Setting a civilized skin track that won’t kill you or your partners
You round the corner and before you a convoluted slope rises 1200m, with numerous obstacles and hazards between you and a col, beyond which lies bottomless pow, endless turns, and certain ecstasy. In short, this slope separates you from Paradise.
The eager, young guns might throw up the heel risers, unzip their vents, and charge straight up the fall line. The wizened veteran, though, downshifts, spends a moment connecting terrain features, and employs the Five Pillars of Wisdom to envision an optimal skintrack, one that’s safer, easier, more useful, and ultimately displays her limitless skill on the up. The young gun will arrive at the col exhausted and sweaty, having taken unnecessary risks. He will arrive in Paradise too shattered to fully enjoy it! The wily, vet, though … arrives brimming with energy and vigor, clearheaded, de-stressed, and ready for her run to remember.
Promises of ecstasy and dreams of paradise will certainly focus your energies, but let’s get serious (for a sec): we spend most of our human-powered backcountry days on the up track. In fact, the longer you’re in the game, the more you’ll grow to enjoy the up. It’s a skill we need to master, not just for our enjoyment, but to minimize hazards, too. Let’s transition and get started on our lifelong quest to master … the up.
The Five Pillars
A smarter, wiser guide could probably list 20 pillars, but I’ll stick to five to keep me on topic and prevent me from wandering too far afield. Consider these a general starting point in your track setting.
First and most important, let’s stack the deck in our favor by minimizing our exposure to potential hazards. We usually think of avalanches first, and rightly so, but let’s not ignore seracs, cornices, tree bombs, other skiers and sleds, and rockfall come springtime.
When tour-planning before your field time, or eyeballing your route from the guidebook or even below, first identify your hazards. Ask yourself, “How do I get myself killed on this slope?” Answer that question and you know what to avoid. Identify connected pieces of terrain that avoids these hazards.
Imagine standing with your group and feeling stumped about low-exposure options. What does that tell you? Those of you familiar with the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (or ATES) might recognize that challenging and complex terrain limits no-to-low-exposure options for an up- or down-track (descent). Ask yourself and the group; if we can’t identify a lower-exposure option, should we even consider this as a slope for an uptrack?
Remember, our exposure on the up can extend to hours, unlike many of our descents, which can be measured in minutes. Sliding past a pissed-off band of seracs in seconds feels way different than laboring uphill beneath them for 90 minutes.
Once you’ve picked out areas less exposed to avalanches, cornice/serac/rock-fall, or Monster-infused slednecks, try and link these zones with consistent, lower-angled terrain that will allow you to maintain a casual, efficient uptrack. Shoot for keeping your angle between 12 and 15 degrees.
What?! Indeed, no other element of track setting elicits such impassioned debate. My manorexic, skimo buddies can happily float upwards on 22-degree ramps, but for most of us, keeping your track angle much lower will let you tap the summit with energy in the tank for your descent.
Taking a lower-angled line will allow you to communicate more effectively on the up, too. How many accident reports have we read where the group gets split up, the dude in the back can’t talk to the chick in the front, carnage ensues, much hindsight reveals — somebody didn’t talk to somebody else and they should have! Keep it chill, and if people aren’t talking, maybe you’re making them suffer at the back?
A gentlemanly/lady-like skintrack also keeps us off our heel risers. Fans of steeper skintracks often spend minutes on a climb fiddling with their risers. They stop at the bottom of a steeper leg, fight with their risers, then repeat the exercise at the top. Do this six times per climb and the folks behind will have smoke coming out their ears. Hit a consistent angle and let everyone get into a rhythm.
And what wrecks your rhythm worse than kick turns? Nothing. Master the kick turn and then do your best to never need them. Following a frozen track in the Alps? Sure, no sweat, bang ‘em out with aplomb. Setting your own track on a bluebird morning? Rounded turns on low-angle terrain is way faster than kick-turns.
Do long, consistent sections on your uptrack and put in a rounded turn when you need to avoid steeper terrain, a hazard, or to connect to another low-exposure, low-angle section of the slope.
