gear over the past 20+ years.

      However, it makes me cringe a little thinking about anyone heading into the backcountry on any type of equipment without having solid skiing/snowboarding technique down cold. “…Polish your skill level up to at least low-level intermediate” seems like a recipe for disaster. Even in terrain with low avy risk, falling headfirst into a treewell, into a creek, or just flatting out and having to bushwack back to the skin track (which way was it again?) could have dire consequences. I’d say “get to the point where you can ski/ride pretty much everything at the resort, then start thinking about the BC,” would be better advice.

      And you bought baggy pants on purpose? In your 30’s? After the 90’s? 😉

    7. Alison B November 24th, 2015 4:57 pm

      I really enjoyed reading the article, finding it witty and in good humor. No where in the article did I think Aaron was giving expert advice but instead he writes of his experience thus far in obtaining gear and seeking adventure in the back country. As someone in his position, with similar experience as a snowboarder, and a similar desire to be outside in the back country, I am also finding my own set of learning curves. Glad I’m not the only one. Some of us don’t have exuberant bank accounts to go buy all the best, right from the get go. Thanks for the fun read!

    8. Aaron Mattix November 24th, 2015 5:01 pm

      @ Ryan & @ VtVolk – A closer reading of my article will reveal I explicitly stated that I am not giving advice, and that I did not buy baggy pants in my 30’s after the 90’s…

      The entire premise of starting as a beginner, on a frayed shoestring budget is that you are willing to accept a higher possibility of discomfort and/or disaster in exchange for the chance to explore the backcountry. I use the term “backcountry” very loosely here, to encompass any & all terrain outside resort boundaries.

      In my opinion, skiers/riders of a lower skill level are much more likely to make conservative decisions than a high level skier/rider. If 30 degree slopes are the upper end of your skill level, there’s very little incentive to be near dangerous terrain, v. the person who thinks 30 degrees is just where things start to get interesting.

      Jedidah Porter turned me on to http://www.hillmap.com, which has a handy CalTopo overlay that shades in everything over 27 degrees. It’s an easy way to get a handle on potential avalanche danger while route planning.

      Ultimately, conservative judgement is the most effective tool for safety in the backcountry. Anyone who is attracted to the premise of sliding down a slope in an uncontrolled environment should be honest with themselves about the level of risk they are willing to accept in their quest for adventure.

    9. See November 24th, 2015 8:50 pm

      I know I sound like a broken record (yeah, I’m old), but let’s not lose sight of some facts re. frame bindings— they are easy to use, good ones have release/retention performance that’s similar to alpine bindings, and they’re cheaper (especially used). If one is a beginner, getting the lightest gear to maximize vert/speed is the wrong focus (imo). Go slow, build strength, learn and gain experience. And have (safe) fun. “Earning your turns” means more than just not riding a chair lift.

    10. See November 24th, 2015 10:26 pm

      … and trying to buy “Proficiency.”

    11. Wookie November 25th, 2015 3:10 am

      Thanks Aaron – this is a subject that isn’t discussed – but should be. My own experience was not all that different – getting into the sport was tough, and it’s a closed world – to this day, if I tell some people I grew up in South Carolina, it makes me an inexperienced and poor skier. I can’t deny that it burns me up….
      Cost is a serious factor keeping lots of people out of skiing who would probably really like it. I don’t guess that anything that requires so much effort as ski touring will ever be more than a niche sport – and I’m not any more interested than anyone else in crowding the backcountry, but turning people on to what can become a life (not just a sport) is something I think most BC skiers could do better. We tend to be so tribal that we shut people out. Gear fetishism is part of that.
      And to all the safety-tutters out there: recognize that 80% of avalanche victims are considered “expert” by themselves and their peers. Aaron is right – people just getting started, especially on starter gear, generally are on the stuff we would call “mostly safe”. Its certainly not perfect – but neither is the safety provided by beacons, airbag packs, level 1 (or 2, or 3) avy courses and 5280 years of experience. As a German saying goes: “one cannot inject experience”.
      I DID take a course before my first time out – I was lucky enough to find one – but if anybody could go back in time and see what we learned then, I think every one of us would tell me it was pretty much a joke. At the time, it was state of the art.
      Why am I saying such a heretical thing? People forget that ALL the good knowledge we have today was developed by people who began with no knowledge – and they got it by getting out there, paying attention and, respectfully – having a bit of luck.
      Thanks again Aaron.

    12. RCL1 November 25th, 2015 7:42 am

      tabula RASA, not rosa. Though if you fall on corduroy you may end up rosa.

    13. See November 25th, 2015 7:57 am

      On second thought, I probably have been overly critical of your presumably sincere efforts to share your experiences as someone new to the sport. Sorry, Aaron.

      I’m a bit hypersensitive about what I see as an industry marketing blitz to sell lots of gear with images of high performance to beginners. If your goal is to increase your proficiency as fast as possible, well, go for it. Just because my own progression was slow and based on years of just getting out there and enjoying the outdoors in winter doesn’t mean that’s right for every one. And I have to admit, those leather boots and edgeless skis were pretty light.

