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Peak a Week - Tour Planning for Less Tension | 01/24/2011, by AlpineAmbitions“Peak a Week” is a Skiing the Backcountry exclusive series. Hosted by Donny Roth, owner of Alpine Ambitions, the idea is to provide some insight into the process of backcountry skiing. Each episode will feature a new mountain and a new guest. There will always be an educational element that highlights a critical piece of the day. There will be no daring feats of stunning athleticism. Rather, it is meant to inspire the average recreational skier to get into the backcountry.
“Are we there yet?”
This isn’t just a question from six-year-olds in the back of the family Buick station wagon. This is actually the primary thought of most people while in the early stages of venturing into the backcountry. Skiing at a ski resort is an incredibly fast sport – we can ascend and descend at amazing rates. Skiing in the backcountry is quite a bit slower. It’s more like hiking, but our environment doesn’t generally promote this association.
It is exactly these moments of doubt or wonder that can spoil a perfect backcountry tour. If you’ve ever taken your significant other on a tour, you know what this is like. Things may be going fine, but the questions cause anxiety that bogs things down. Before you know it the group is feeling pressured and acting in haste.
Framing an accurate tour plan goes a long way in preventing the tension created by venturing into the “unknown.” Most people find it comforting when questions can be answered. “Are we there yet?” “How much further?” “When do we go down?” “We will make it to safety by dark?” These are irritating questions when the answers are not available. Having a solid estimate makes everything a lot more pleasant.
Devising a plan from a hand-sketched schematic on a beer-stained napkin from the night before isn’t the best idea. You’re going to need a good, topographical map.
First, look at the contour lines of the map and sketch a route of travel. Without going into too much detail, gentle grades are pleasant to ascent, and steeper grades are more fun to descend. Consult your local avalanche forecast and take this into consideration when designing your tour. If you want to have a better estimate of slope pitch, get a map tool.
Now, split the tour into segments based on transitions. If the first segment goes up, the second segment goes down, and the pattern repeats.
How long is each segment in distance?
How much vertical relief is gained or lost on each segment?
With this information, you can calculate the time needed for each segment. Of course, everyone moves the mountains at a different pace, so there will be variation. But there are some simple tools for making basic calculations. Use these to get a baseline. With each tour you’ll be able to refine your estimates based on the typical patterns of your party.
As a starting point, use the following guidelines:
For ascent time, figure ONE HOUR for every TWO MILES of distance traveled. Plus ONE HOUR for every 1000 VERTICAL FEET gained along this distance. For example, a four-mile tour, gaining 2000 vertical feet will take approximately four hours. This is very conservative, but if you are just starting out, this will cover the extra time you need to fiddle with gear, and take in a little fuel.
For descent time, figure 15 minutes for every 1000 vertical feet on pitches that you’ll actually be skiing. If the descent is more like a glide through a valley bottom, figure four miles per hour.
Again, these are only basic guidelines. They are fairly conservative for most groups. It generally allows for comfortable travel – things like a five-minute break every hour, and transitions with enough time to get all your gear sorted properly.
Do yourself a favor. Create a tour plan before heading out. Have an answer the next time someone in the group (maybe you) asks, “How much further?”