New Backcountry Skiing How-To Book is Incredible

Post by blogger | December 4, 2007      

In the chronology of human history they’re called a classic; magnum opus; great work.

We’re talking Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens.

And now, Martin Volken. Okay, I’m just joking. Sort of.

Volken’s new book “Backcountry Skiing” (with co-authors Scott Schell and Margaret Wheeler) is indeed a magnum opus. Not only is this one of the most current backcountry skiing how-tos I’ve ever seen, but it covers an amazing gamut of information — everything from numerous historical tidbits all the way to six copiously illustrated pages on how to cut climbing skins. Indeed, if print is trying to compete with what you can do with Internet publishing, not shirking on space is key. Thus, 339 pages of ink on paper and you know these guys are making a good stab at keeping pressed sawdust a viable option for communication.

In the intro, “Backcountry Skiing” is said to be organized “according to the progression of a ski tour.” Shopping is the best way to start any real adventure, so chapter one gives an incredibly thorough take on gear. Balanced info about difficult decision points such as ski length and weight will help anyone trying to avoid Prozac while shopping. Extensive info on avalanche safety equipage keeps it real. Indicative of the deep nature of this book, you’ll even find four detailed pages on picking a rope. Even I, in my infinite wisdom, will admit to learning something from that.

After shopping, what’s next in a planning a backcountry ski trip? Probably figuring out how not to get killed by an avalanche. Thus, chapter 2 “Decision-Making in Avalanche Terrain.” Again, an incredibly detailed effort that could easily be used as a text book for outdoor education. Essential modern content includes a good look at the now popular “human factor” aspect of avy safety, in less polite circles also known as “how could we do something so stupid?”

Chapter 3 (whew, 129 pages later) covers navigation. I guess the authors knew the reader would be overwhelmed by now since this chap is only six pages long. I guess GPS use really has made things easier. But here we do find a bit of a copout, as GPS use receives one paragraph with the disclaimer that “Entire books have been written about…using a GPS…” Ho hum, I guess mercy is required here on the part of the reviewer. Let me just say that whole books have been written about many things, so that excuse is lame.

On the other hand, GPS is indeed complex and would require a ton of space, so choices have to be made. Ah, the limits of sawdust publishing. At the least, Volken could have mentioned that your GPS is nearly useless without setting the same Datum your source information uses. That’s a common oversight and would have been good to include in a short list of GPS tips.

So on to Chap 4, “Uphill Movement,” which again gets incredibly detailed. If you’re new to the game, I’d say this chapter alone makes the book worth the price. Gad, just taking a step while using climbing skins gets three pages of details! The part about kick turns continues the trend, detailed beyond belief.

The next chapter “Transitions” is an interesting concept that I’ve always been aware of in an intuitive way, but never organized in my mind. Skinning to skiing, skinning to booting, moving onto glaciated terrain, roped to unroped. Super info about all these little glitches in the day that can cause problems as small as lost minutes — all the way to something as compromising as dropping your gear off the side of a mountain.

Now you’re seeing why I call this a magnum opus. We’re about half through the book and here is Chapter 6, “Ski Mountaineering Techniques.” As you can imagine, detail oriented guide Volken and his friends pull out all the stops here (and Martin shows his Swiss heritage). Four pages just on building anchors with skis. The T-anchor; H-anchor; I-anchor; N-anchor; X-anchor. Yep, it spells “THINX,” and that’s used as a mnemonic to remember all the trick ways you can save your rear end by using skis to pin your ropes to the side of a mountain.

I’ll wind down now, otherwise this’ll be the longest blog post in Wildsnow history. Additional chapters on ski technique, self care, and rescue/emergency round out the encyclopedic tome. Also, throughout this book you’ll find writings from various authors that liven things up with slightly different points of view. Lowell Skoog gets things started with a nice take on ski history, and other pages give views about everything from setting a skin track to tips about how to take our alpine ski skills and become a backcountry skier.

If you can’t learn something from this book, you’re either brain dead or terminally arrogant (let’s see if that gets quoted in the publisher’s promo). Highly recommended. Good gift for a backcountry skier or alpinist of any ability level.