Any expert uptrack should also maximize opportunities for gathering snowpack observations, previewing terrain, and generally gathering info. If detouring a few hundred meters will allow you to dig a pit on terrain similar to what you’re hoping to ski, then it’s probably worth the time and effort to swing over there and have a look. One enterprising teammate can even stop to dig a pit or perform a snowpack test. And if you’ve selected no-exposure terrain (to avalanches), then that teammate will feel fine being solo on the slope for a few minutes.
Often we leave the trailhead with some parameters written down in our notebook. For example, if we jot down “Minimal wind effect in start zone at col,” we’re worried there might be wind slab at the col, leading into the bowl we’d like to ski. If we’re approaching the col and we can get a look at it on our uptrack, we can make a more informed decision once we arrive.
Your expert tracksetting can keep you safer, fresher, and now wiser for the upcoming decision. Good job!
Communicate and enjoy
We’re having fun, right? Hammering uphill in your top risers doesn’t often leave much bandwidth for fun. Especially on a week-long hut trip, we might get away with a day or two of that, but it takes an exceptionally fit team to pull that off for a week.
Rest stops, decision points, and observations can happen in more or less beautiful spots. When you can, make it a nice, flat area, where everyone can hang and enjoy. A group of six, stretched out on a steeper slope in dense timber — that’s not that cool!
Keeping the vibe right also facilitates communication. Picking a relaxed, enjoyable spot to hang, or a civilized pace, all keeps the conversation going. This might be critical during a hilarious story, but it’s also critical in maintaining the right culture for teamwork and shared observations.
The master reveals it in her every action
Before ripping skins, locking down the heels (or not), stepping into the splitboard, or making that final decision — turn and revel in the elegant, lithe, carefully crafted skintrack that delivered you to the col. It should look like someone smoked a fatty and floated up the hill on a magic carpet woven of equal parts wisdom and blissed-out enlightenment.
Make your skintrack your signature, a representation of your mastery. You should look downhill and see others actively choosing your track, over the steep one punctuated by kick turns and vomit blotches.
In short, take pride in the skintrack you set. People should feel relaxed, safer, and psyched following your uptrack.
And now, quick, before those jokers behind you catch up, check in with the team, lock ‘em down, and harvest the goods. Welcome to paradise.
Rob Coppolillo lives, guides, and writes from his home base in Chamonix, France. Once in a while he crafts an acceptable uptrack. You can check out more backcountry info in his book, The Ski Guide Manual.
Fueled by snow and captivated by any landscape it covers, Matt Kennedy is a skier, photographer, and video jack-of-all-trades who thrives in the cool-crisp air of winter. See more of his photography on his website and Instagram @iammattkennedy.
Rob Coppolillo is a mountain guide and writer, based on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound. He’s the author of The Ski Guide Manual.
Another crucial pillar: If you don’t like the skin track, go make your own.
The endless internal conversation … my lazy, weak, inner wimp saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad, just stay in this track,” vs. my brave and energetic inner mountain guide: “This track blows, you should make your own!” Indeed!
Great piece, I enjoy putting in an artful skin track almost as much as skiing down. My only dissent is on the unloved kick turn. Sure rounded corners are great in lower angle terrain, but forcing them when it gets steeper just results in a track that washes out with repeated traffic. Do a kick turn right and its almost like a turn in a swim pool, you’ll come out of it with renewed momentum.
I’ve heard negative sentiments towards kick-turns expressed before, mainly by two categories of skiers: First, and almost always, by professional, or aspiring guides. Secondly by people who just don’t know how to make them efficiently.
I think the guides’ opinions regarding kick-turns are colored by the fact that many of their clients aren’t competent to execute them without wasting a bunch of energy. Likewise for the second category.
I’ve occasionally toured with off-duty heli-ski guides and been surprised by some who weren’t very good at kick-turns. After showing them how to change the edge of the outside ski by pulling it behind, rather than pushing it in front of, one’s center of mass, they gained enthusiasm for the maneuver.
Personally, I find the smooth execution of a kick-turn to be as satisfying as as a sweet turn on the downhill. I also accept the fact that I am not “normal.”
yeah, that “renewed momentum” is often a hallucination. It only feels renewed because you had to come to a dead standstill for some amount of time while executing your turn, and when you finally get that new uphill leg around and stand on it, voila! it feels like new momentum. kinda like when you’ve had a multi day backpack on your back for 30 miles and you take it off. so light!
now, that dead standstill might be real short for a good kick turner. But in my experience, that level of subtle kick turn mastery is a rarity, no matter how good one thinks they are.
