Golden State Guiding and Weston Guide, Trevor Husted, breaks down the ideas and concepts found in Ski and Splitboard Mountaineering from Trip & Terrain Planning, Gear, Fitness and more. Unlock the powers to take your backcountry skiing and riding to the next level!
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Not feeling the read? Watch the Slay At Home Episode: Ski/Splitboard Mountaineering 101 with Trevor and Golden State Guiding.
The feeling of being high up in the mountains is a feeling unlike any other. Whilst I have yet to walk on another planet, I imagine it to be similar to the ski and splitboard mountaineering outings I have experienced in the past. The darkness of the night lit only by drifting headlamps and the sound of crunching metal on snow and ice, greeted over time by a cacophony of colors overhead as the morning sky awakens is a pretty remarkable instance. Enjoying that experience with the skills of ski/splitboard mountaineering can make it even that much more special.
In this blog post, I am going to as simply as I can break down the ideas and concepts found in ski/splitboard mountaineering with the hopes that you will have a better idea of what it is and if it is an activity you may want to add to your repertoire in the future.
What is ski/splitboard mountaineering and why should I explore it?
Splitboard/Ski mountaineering is a different way of experiencing the mountains - imagine taking all the intriguing traits of backcountry skiing and snowboarding and mashing them together with the intensity and skills of mountaineering. Some of these defining factors means a more extensive gear kit, increased levels of fitness, knowledge of different skill sets in understanding terrain, movement, and hazards as well as how to manage a long day(s) in the field. The skillsets may seem daunting at first but with a little bit of proficiency your journey into ski/splitboard mountaineering will be welcomed with open arms.
Where to start?
It is beneficial to approach ski/splitboard mountaineering with a firm base of backcountry skills and knowledge. Being confident in navigation, understanding avalanche problems and where to find them, following good backcountry etiquette, leave no trace principles, and having a solid level of fitness, will help you to get a leg up on your start. If you have a decent understanding of all these aspects the next step is figuring out what sort of objectives to look ahead to in order to get you on your way.
Terrain & Trip Planning
The terrain you choose to ride or ski is going to help to dictate the skills, equipment, and mindset of where and how you choose to travel both up and down hill. Are you looking for bootable roadside couloirs or lengthy glaciated ascents to the top of your favorite volcanoes? Single day strike missions with an alpine start or multi-day objectives that involve camping or a bivy? Whatever route you take, invest some time in planning your ascent and descent. There are a ton of online mapping resources out there like GAIA, CalTopo, Avenza, etc. and coupling that with google earth can help to give you a good idea of what your route will look like for those special missions. There is also the old fashion map and compass method as well.
Guide books can also play a pivotal role in helping you to get beta on something you may have missed in the planning process. Is that snowy route more rocky in the spring? Does it require some mixed alpine and rock climbing to get to the top? Can you see the down route on the ascent or does it require an approach that brings you in blind to your ski objective? All considerations that could potentially sway your decision making process. Also, don’t forget about the weather and how that plays in terrain choice and timing.
Every mountain involves some sort of skill set necessary to get to the top. A volcano like Mount Shasta is multi-faceted and involves not only knowledge in moving with crampons but also an understanding of how to hold and operate an ice axe. If you go to the glaciated side of the mountain you have to consider how to move as a rope team while taking into consideration crevasses and how to mitigate that risk. Keeping that in mind a mountain like Rainier (Tahoma) or Denali will be a totally different experience.
Traveling in non-glaciated terrain is the best starting point for those that are beginners to ski/splitboard mountaineering. It involves the least amount of gear and not a ton of learning to get involved. Most of the skillset revolves around your footwork such techniques as the french step, rest steps, front pointing, etc. and with the ice axe understanding self belay, self arrest, and how to hold and position the ice axe is essential. In addition to these skills adding a rope for short roping could be beneficial for protection but I can’t stress enough how this should not be done if you have not learned the proper methods of how to use a rope and given it a fair bit of practice.
Moving through glaciated terrain is definitely a more advanced form of ski/splitboard mountaineering and as mentioned above should involve a significant amount of knowledge to ensure safe travel. Understanding knots, how to travel as a rope team, rope management skills, as well as how to perform crevasse rescue are all necessary prerequisites to incorporating your skills into traveling on glaciers. From this point the possibilities are endless and can involve mixed climbing, ice climbing, rappelles, short roping, placing gear, etc. for those beginners take the time and energy to become acquainted with this in a learning environment and get a fair bit of practice before introducing this skillset into your mode of travel.
