Learning the art of uphill skiing
By Ellen HollinsheadRuedi Beglinger taught me so much about backcountry skiing. For seven full days, we’d follow him, trusting that with his 20 years of skiing the Selkirk Range, he must know what he’s doing. Ruedi was Swiss-quiet, so mostly I learned from watching. It wasn’t the downhill skiing part where I gained most from him – most of us had that figured out. No, it was the uphill portion of the day where I learned a ton. Who would think that an uphill track mattered, but for Ruedi it did, and I owe him huge. The moister air of the Selkirks meant plenty of whiteout days plodding behind Ruedi for hours seeing nothing. I remember one foggy day in particular where it seemed like we weren’t gaining any elevation and I was worried that this was going to be one flat, boring descent. But suddenly we were on top of a peak and skiing down a 30-degree face for 2,000 feet. I was beginning to see a pattern with Ruedi’s uphill route choices – we never worked too hard and yet the descents were always steep. But why?One day at lunch, I asked him why he never picked the short and steep route to the top. He broke out of his silence and told me what he was taught in his Swiss guiding school education about uphill skin tracks. (“Skins” are the felt strips we stick on the backs of our skis so we can climb uphill.)”Too many of you pick routes heading straight uphill,” Ruedi said. “What a waste of energy. I can guarantee you, if you go straight uphill and I contour, I could still get to the top before you and I’ll be less tired at the end of the day. A perfect skin track is one which requires minimum effort. Work with the undulations of the land to climb higher. Go straight uphill when it isn’t steep, but many times that’s where people start to meander.” Ruedi was also proud of the fact that he tried to avoid the switchback turn (or kick turn), unless, of course, safety was an issue. Switchbacks on skis can be awkward, slow and sometimes downright scary if you’re on a steep and icy face.”Look at you twist and contort trying to make that switchback!” Ruedi yelled down to me one day. “More energy wasted. You could’ve gotten to that same point without a kick turn by just taking a steeper angle of inclination lower on this slope.” Live and learn.Sometimes Ruedi would radio to his guides on the next peak and critique their uphill track – usually telling them it was too steep or too close to where the guests would ski down. I always like it when folks set the uphill track that won’t intersect our descent.Peak 6 has become my little training ground for perfecting the uphill track; every year I learn a little bit more. It is an awesome backcountry ski destination for anyone with basic avalanche education. I probably climb it 15 or so times a winter season and since there are always other folks out there, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to compare notes.I have the first half of the route up to Peak 6 nailed. I can go out the gate, head for the cabin, and make it all the way to the final climb without ever using my heel lifts (heel lifts are exactly what they sound like, a bar attached to your binding’s heel piece which skiers raise when the pitch is so steep that your calves need relief). Heel lifts are another taboo amongst the professional guides, and I do get tired of pulling and pushing on those levers when I know it’s unnecessary. Only use them when safety forces you to climb a steep pitch in order to avoid avalanche terrain; otherwise many guides claim that they try not to use heel lifts unless absolutely necessary. My friends and I learned a good lesson last year on Peak 6. It was during a cycle of low avalanche danger and someone put in an uphill track which was higher then our normal route, but closer to the avalanche-prone ridge above. Since the avalanche danger was low, we all started using this new track because it was faster, not as steep, and very safe that week. But when the next storm cycle came through, people continued to use it. This time there was a greater danger for a skier above to trigger a slide on the skiers climbing below. We learned that no matter how safe it is out there, in popular terrain it is a good idea to always break the first trail the safest way possible, even if it adds time and steepness. A good uphill track is as much a work of art as your turns are on the way down, and like learning how to ski, it takes practice. Look up more, predict, keep your heels down and don’t work so hard! Longtime Breckenridge resident Ellen Hollinshead writes a biweekly column on the outdoors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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