    14. Lou Dawson 2 November 25th, 2015 8:46 am

      See, yeah, the marketing push is there, probably always will be. Ultimately, there are people making their living selling stuff and they get pretty motivated to put food on the table, send kids to college, etc. On the other hand, I totally agree that the hype gets obnoxious. For example, with boots that in reality change hardly at all from year to year. On the other hand, there have been some pretty big changes in skis over the past years, so I think it’s legit to say that “upgrading” or getting the “latest” in skis is a worthy endeavor. Same with bindings, which have undergone a nearly unimaginable cycle of improvement and new product introductions over just the past three or four years.

      I’d predict that much of that will eventually settle down, but then, It was just a year or so ago that I read a futurist book with the premise that due to everything from computers to enhanced shipping, innovation in all aspects of life will just continue to accelerate. So it’s going to be up to the individual to find their “zen” in it all and know where to get stable with a given kit of gear, at least long enough to ski more than they shop (grin).


    15. Aaron Mattix November 25th, 2015 9:04 am

      @RCL1 – thanks for the correction; I didn’t survive the semester of Latin I attempted in college.

      @See – No worries; the intended spirit of the article was to convey a rather similar point; that sweat equity can buy one a fairly cheap entry into the the sport. I’m still rocking my frame binding setup, and chunky boots. I’m looking forward to completing my fast & light setup, and in the meantime I’ll continue to be stoked to keep exploring snow at my slow & steady pace.

      Like @Wookie, I found there was a dual hurdle of cost, and experience to overcome as someone entering the sport mid-life, and coming from a rather snowless background.

      While it is true the most popular & well-known backcountry spots will become more tracked out as the sport grows (reference the 18rd trails in Fruita for a mountain biking comparison), I think there is still a lot of space out there to absorb the newcomers, who are likely to be drawn towards terrain more mild than wild (mellow slopes near the resort v. full-on alpine mountaineering/backcountry conquest).

    16. kew November 25th, 2015 10:24 pm

      My experience is similar. Grew up in Utah, but not in a skiing family, the sport was too expensive. Always loved the mountains, hiking, backpacking, picked up some 10$ snowshoes to explore in winter. Then spent 20 years raising kids, building a career etc, hiking in summer and skiing resort in winter, but too busy with kids for other pursuits. Started using cross country skiing to explore the mountains in winter. Used very cheap 2nd hand gear for years, gradually upgrading to metal edged skiis and beefier boots, but still not able to turn well. Scoured the internet to learn about other gear and learned about AT gear. Plunged in with both feet 2 years ago. Took my kit to a small hill on a trail near Silverthorne, made one turn, and realized that this is it, exactly what I’ve been looking for to hike around in winter. Always loved the mountains, especially the quiet and solitude in winter. Not looking to Huck cliffs or jump cornices, just mellow turns and exploration and the beauty of the mountains. Thanks Wildsnow!

    17. Dave Deming November 29th, 2015 12:21 pm

      For me, growing up in the mid west and getting into skiing in my mid (late?) 20s, I found craigslist and liquidation websites to be a great help with setting up skis and gear. My current pair of BC skis were Craigslist buys, boots were REI liquidations from 2 years ago and poles were sale items at an end of season sale. Same with my SO’s ski gear. Not the latest and greatest, but it helps balance the budget, so I can get educated ( Avy 1, WFR, now EMT-B). Just my .02

    18. Jed Porter November 30th, 2015 11:32 am

      I love this! All of it. Aaron’s voice solidly and thriftily represents that “soul” of the sport that seemingly everyone is trying to sell or buy. He shows that not only can’t it be bought or sold, it doesn’t need to be. Basically, what I’m hearing him say is that we don’t need the expensive gear, we don’t need to look like Sierra Quitiquit in pictures, and we don’t need to even go near avalanche terrain. If you want to go faster, look better, or ride steeper, you’ll likely need to drop some coin. In the meantime, let’s let Aaron’s tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time ever-so-sincere, series of blog posts (all might do well to see the context by revisiting his first WS post: https://www.wildsnow.com/18745/essential-mistakes-for-backcountry-beginners/) mirror some of our community’s most admirable attributes while poking fun at our sillier ones.

      And now, an anecdote. Preceded by a disclaimer. I make the entirety of my income in the outdoor business. More than half of it in the backcountry ski business. Selling our sport pays my bills. Skills, gear, time with me; it’s all for sale. I have skied with a hard-core elitist claiming that no one has any business in the mountains without the latest gear, the best training, and years of coached ski resort mileage. I also skied a season, starting in January one year, with a never-ever. She had never skied before that year. She pieced together a backcountry set-up around Christmas and packed herself a snow-plow “learning” track that January. In February she “skied” from near the top of the Sierra’s Mount Goode, in March from the top of Tahoe’s Freel Peak. By July of that big snow year, she snowplowed and survived a descent of Mount Shasta. She went on to backcountry ski the remaining months that year, just because. Not one turn was pretty, descents took as long as ascents; but she made it work. She has since put in her years of coached ski resort mileage and done a progression of avalanche training, but she started much like Aaron here.

    19. JRD November 30th, 2015 4:48 pm

      I don’t foresee myself going back to frame binders now that I have Dynafits, but my first (very capable) BC setup was $225 (skis, skins, and Barons). Skied hundreds of thousands of feet on the Barons before I got tech binders.

      Also, worth mentioning that plate bindings plus a few extra hours of conditioning each week will be faster than tech bindings on the way up anyway!

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