Ski mountaineering, the new tribes going back to basics
Sporting and freeriding, as well as Telemark and splitboard: there are lots of different approaches to ski mountaineering
Ski mountaineering is about going back to basics, to a time when skis were simply the answer to the age-old question of how to get about on the snow.
But today’s ski mountaineers — kitted out with their ultra-modern equipment — are not driven by any nostalgia for the past. When they talk about “skins”, they mean the synthetic skins — advanced versions of the traditional “seal skins” of animal origin — used to help ascend snow-covered slopes.
Of all the various “tribes” in modern ski mountaineering, each with its own customs and practices, the largest group is the classic ski mountaineers: identifiable by their large backpacks, stuffed with safety equipment and skis suited to every type of snow.
They hold both ascent and descent in equal regard, but what they really care about is exploring the mountain, preferably taking loop routes to fit in as much scenery as possible on both the outward journey and the return, making the most of the fact that skiing generally makes the trip shorter compared to summer expeditions.
Then there are the sporting ski mountaineers, focused on competitions, who race on their skis and keep two key words uppermost in their minds: lightness and speed.
They carry the bare minimum in their backpacks, and while their descents may look ungainly don’t rush to judgement on their skill: they use super-light skis and boots which can be difficult to control on challenging slopes, but with them the stopwatch counts for more than the style. For sporting ski mountaineers, there is a fundamental difference between ascents and descents: the ascent is your chance to take the lead.
Finally, we come to the freeriders, those who “put up with” the need for ascents while gritting their teeth and dreaming of thrilling descents on powdery snow, with extra-wide skis (wider than any others in thehistory of skiing) that let them feel like they’re surfing on a pure white wave.
They are closest to the world of cross-country skiing (they won’t hesitate to use cable cars to bring them to high altitude), but with the ambition of marking pristine slopes with their own ski tracks.
Smaller groups of past and present
As we delve into the world of ski mountaineers, we also come across examples of other, smaller groups: there are the Telemark enthusiasts, the only skiers to go both uphill and downhill using the free-heel technique of ancient Norwegian origin; and of coarse the snowboarders, who would once use snowshoes for the ascent while carrying a board on their backs for the descent, but now use a splitboard. This can be separated into two equal parts during the ascent, in an approximation of the skiing experience, before transforming into a snowboard when it's time to come back down.
Finally, there is a large and growing number of people who seek out “powder” and “firn” (the most sought-after types of snow for off-piste skiers), specialising in gorges and gullies, who are ready to deploy ARTVA (the avalanche beacons), shovel and probe when necessary, but who can also tell when it’s the right moment for an adventure on the snow.