Nothing provokes a good discussion (debate? argument? brawl?!) like skintracks! Bunches of personal pref and style in the backcountry, too—so hope I didn’t come off as (too) dogmatic….ha! Happy skiing, all!
this would be a great article if it weren’t for the terrible repetitive metaphor of a “harem of virgins.” wild snow, your audience isn’t all men, nor is this an appropriate way to write about skiing even if it were. the sexualization of landscapes and is extremely problematic, and the implication of purity as something a skier should “ravage” is degrading and harmful. please, do better.
Appreciate your thoughts emily! As the female editor of this site I talked this through with Rob and we decided to keep it in part because virgins is not necessarily male or female (despite that our enculturation defaults to females), and women are regarded throughout the article as the wisened veterans who keep their cool and make sweet tracks. We do make many efforts on the site to decrease the bro-bra of backcountry skiing (again, I’m a lady) but also want to have fun writing about skiing. And make fun of ourselves sometimes in the process 🙂 .
i appreciate that, and the efforts you are making. and i hear you that virgins can be male or female. but 1) a harem implies females 2) it still perpetuates a harmful narrative around virginity and purity. i could go on about this, but i will leave it short. having fun while writing is important, but it can be done without sexualizing the landscape. not causing harm should be just as important. thanks for considering.
Hey Emily, Apologies the joke didn’t come off. I tried to invert the gender of the harem thing, having a woman skier, but obviously it didn’t fly–ack! I’ll reconsider next time!
I couldn’t agree more with Emily. I have a 12 year old daughter who is an avid aspiring uphiller and reads this site near daily (Rossland BC is home if that says anything as to how we prioritize skiing). It’s nearly impossible to find a media outlet without sexual innuendo.
To be fair, I don’t want to ski a slope that already has a bunch of other tracks on it. I think the metaphor is apt in this case.
I read the making the “wisened veteran” female as a token effort added during editing by changing “him” to “her”. I think it would have been better without that afterthought.
Honestly, I sent it in that way. As I said above, I was expecting most folks would read the “virgins” thing as ski-bro talk, but wanted to invert it…and again–obviously it didn’t fly for many of us! Oops! Understand your hesitation with it, but wasn’t an afterthought….
Agree with Emily!
Seconded, It added very little and took away a fair amount. There are plenty of other less historically disadvantaged people to make fun of: Lycra-clad overachievers, social media influencers, grumpy old men on tele skis, and snowboarders all come to mind.
Will now, the writers, need to have a template and a checklist for their writing in an effort not to offend? Female as well as male are equally susceptible to take offense; fat people as much as slim people, fair or dar, tall or short, late bloomers as well as prodigy skiers.
Feeling offended is most of the times a choice one loads a text with. If the writer wants to issue an offense-less text there will be no text left to read… I may take offense at the mentioning of “grumpy old men on tele skis” by a fellow commentator. Historically all old men are disadvantaged (even if only biologically) hence they turn grumpy and if they are tele-skiers even more so. A “virgin slope” is as an appropriate metaphor and not necessarily an invitation to “ravage” (unless it turns so but that is due to bad skiing).
My distinguished co-commentator and skier here sees “the sexualization of landscapes” as “extremely problematic.” Is this a given embraced by all, a dictate, a scientific fact? Or an opinion and matter of choice.
If writers now need to tick boxes to please all and offend nobody (sorry, no one) there will be no writing. Socrate’s death, in this age and time, would be way more painful and much more premature.
As far as I am concerned I enjoy both offensive and not offensive materials as long as they are either informative or well written. Humour is even better! Wild Snow (Ravaging snow?) you’re doing a great job. I only pray (sorry if it is offensive to atheists) that you keep doing so without any bindings other than ski bindings….
causing harm ? “offending someone.” with or without your philosophizing, the world of outdoor recreation is becoming a better, more inclusive place. i am an uphill ski nerd and believe me, i would have loved to come here and comment something fun about the skin track. yet the continually burden falls on those most affected to speak up on issues like this. thanks to all those who weighed in in agreement in the comments.
