5 WAYS TO INCREASE BACKCOUNTRY EFFICIENCY
Mountains are big.
That's the point right? Personally, the size and complexity of mountains are what draws me to the backcountry year after year. The ability to go far and explore the seemingly untouched snowscape is a freedom rarely experienced in our modern lives. No matter what mountain range you're skiing in or what your goals are for the day, I think most of us would like to be able to go further and ski more. Who wouldn't want one more lap on a pow day or to get over that one ridge that you've never before ventured past? With that in mind, what are some ways that we can go further, faster, with the same amount of effort? I will explore 5 specific ways that I’ve personally found to boost my efficiency while backcountry skiing.
Downhill skinning, a necessary evil sometimes. While it is a bummer to lose precious vert with your skins on, it is often the most efficient way to continue onward towards your objective. I don't have a rigid decision making structure for when I decide to rip skins but there are a few things I keep in mind. If I get to the top of a hill and the descent is less than 200 or so vert I will just glide down it with my skins on. Basically, unless you're a skimo racer, ripping your skins and putting them back on will probably take at least 10 or 15 minutes. It's easy to lose a lot of time through a day by adding a lot of unnecessary transitions. What if it’s a short steep descent that would be easier in ski mode? There's a few options that will decrease the chances of an epic skinning crash. First, you can try putting your boots in ski mode. This allows you to lean back against the cuff of your boot and reduce the chances of falling forward. If the descent is even steeper, I will put my boots in ski mode and step my heels into my bindings. This further improves skiability without adding the time of a full transition. It's worth noting that if you try to ski too hard with skins on, you can get some bad snow creep between your skis and skins and compromise your skin glue. So if it's steep enough, sometimes you just have to accept the time penalty and do a full transition.
Speaking of transitions, there is a lot of time and effort to be saved here! It is definitely worth learning how to rip your skins with your skis on. Have you ever stepped out of your skis to rip your skins on a pow day and post holed to your waist or chest? No fun. For switching from skinning to skiing, you can leave your skis on. There are many benefits of this but one that people sometimes overlook is that stepping your boot into snow can pack snow into the tech toe inserts in your boot. When you step back into your ski to go downhill you may prerelease due to the snow in the tech fittings. To transition to downhill, I will try to find a flattish spot, take a few moments to stomp my skis and make the snow a little firmer and also stomp both heels into my bindings. Using one pole to balance I will cross my downhill ski to the uphill side and use my free hand to free the tail clip of the skin and rip half the length of the skin free from the bottom of the ski. Next I hold onto the tail of the skin and uncross my legs. I then pull the skin forward as I push the ski back. The trick is getting the skin all the way off the ski in one smooth motion. Leaving that boot in walk mode can help free the tip of the skin easier. I will fold that skin, glue to glue, and stuff it in my jacket and repeat the process on the other side after putting the first boot into ski mode to aid with balance. The second ski can be a bit tricky since the first ski will now slide easier on the snow with the skin removed. This process is easy to practice at home on the carpet. When your run is done and it's time to put the skins back on and start climbing, the process is a bit less acrobatic. The key here is having a system that allows you to complete that transition in the same way every time. In deep snow, it helps to only do one ski at a time and leave the other ski on your foot so you don't sink in so deep. It also helps to either aim for a spot where other people have transitioned and thus packed down the snow, or take a few extra seconds to pack down the snow with your skis before you step out of your first ski. On short descents I will throw my skins in my jacket which saves you from having to remove your pack and also warms the skins and can melt any snow that has gotten in your skin glue.
