Except to those who practice it, the term "ski mountaineering" sounds intimidating. There is no doubt, it is what it sounds like, the blending of skiing and mountaineering skills to achieve a descent on skis. And yes, you can take it to the extreme, or enjoy it in moderate doses.
To those who never have, skiing outside the boundaries of a resort sounds crazy, but to those who do it, it is pure fun, a mix of athleticism, balance, and exhilaration as you swoop down a snow covered mountainside.
It is understood that mountaineering is boldly going where the timid dare not tread; the highest peaks and the steepest lines to get there. When you combine the two, you get mountaineering with skis.
Unlike mountaineering, the goal isn’t to reach the top, but to experience the descent. The total path you take might include the summit, but the line taken down is the goal.
Taken in moderation, ski mountaineering becomes backcountry skiing, where you eschew the lifts and earn your turns. It doesn’t have to be a steep chute cut into the side of a cliff, it could be a wide open bowl or a powder run through the trees. The demands for equipment are nearly the same; apparel in layers to adapt to changing conditions and strong, lightweight gear so you can go farther and faster, or easier if you’re slower.
The most important thing you need is the will to hike the hills you ski. No desire, no reward.
The biggest part of ski mountaineering is the knowledge needed to stay alive. There are many objective hazards related to weather, terrain, snow conditions, and avalanches that need to be taken into account for safe travels. The law of the mountains does not suffer fools and ignorance will test your luck.
Not only do you need to be capable of skiing what you climb, in a variety of snow conditions, you must also have mountain skills for ascending at altitude, and in an emergency, first aid skill.
Whether you emphasize the mountaineering side or the skiing side of the equation, there is a minimum set of skills and equipment needed to backcountry ski safely. You don’t need to be an expert, or even have the latest and greatest gear, but you do need at least the following:
Always carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when traveling in avalanche prone terrain so you can perform an effective rescue if a member of your party is caught and buried. A first aid kit is a good idea too.
Red Fox makes equipment to help you eliminate the consequences of weather when pursuing your dreams: jackets, pants, puffies, baselayers, helmets, carabiners, and packs. Our apparel works overtime in the city, but in the mountains it was conceived for, it shines like the sun.
Tools for Ascent
There are a lot of gadgets you can acquire to make your adventure safer and more fun but the most important things you need are those that help you get to the top without wallowing through the snow.
Snowshoes work and are easy to use. On the way up you carry your skis/snowboard on your back and snowshoes on your feet. Then reverse roles for the ride back down.
Climbing Skins and Touring Bindings
The preferred way is to put climbing skins on the bottom of your skis and use a ski touring binding (Alpine Touring or Telemark) with a walk mode so you can ski up the mountain. The skis let you float on top, the bindings allow a free heel for walking, and the climbing skins add grip so you can shuffle like a cross-country skier, only much steeper. At the top, remove the climbing skins and stash them in your pack, lock the binding in downhill mode, and ski back down.
Splitboards allow snowboarders to do the same thing: split the board in two, add skins and ski up, then de-skin and reconnect the two halves to ride down.