Let’s see this as the most essential piece of a writer’s journey: feedback from their audience. The virgin metaphor is trite, infantile, and reminds me of an early 2000s Transworld Snow article. If the author wants to improve, maybe they’ll listen to their audience’s critiques and try something else next time. Or maybe not. It’s up to them.
Agreed. The harem thing detracted far more than it adds. Great post otherwise.
Philosophising or not, I am happy the outdoor recreation world is becoming more inclusive (assuming the opposite on anyone’s part would be illegitimate). I only hope that it does not do this at the expense of killing humour and freedom to feel and think outside a script. One cannot help but to think of Jorge (Umberto Eco’s In the name of the Rose) who, in his effort to destroy laughter burns down the whole abbey with its library and all the books in it – a rather more poignant metaphor than the one that started this discussion.
Safe skinning up to all of you (nerds or less endowed, in equal measure) and I would also like to thank, on my part, to all those silent in agreement with my position. Winters and with them the free turns are becoming more scarce – let’s not have that happen to the free flow of words when no ill has been inserted in them.
Ha – Not to mention that a bunch of young male virgins…lacks a certain appeal, at least to this lady reader.
The money quote: “…. Do a kick turn right…”
If only it were this easy!
Seriously, though, great kick turns are essential, like my black belt in kung fu…but I try never to use it!
I agree with Emily’s earlier comments. Let’s remember that the purpose of this article is to discuss subjectively better ways to make ski tracks in snow. The sexual analogy in the opening section is unnecessary and offensive, and should be removed entirely. The attribution of positive qualities with the female sex later in the article is not justification of the problematic nature of the earlier analogy; it is also problematic itself.
“kick turns and vomit blotches.” That’s funny AF (and coincidentally the name of my favorite punk band in the 80’s).
Woh, you’re dating yourself…just like me! I made a Blues Brothers reference to an avy course last year and I may as well have been talking about agrarian taxation policy in Victorian England….crickets!
“It should look like the Dalai Lama smoked a fatty and floated up the hill on a magic carpet woven of equal parts wisdom and blissed-out enlightenment.”
This will be the new standard I endeavor to visualize on each and every track I set this year! I assume the DL is a splitboarder?
Geez, I assumed the Dalai Lama needs no external flotation at all, but now you’ve got me wondering!
Rob, WildSnow editors – thanks for taking the time to make this post and share your knowledge with us all.
I’m afraid I have to add that as an Asian American with a cultural and religious respect for Buddhism, I found the comment about the Dalai Lama smoking a fatty pretty unnecessary. Please find another metaphor that doesn’t require appropriation, or that furthermore insinuates that a religious figure revered and beloved by millions is violating one of their solemn vows.
Also seconding the many comments on the whole virgin/harem thing. Made me cringe.
Is there any reason you can’t simply edit the article to remove these two unnecessary portions and add a short explanation/apology up top instead of repeatedly doing so in the comments? I can’t think of a good reason for you not to. It’s 2021, let’s all try and do better than making culturally or sexually offensive comments.
One thing I’ve learned after putting in hundreds of skin tracks…the terrain will lead you exactly where to put the most efficient track, if you just pay attention, look ahead and plan.
yes, larry, look ahead! maybe that’s pillar number 6? great advice!
Some valuable wisdom here. You missed one of the most important ones though…Group size. Your pictures show groups way too big to be considered wise backcountry etiquette. I’m nobody, but I do know that large groups decrease safety, communication efficiency and for most…. enjoyment!
hi todd—indeed, group size is important….photos are from a guided week at a lodge, with two guides, and two tail guides, huge group of friends…..most of the week we were separate, but a couple days the crew wanted to ski together….so we spent time in the skintrack together, then skied independent lines….
what’s your ideal size, would you say? just out touring for fun, i like 3-4….
good point you’ve raised!
Great piece, also agree with the comments before mine in regards to the language of the piece, and the all too common inability to properly execute a kick turn (which only makes matters worse).