Normal avalanche gear should accompany you on your ski/splitboard mountaineering adventure, i.e. beacon, shovel, probe. Aside from this, choosing high quality, light, durable gear that you can count on will make a world of difference. Having a splitboard or skis that can efficiently travel through all types of terrain is important because the downhill portion of most missions typically involves a variety of snow conditions. Having hardboots or softboots that are compatible with your crampons is also important. Stiff snowboard boots are super helpful for the uphill travel and are compatible with soft toe bail crampons which make it possible to achieve your mission in just your set of snowboard boots as opposed to having to bring mountaineering boots.
Deciding between steel or aluminum crampons is the next step. Most folks that do a lot of ski/spliboard mountaineering opt for aluminum because they are lightweight, however whilst the steel crampons are heavier they tend to prove to be durable and worthy in bulletproof conditions. Aside from boot crampons having a set of ski or splitboard crampons are clutch on these excursions.
Next up, choosing all the items to accompany the crampons. Imagine that we are heading into non-glaciated relatively simple terrain on a single day mission. Choosing a lightweight helmet can help to avoid the weight and bulkiness of a helmet that is specifically designed for the resort. Polarized glasses preferably glacier glasses can be helpful with strong sun and/or weather. A small but sturdy backpack anywhere from 30-55 liters that is predominantly built for backcountry ski/splitboard travel with the ability to attach an ice axe and ski/splitboard on the outside should suffice for a day excursion. For a multi-day mission you will want to get something a little larger, think more like a 60-75 liter bag.
As far as ice axes go there are a fair bit of lightweight ice axes specifically made for ski mountaineering on the market. The difference between ski mountaineering ice axes as opposed to traditional and technical ice axes tends to be the weight as they tend to be lightweight and size wise fall between the two styles. Once again for those beginners new to ski/splitboard mountaineering keep it basic as there shouldn’t be a need for technical ice axes unless you are introducing ropes and advanced ice terrain. Keep the ice axe shorter than a traditional ice axe for ease-ability with carrying.
When you introduce ropes and glaciated terrain then the quiver of gear increases. A sturdy glacier kit should include both locking and non-locking carabiners, a micro traxion, a tibloc, cordelette, runners, a harness and a rope that is appropriate for the chosen terrain. In ski/splitboard mountaineering a 30m to 60m dynamic rope that is a bit lighter around 6.0 mm should do the trick. The Petzl RAD LINE is a great choice as it is ultra lightweight, functional, and appropriate for rescue, rappelling, and glacier travel.
The fitness involved in ski/splitboard mountaineering can be at times rigorous and borderline painful. Booting 2,000 to 3,000 feet up a 50 degree couloir after ascending 6,000 feet to the base over a three to five mile span may be a prime example of what you may find once you start to dip your toes in the world of big ski mountaineering lines. It comes in super clutch to have trained beforehand (that should go without saying). However, easing into ski/splitboard touring at the beginning of the winter and continuously adding to your elevation gain and mileage throughout the season will help to create an effective base. Being able to get in around 5,000-7,000 vertical in a day is a great place to be late in the season when the time comes to approach those lines you have been eyeing all season from a far. Keep up with the core exercises, the stretching, the leg exercises, and the endurance (trail running can do wonders), even lugging around a heavy pack and walking up a bunch of steep stadium stairs can help you to enter into the spring season feeling physically prepared to tackle whatever objectives lay before you. Also, knowing how to navigate the down with a heavy pack ain’t too shabby as well.
While being physically fit is super important for ski/splitboard mountaineering, mental tenacity and fitness can be just as important. Breathing exercises, meditation, focus and concentration practice, as well as getting some exposure in and pushing your levels of comfort a little (within reason) can all be wonderful and effective ways to build up your mind for when you in the off chance encounter a little too much pucker factor. Meditation practice over the years has contributed a significant difference to the way I approach and handle hairy or unpleasant situations in the backcountry.
Taking into consideration everything listed above the question of an overnight or a multi-day trip may pop into your head. Multi-day ski/splitboard mountaineering objectives provide an exhilarating experience that can take you deep into the wilderness exploring fun peaks and lines that you may not have the time or energy to approach in a day. If you are considering this, having camped in the past is an essential prerequisite. From there it is all about bringing the right lightweight gear while ensuring that you are not bringing too much (it is never fun to have a bunch of gear swinging off your pack). On multi-day trips a lot of the everyday luxuries go out the window but items like a stove, a dehydrated meal, a functional tent, and warm sleeping bag can make the difference between a comfortable night as opposed to a miserable one.
Adding ski/splitboard mountaineering to your quiver of activities in the backcountry world can create a different level of excitement and edge in regards to moving around on snow. It will push you to greater lengths and can even help you to see the mountains in a different light. Remember to start small and keep it simple, be open to learning new techniques and never try to test mother nature. Whatever your goals may be, know that there are many different paths to get to the top of the mountain but once you are there, only half of the journey is complete. Be safe, be diligent, travel wisely, and choose your partners wisely because getting back to the car is the goal in every mission.