13 Responses to “New Backcountry Skiing How-To Book is Incredible”

  1. Eric December 4th, 2007 10:14 am


    Any idea on release date for this book?

    Thanks, EZE

  2. RobinB December 4th, 2007 10:53 am

    Looks good, and a bargain at $13.57! Going on my wishlist.

  3. Lou December 4th, 2007 10:56 am

    Eric, it’s available now. I just called Mountaineers Books and they said “it just came in.” That means Amazon should be shipping it in a few days, and definitely before Christmas. If you want it fast, you can get it direct from Mountaineers 206-223-6303 (without the Amazon discount).

  4. Shane December 4th, 2007 12:20 pm

    How timely. I just noticed that book at one of our local shops while waiting for some boot fitting work to get finished. It cought my eye although I didn’t open it up. Maybe I’ll have to give it another look.

    With respect to the GPS section, my opinion is that it’s fine to abbreviate that info. At least around my area, I suspect many folks don’t use GPS at all. Not all of us are doing multi-day, long distance trips in unfamiliar terrain. Many destinations are familiar and don’t even necessitate a map or compass to navigate safely.

  5. EZE December 4th, 2007 2:42 pm

    Thanks Lou! I went ahead and ordered it from Amazon as no big rush.

    Shane-Just this past weekend we did a local trip in relatively familiar terrain and boy was I glad I had my GPS and knew how to use it. We might have spent the night out in a snowstorm if we had not brought it along. Mine’s about 8 years old now, so it’s time to upgrade. Does this book need to go into major detail, probably not. But, perhaps a bit more than a paragraph would be useful.

    Thanks, EZE

  6. Kevin December 4th, 2007 3:46 pm

    typo: “Dickins” should be Dickens

  7. Lou December 4th, 2007 3:53 pm

    Thanks Kevin, fixed.

  8. Kevin C December 5th, 2007 4:07 pm

    A friend just gave me a copy of the book and I have to say this is pretty much the definitive textbook for any “intro to backcountry course.” It is something every instructor ought to read to validate their own methods or pick up new ideas. As Lou says just about anyone ought to be able to pick up some nugget of information. Really an impressive book. Very similar to the “Freedom of the Hills” book that the mountaineers puts out on hiking and climbing. This would be the ski version. Nice job Martin, Scott, and Margaret!

  9. carl December 6th, 2007 12:52 pm

    Amazon is now suggesting a ship date at the end of January for my pre-Order. Best order it somewhere else if you want it by Christmas.

  10. Lou December 6th, 2007 1:51 pm

    Carl, thanks. With that said, probably the way to get it for Christmas is to just call Mountaineers Books, via 206-223-6303. I’m surprised it’s not at Amazon in time to ship for Christmas, you’d think a book they list would be in stock fairly quickly.

  11. Lou December 7th, 2007 10:56 am

    Martin, thanks for dropping by and good to get clarification on authorship. Multi author books present a dilemma for the reviewer, as it’s just incredibly awkward to include all the author’s names in the prose of a review. Thus, I stuck with just using your name in relation to the book and will have to continue with that to some extent, though I’ll try to work the other names in when I can. You all did indeed do an excellent job!

  12. Martin Volken December 7th, 2007 10:50 am

    Lou – greetings from the recovering Pacific North
    I want to you thank you for the very flattering book review. The decisions made on content and writing were from the beginning a collaborative effort between Scott, Marge and myself. We built the outline, then chapters were dished out between the three of us. We went our ways and wrote them, then reconvened, edited each others work and kept on writing the next chapters. Scott contributed the vast majority of the pictures and I believe that they contribute greatly to the quality of the book. It is important to me that the readership knows this. We wrote the book together and with that will have to share praise, critique and critisism….equally.
    Lou again, thank you.

  13. Glenda February 5th, 2008 3:56 pm

    Backcountry skiing is pretty up to date..However, how many skiers are into glaciers??? If questions about navigation, one may want to check Dr. Jean Vives’ book “Ski Randonnee!”..He has an extensive chapter (25 pages) on the subject and other very specific areas for beginner and intermediate…
    Just a suggestion Thanks

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