We all know the big takeaways the the “worst of” highlights… V of doom kick turns, washed out corners, too steep… You briefly mention consistency, but I think this is the most subtly important part that I often see a lack. Over a long traverse, you can gain a ton of elevation by milking the terrain… Many folks go over convexities and concavities with out changing the direction of their skis enough, leading to ups and downs and little inconsistencies that lose elevation or make the track too steep… When you go straight through a concavity, you leave vert on the table, turn into them a little bit. When you go straight over a convexity, you gain a lot, turn away from these a bit… Seems like not enough people flow with the micro stuff
Oh, also going straight up the gut and encountering too many kick turns rather than traversing in from the side and eliminating half of them..
Kick turns and vomit blotches, LOL.
If never using the heel risers maybe better suitable sport is cross country skiing? Unthinkable in the Alps.
Hi Johann–Indeed, I shouldn’t say “never”…but I avoid ’em! Climbing the front side of the Grands Montets yesterday, I was in my tallest riser–the piste was bulletproof, so traversing was verboten! That said, once we crossed the glacier, I had risers down the whole way to the Col du Passon. Ask me in a week, though, and I’ll deny having ’em up at all!
Related (although designed around safety), this is a cool route finding set of exercises (see #1-14 below the vid)…
washed out corners? In my experience corners are often washed out by over-eager kick-turners. An “every turn should be a kick turn” mindset skins up to an established rounded corner, they don’t see that they can easily walk around the corner, but instead they blindly fixate “corner=kick turn” and attempt to kick turn too early, just downhill of the apex of the round corner, leaving a double fall line washed out mess for any followers, especially a split boarder who might have, shall we say, just a liiiittle less edge control. Eventually (quickly) the corner becomes a piece of sh*t, unsuitable for both kick turn and round corner adherents.
Great article – as a grumpy old male Tele skier, I got a kick out of the Paradise vision, and even wondered whether a harem of virgin men at the bottom would even entice the wizened woman or if she’d just do another lap.
I would push back on the ‘make your own track” and add a pillar – Keep the uptrack off the ski slope if at all possible. We walk all day for the goods, not the cuts. And when everyone puts in their own track, often for “I know better” egoic heroics there’s no floating Dalai Lama skiing left.
Kick turns are an art worth mastering because sometimes you just absolutely need ’em! I’m amused by our continual effort to make outdoor sports easy. Study efficiency, sure, but don’t we do these sports because they’re hard, or should we all be golfing?
Old Male Tele Chris—
Agreed on all fronts! If the uptrack is going to wreck the skiing—I advocate endless kick turns and will endure corresponding complaining–at least on the up! Despite some ill-conceived ideas presented here about preferring the up to the down, I still favor the down a bit more than its opposite! Dalai Lama turns for days, indeed!
I whole-heartedly (and joking aside) suggest all uphill skiers master the kick turn and then avoid them. It’s less about dumbing down the sort and more about practicing it in such a way we can do it longer…and in certain cases, share it with the less fit, less experienced….
I wish you successful dropping of the knee in 2021 and hope the weather gods cooperate, wherever you are! RC
Haha. Funny comments discussion. I like skiing sexy. I love throwing kickturns especially in front of people that dog on them and can’t do them. Also, haven’t used heel risers in 20 years, they make for weak legs and weak skinners. My $.02. Haha cheers.
As a grumpy-old-man-tele-skier, even I felt uncomfortable with the virgin/harem talk. I have a wife, daughter, mother, sister, aunties, etc., all virgins earlier in their lives, and I am horrified to think that slobbering, mindless males think of them in only one context.
Yo Grumpy OMR! Sorry the joke didn’t come off–was hoping the harem would be understood as gender mixed, but I missed—sorry! RC
Comments about virgins/jokes falling flat are noted. No need to incite a pile-on. Perhaps we can now turn the commenting focus to the actual content of the piece…
An entertaining piece with all the comments. Kick turning is no big deal, really it’s just a part of the know how. As far as group size goes I know all the professional guides make more money with more customers, but as an experienced BC skier of many years my feeling is two’s company three’s a crowd.
Yeah, the group size thing…no stress. Guides making more is part of the equation, but really—if we didn’t book a full hut, it’d cost $8000/person. Ouch! I’d be up there alone in front of the fire!