On a big backcountry ski day we will spend most of our day skinning. Therefore, improving our skinning technique is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to make our effort and time take us further and higher. There are three aspects of skinning that I have found increase my speed without increasing my effort. First is how we actually move our skis uphill. The “stomping” motion is something we really want to avoid. Instead we should try to keep our skins touching the snow and just push them forward while letting the slope do the work in raising them. A good stride should never see your ski leaving the surface of the snow. We all studied trigonometry at some point right? Pythagrius would scoff if he saw people picking their skis up for every step. Skins made with mohair glide much better and boost the efficiency of this technique. Slipping backward in the skin track is not a good feeling and also extremely inefficient. It is far more efficient to take a low angle skin track where you can maintain a smooth efficient stride and never doubt your traction. In these low angle skins tracks you can stand up tall, breathe evenly, and move much quicker than a steep skin track that forces you to stomp for traction and hunch over. Last is heel risers. As long as you stick to low angle skin tracks and keep your skins on the snow, you should be able to spend 99% of your time on your middle riser. The fiddle factor associated with regularly switching between riser heights is just not worth it. The time stopped compounded with reaching all the way down to your heel or poking at your binding with your pole adds a lot of time and effort and doesn't get you any further up the hill. If I am faced with a steep portion of skin track and have the temptation to mess with my risers, I will just make a lower angle switch back to avoid messing with my bindings. The lower the heel riser you use, the longer your stride can be. I personally reserve my flat mode for lake crossings or extremely long flat valley bottoms. It is worth noting that with heavier touring boots with less cuff rotation, the high riser will sometimes become necessary. Boots with greater cuff rotation allow your ankle to adapt to changes in slope angle instead of being forced to change your risers.
Where is the most efficient place to put a skin track? I think of route finding in two categories, macro and micro. Macro route finding refers to where in the mountains you are going. Which peak, which valley, which slope. This route finding can be easier as long as you do some work beforehand. I draw up my route in CalTopo and import the gps file onto my gps and phone. This way, it is quite difficult to get lost or end up in the wrong area. Micro route finding refers to using the terrain features to your advantage as you break trail and make the skin track. This is where we can really find a bit of extra efficiency. We know that we want the skin track to be relatively low angle. Beyond that, we want to look for benches and flatter zones en route to the top of our climb. The more we can avoid steep side hilling, the more efficient we can be. We also want to avoid other unnecessary energy drains such as dense trees, icy slopes, or short steep sections in the skin track whenever possible. I find it is usually worth losing a few vertical feet to avoid one of these sections. If I am doing multiple laps, I will try to correct any small mistakes in my skin track on the second lap so that I leave behind the best skin track possible for later laps and other skiers.
The last thing I want to discuss is how we go about taking breaks and moving through a big day. On one hand we can't spend all day taking big breaks or we won't do any skiing and we will get cold, but on the other hand, if we take no breaks we will be exhausted in just a few hours. I try to start each day at a measured pace that I know the slowest person in my group can maintain for the day. Personally, I usually ski in groups of two. While not the ideal group size for avalanche rescue, these small 2 person groups are certainly the most efficient for travel and as long as they are a regular partner, communication is more efficient as well. As a group of two, it usually works best to have the faster person out front, breaking trail with the slower person following in their skin track. If both people move at a similar pace, then it can be nice to switch off trail breaking duties to keep both people feeling fresher for the descents. It can be tempting to take a break at the top of a run, but I would argue it is significantly more efficient to do so at the bottom of the run. This way we can transition with our skis on at the top of the run, ski down, then take a break down lower, out of the wind, at a spot where we have to take our skis off anyway. I tend to try to take a quick snack break about every 90 minutes which may mean taking a break before a descent or not taking a break every lap. Most people will start to bonk around 90-120 minutes of continuous movement with no food. We want to avoid the bonk by consuming calories and moving at a reasonable pace. A snack break can be as simple as leaving your skis on while skinning, and grabbing a handful of trail mix or your favorite ski snack and sip of water before continuing. This, if you've packed these items to be accessible, can take as little as a minute or two.
Overall, in my personal skiing, I look for big backcountry days and ski mountaineering objectives so efficiency is key and make my days more enjoyable. I encourage you to try one or all of these little tips on your next tour. But, if you don't like the idea of 2 minute breaks and transitioning with your skis on, you don't have to! The beauty of ski touring is not only that you can go wherever you want, you can also do whatever you want. There is no one right way to do this sport, these are just things that I have found to help me go further and have more fun each day. See you in the mountains!