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Peak a Week - Uphill Travel in Tough Conditions | UNITED STATES, UTAH, WASATCH, MT. WOLVERINE | 02/02/2011, 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.
Everyone wishes that skiing in the backcountry always brought blower powder and bright blue skies. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Mountain weather can be dramatic, and this has tremendous impacts on the snow – most of which are not good. Wind, sun, warm weather, and rain are all excellent at producing crusts. While you may not want to ski in crusty conditions, sometimes it’s necessary to ascend them before accessing the goods.
While ski touring in the Wasatch last week, I was reminded of all the different ways to “skin the crust-cat.” On Sunday there was a big rain event, and on Monday it got cold. We skied on Tuesday, and it was pretty much terrible. The inch-and-a-half-thick rain crust was too slick for skins on the steep pitches, but not supportive of our weight while boot packing. These conditions are not much fun, but they can be overcome.
Ski crampons are not widely used in the United States. I don’t go into the Alps or the Andes without them, but I often leave them in the car while in the U.S. This doesn’t make sense. They are awesome tools. Ski crampons attach to the binding of the ski. They are specific to each brand. If you have Dynafit bindings, you need Dynafit compatible ski crampons.
I know a lot of people forego ski crampons, and instead just bring boot crampons. This is a slight misunderstanding. Ski crampons excel when nothing else works well at all. During those times when the crust is thin and breakable, skis help distribute the weight. Hopefully, with skis on you can stay on top. But it is likely slick. Ski crampons give you the purchase needed to stay on track. Sure, most of the glide is eliminated, but at least you’re not post-holing up to your crotch.
If the terrain gets above 35-degrees, skinning and using ski crampons can be a little dicey. Often we must resort to boot packing. Most people think boot backing is about as brainless and animalistic an activity as you’ll find in the mountains. Just put your head down and hammer right? Not exactly. There’s an art to this as well.
Andrew McLean describes this art as the “alpine crawl.” First of all, remember that the key principle of physics in action here is pressure distribution. Even though you are “boot” packing, you are going to use your hands and poles. First, hold your poles mid-shaft. Hopefully you have good gloves because they will be in the snow. Second, place your fist in the snow and keep pressure even along the length of the poles. Your spine should be parallel to the slope. Now, keep you feet in a position so that your knees can touch the surface of the snow. The idea is that with each step you push along the length of the crust toward the bottom of the slope, not the bottom of the snow pack. If you push straight down your hoping an inch or two will support you. If you push along the length the thickness is magnified by a couple hundred times.
This is easier said then done. Do you remember the diagonal ladder climb at the amusement park? The alpine crawl is sort of the same concept. Move one appendage at a time and keep the weight distributed evenly. It is actually all about balance. Take the time to get it right. You’ll save a tremendous amount of energy.
It would be awesome if we never dealt with breakable crust. That would make a great Irish proverb. “May your ski touring be breakable crust free, and your après ski chocked full of beautiful people.” But since that’s not going to happen, get a pair of ski crampons and be more artful with your boot pack.