I can see Rob’s Pillars applying to guided ski situations or what I imagine to be the endless empty ridgelines and snowfields of the Canadian Rockies that I alas have never visited, but I would not embrace some of them while touring the increasingly crowded Front Range of Colorado, where I mostly play. Personally I’m trying to “pull the ladder up” when I set a new skintrack. More often than not I use a 4″ stiletto riser to make my skintrack as uncivilized and unattractive as possible, especially for the relatively short subalpine tours that life limits me to more often than not these days. It requires smaller steps and shuffles to avoid gravity’s stronger pull on the skins (and no kick turns), but I’m not in it for the uphill experience or exercise or whatever Uphillers/Skinners try to accomplish these days. I’m going up in order to ski down as much untracked snow as possible. An inviting skintrack would defeat my purpose. Nonetheless thanks for the thought provoking essay, inspiring photos and the entertaining comments it spawned. WildScold.com?
Flake, cold-blooded skintrack tactics—now there’s another article! I’ll leave you to this one, though—I’d bollocks that one up, too!
Manasseh, there’s no need to shut down the comments on the “sexualization of the landscape” as Emily so aptly put it. I’ve enjoyed the entire thread, and OMR’s recent comment was a good one that I and I’m sure many other “grumpy old man tele-skiers” had thought of as well. This is in no way a “pile on”, and I hope that others with comments to add about this important topic continue to post them. I too found the sexual references immature and distracting, and as Susan noted, assigning the women in the piece the role of skilled, wizened veterans was clearly a lame attempt to compensate for that. As for kick-turns, working on and ultimately mastering them is one of the great pleasures of ski touring. Of course on low-angle terrain rounded turns are more efficient, but there are many times when the best, safest and most efficient track will use plenty of kick-turns. And there’s no shame in adjusting your heel-risers as often as needed– getting slick at doing that quickly is also a satisfying skill that allows you stay dialed in to the terrain without slowing the flow of the group.
I loved this article and sent a link to all of my partners, one of which ALWAYS sets too steep of a skin track. Years of hassling him about it hasn’t changed his ways so maybe hearing it from someone else will!
For some reason, some of the comments reminded me of one my favorite conversation between my niece and bro in law. Dad (wistfully giving dating advice); “your mother was as pure as the driven snow the day I married her”. Daughter (rolling eyes); “Dad, I was AT the wedding!”.
Shane, you will never change her/his mind, rest assured. Skintrack angle, the polarization, it’s worse than a session in Congress! Let me know if you succeed, though, I want your secret!
The false perception of of steep routes being faster than low – angle routes carries over to trail design as well. While it seems like a steep descent (10% or steeper) would be faster, the reality is that riders will spend more time on the brakes trying to control speed, whereas a low – angle route (5% or less) allows riders to stay off the brakes, and pump the terrain for more speed.
Not sure where I first heard the word “serpentine” as a way to set a skin track in complicated terrain and I favored this approach with clients and those new to the sport so they don’t feel stressed in unfamiliar terrain, But I do like to set a steeper, well-spaced and positioned switchbacks if conditions favor that approach and partners are game. Depends…..
Thank you Emily!
I spent a week with a guide who made us do exactly one kick turn after which he apologized
AL, I love it !
Indeed…s/he’ must’ve been good! At the beginning of my guiding exam, I remember the examiner saying “You get three kick turns all week–more than that and you fail!”
well buddy the guide had been guiding at the family lodge for probably 30 years, in spite of that terrain familiarity i think that was the year he manged to cliff us out which required a rapsramble down on the 10M of 3mm cord every one carries in their pack (right?) that rope is still up there somewhere. I spent a lot of time at another lodge where they dig out the corners on significant ridges of the designated up-route instead of digging the clients out of snow banks eh
Nice write-up, Rob. Wonder if Lawrence skiied in jeans?
Under his robe?! Damn, that’d be hot….temperature hot!
Ufff. Joe Stock wrote about this last year while being very funny and including less weird metaphors about virgins. https://www.stockalpine.com/posts/skin-track-setting
Joe Stock—words to live by! He has a book coming out next year, too—I got a sneak peek….good stuff!
Speaking of inverting the metaphor, there are a rare few of us who find the downhill experience to be dull and uninspiring, something to get done in safe haste so the uphill adventure can begin anew. The singular exception to the downhill blues is downhill skinning – those special occasions when transitioning is not worthwhile so you keep the toes locked and work on those pseudo-tele turns or maybe you’re just trying to keep it together with weight over the heels because locking the heel while skinning downhill just isn’t as spectacular. Show me a thousand sheeple whos perfect day is linking downhill turns on an epic powder day, and I’ll show you an artist, a courageous trail blazer and visionary who would rather be linking up kick-turns in the skin-track trenches, blasting through shin-deep pow with each formidable stride, weaving and winding the path of least resistance until, regrettably, the path reaches its climax on a ridgeline or summit, and the only thing left to do is get the hell down – just to go back up. In my heart of hearts, I sincerely believe that skiing downhill is a necessary yet unfortunate consequence of ski touring, and if there ever was a Paradise as you allude to, it’s a place where the summit is always just beyond reach, where the kick-turns continue in perpetuity, and the soft dawn light and lingering stars never fade to a glaring, formidable sun.
Hey Slender—As the son of a psychiatrist and on the topic of downhill skinning, I offer only these words: seek professional help at once! “…skiing downhill is a necessary yet unfortunate consequence of ski touring…” Never have these words been written on WildSnow and I predict never will they again!
Poignant and deep words, Slender Skinner, perhaps even worthy of an article all their own.
Of course, WildSnow would probably be skewered to oblivion for even considering that…
I love virgins and harems, but was also deeply offended by this article. I live for steep skin tracks and tight kickturns and have never had a wily veteran beat me to a summit via a serpentine skin track. I’ll often arrive so refreshed that I have to do a few jumping jacks and sing Taylor Swift songs just to burn up some of my excess steep skinning energy.
Skin track geometry varies with location. If you have the room to safely set a serpentine track, great, but many times skinners are forced onto ridgelines which means you can either make a million low angle switchbacks or skin straight up a 30 degree slope, or more likely, do a combination of steep skinning and switchbacks. Claiming that low angle walk around tracks are the one and only way is like saying all new rock climbing routes should be no harder than 5.8 with bolts placed every six feet so everyone can do it. That’s fine in theory, but why should skin tracks be set for the lowest common denominator, ie., a first time skinner on REI rental gear?
Another downside of setting a low angle cruiser is that it allows everyone to pack together, which every one of the photos in this article beautifully illustrates. This is definitely not avalanche savvy. Conversely, a Tuff Love steep skin track forces people to spread out as slip & slide or struggle with blown out kick turns, such that when the a-hole trailer breaker triggers a slide, only a few people are taken out rather than the whole lot.
Just a question from an old timer. Judging from all of the expertise and advice that I guess is sought after in the regard to the purpose of this essay, “Are there a fair amount of people bc skiing and touring who are beginner or low intermediate level of skiers with not much real experience and have not mastered the art of powder skiing.” It used to be and I hope is still true that one needed to be skilled as a skier to venture out, unless of course the terrain was actually beginner friendly.
Hi Phillip—I’m 50 years old, so by no means a true “old timer.” That said, I think last season and this upcoming one will change the demographic of the “average” ski-tourer quite a bit. We shall see, but I have a feeling there will be more and more inexperienced folks out there — for better and for worse.
I agree with Emily and others who commented similarly on the reference to a harem. Far from ‘piling on’, the criticism has been sparing.
Hi Judith—Thanks for speaking up and the feedback—I don’t have much to add to what I said above, but wanted to let you know I’d read your comment and incorporated the feedback for the future.
Hi Rob, you being a professional guide based out of Chamonix it’s hard to imagine low level skiers touring in your environs, unless I’m mistaken but Chamonix carries a high standard of expertise to be skiing there. Just my take from magazine and film articles. Back in the day I am 74 and it took me three full seasons to become a solid powder skier on a pair of Rossignol S4’s one of the great skies of its time. The learning curve is easier now with the wider skis, I haven’t seen many inexperienced types in my backyard which is about 15 miles southeast of Mt. Rainier so in that respect I am lucky, I think it may be different for Colorado and Utah, but who knows babysitting could become a new thing for guides in these areas.
Hi Phillip—Haven’t skied on Rainier yet—someday!
I think Colorado, Utah, Tahoe, maybe even Snoqualmie are all going to see busy years. Here in the Alps, without the lifts turning, there are definitely less experienced folks touring … I’ve only lived here for a year-and-a-half, but been visiting consistently for the last 6-8 years. Seems like more inexperienced folks, but who knows?
Stay safe this winter! Hope your freeze levels are low! RC
A final pillar: Have you ever unknowingly returned to a skin track you made a week or so prior, and thought part-way up “wow, this skintrack is excellent! Oh wait…I made it!”. If so, you are the indeed the master (if not a little forgetful).
If I’m honest, Woodsman, I return to skintracks and end up saying, “Why the hell did I go left here?! What was I thinking?!” Mastery…that ever-retreating horizon!
“Calmer than you are, dude.” — Walter Sobchak
Wonderful comment thread folks. Am thinking about how one might value the uphill more than the down. Perhaps that’s the exalted uber-enlightened end state for a ski tourer? If so, I’m not quite there yet, but it seems I’m constantly doing the work. Though I will come clean and say I’ve experienced this satori a few times, usually in Europe when I’m facing 2,000 vertical feet of rain-soaked snow with a breakable crust, plenty of fence posts, a few irrigation ditches to add spice, and then an exit trail sheeted with blue ice and forty foot cliff to the side. The uphill was more fun. Lou
Lou—I think I’ve done that exact uptrack—-indeed, way better with the skis pointed up than down! Happy New Year, to you, Lisa, LouJr—safe tracks this year to you, brudda!
Nice literay tribute to Lawrence, who was a friend of Colorado ski pioneer Lowell Thomas. Have you seen Rick Moulton’s new film biography of him? https://www.rickmoulton.com/current/lowell.php
Ah, gotta check this out—thanks for the link!
Fun article… took a while to get through all he comments, but well worth it… for all the discussion of steep vs mellow “C’mon, man!”. I have “tail gunned” on enough days to see groups destroyed with poor up tracking, egos crushed, gear soaked, shaky legged and ready to puke… maybe some tears, but they were likely mine. The last two seasons I have worked with a couple or three exemplary guides, I can drink my tea on most of their up-tracks, or at the very least, eat my sandwich.
I just spent five days with my daughter working hard on my up tracks, that isn’t time spent just getting to the goods, that’s time spent sowing the stoke… a less skilled/fit novice will appreciate the skill and effort of someone who keeps them in mind while leading the charge. The highlight of our up tracks? One day we gained elevation from the end of our last run to the lodge, a long gradual saunter through terrain features across a sprawling plateau… a great lesson about getting from here to there without defaulting to the skins, another tool to be in the box for when it’s needed.
Yo Poppa! Agreed on all fronts!
I was just away in CH ice climbing a couple days and we had an approx 1-hr skin (or trudge in boots!) up to the climbs….it occurred to me while skinning with a 55L pack, ice tools, two 60m ropes, down pants, down jacket, and of course enough treats to keep my whining to a minimum—what a great way to practice/teach/learn the 12-degree skintrack—load yourself up like a rented mule! Man, as soon as your skis point uphill at 18 degrees, you FEEL it. Ouch!
Rad you are spending time sliding on snow with your daughter. One of our little punks is interested, so we cobbled together a set-up for him…he’s 10, so a mondo 23 boot is still big, but with an extra insole, thick socks, he didn’t seem to mind! Great, man!
Best New Year to you and stay safe——
Hey RC… my Grom got started on G/Rex tele boots, 3pin with bails (Rottefella)… it was super light, for being 6y/o, and the best I could do for a mondo 16 setup… I don’t think she ever did more than one tele turn in a row… but it got her out with me…
Our first skin was to Kootenay Haus… 300m of climbing… and yes, straight up the old t-bar line… pre season, 20cm of fresh on groomed base… great intro… it was a win!
Travel safe everyone… and teach your children well!
Mondo 16?! Unheard of! I got my little punk a 23 in that nice Atomic Backland, women’s version—it was the smallest boot in the shop. He loves it and of course all the more because Mikaela Shiffrin is on Atomic gear…ha!
Great, man, way to raise a charger!
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