Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Tools of the spring skier
One thing I realized this spring was that the gear you use to hit spring objectives is slightly different from what you use the rest of the year. This discussion is intended for folks beginning to explore more challenging spring objectives to discuss some equipment that will be well worth the money.

Before I get into the gear though, I wanted to mention the basic spring skiing concept this is build around. First, spring skiing is super safe from objective danger if you get off the slopes before they warm up. If you are still there, things can definitely go awry both from an objective danger and just a skiing point of view. Slush could wrench your knee around backwards if you are not careful much less sluff or release rocks and all that other fun stuff. 

Because of this, you climb up early and are done quickly. The Dawson Guides have an appendix on what time to be off of what aspect of tall peaks. It is a good place to start. I think the trick for a skimo minded person is to find a South and North face route close by and do them sequentially. You have the time to hit the first one as it begins to soften and probably be in prime corn on the second.

If you are skiing steeper terrain (over 40° or so) I am a big fan of hiking what you will be skiing. Hidden cliffs, rocks, ice bulges etc are harder to deal with in hard spring conditions. This means ascending steep snow while it is super hard. I end up doing little to no skinning in the spring. Sure there is some, but a lot of the flat stuff is dry and I leave my trail running shoes on for that. Skating works well on lots of hard flat spring snow. So, while I bring my skins, I use them less and less as spring progresses. This brings me to the gear below.


The 2 spring seasons ago I skied my first 14er after living in Colorado most of my life. Late is better than never! One thing I realized is that blowing a turn on steep hard snow would leave you rocketing towards rocks in a lot of places. The folks I was skiing with, Michael and Eva Hagan of Hagan Skis had a Black Diamond Carbon Whippet. Michael had forgotten to adjust his binding heel pieces after lending out his skis and skied down some steep stuff with consequences free heel. While he pulled it off flawlessly I bet the Whippet was nice insurance. I immediately wanted to buy in to that insurance polity! The Whippet is a three piece pole with a pick and canard "wing" that lets you self arrest with your ski pole. I had a similar contraption made by Ramer back in the day but it was nothing as well thought out as this sucker. The whole pole is incredibly well thought out and very ergonomic. It works very well in both ski pole grip and "piolet canne" (hand on top) positions. The wrist strap is unusual in that when sinched down you cant take it off which is nice since you cant lose it in a fall! It collapses short enough to be used on ascents of the steepest snow Im willing to ski and is so useful that Ive stopped dragging an ice axe along.
Notice the modified powder basket and the pick guard, especially the position of the cord lock up by the guard, all discussed below.

There is one mod I would make to it and that deals with the powder basket. It is the typical BD one with that three point pattern. Im not taking a pick to stop a fall on soft snow where it wont do any good so dont really need that much float. I cut off one of the three points so the pole stays firmly stuck in steep snow slopes while ascending instead of prying itself out.

One more thing, Ive actually had to use it and it works!!! One of those steep initial entry turns when your legs are not yet really in downhill mode and I slipped on a jump turn. My feet slid out from under me and I just plunged in the pick and stopped. Not very dramatic but much appreciated!

Now for two safety things. First, if you fell on this thing while going fast I think you could possibly do some damage. Think about it. With ice axes I was always taught to travel holding it point out unless you had to be very ready to self arrest. Since the natural position of this pick is out, that is OK but add speed to the equation and I still thing one should at least be mindful of the possible consequences if you fell. The pole comes with a protective pick guard on a bungee loop. I keep it on the pick when Im not on steep stuff (going up or coming down) just in case. I slid the cord lock adjuster on the bungee loop up beside the pick guard and I never even notice it is there. Obsessive? Who knows. Better safe than sorry though!

The second safety thing is one vs. two Whippets. I see pictures of folks skiing with two and some of these are really amazing skiers who spend way more time than I do in the steeps and are way better. They use two, I use one. Id defer to those folks way more informed opinion if I knew why they did it but I dont. I use one because I never traveled over snow with more than one ice axe and that always did the job just fine. It is also one less sharp pointy thing to do me in. But, those guys must have a pretty good reason to run with two. All Im saying here is that you want to think about this one a bit before putting together your spring kit.

Oh, one more safety thing. The Whippets  manufactured during the 2013-2014 season have a factory recall notice. There are visible ways of identifying if yours is recalled. Check it out.


Much more straight forward than poles I think. Ascending steep firm snow requires crampons for efficient movement. Step in / automatic crampons are so easy I personally think you would be crazy to use anything else. I have some slightly clunky steel 12 pointers that have very few days on them so I use them instead of buying what I really want which are some CAMP Tour 350s (10 point, automatic, aluminum) seem pretty awesome but there are other good ones out there. You bring crampons but sometimes dont use them and never on any crazy mixed stuff like when ice or alpine climbing.

I have never found the need for anti-balling plates as you should be off the snow by the time that becomes an issue but if you want a cheap insurance policy, something like this has always worked for me. Also, always have some sort of ankle retainer strap- if one of these pops off your boot and you lose it, that would suck.

Speaking of boot fit, I have seen comments around the internet that not all crampons fit all skimo race boots. Dont forget to try before you buy if at all possible. That being said, Id guess CAMP is probably a good bet.

One safety thing with crampons that always bugs me- if you dont need them, take a second and take them off! They can really mess you up if you are quickly plunge stepping down something and a point snags a hidden rock, your calf, etc.

Ski Crampons

"Using ski crampons is a sign of weakness" or something like that was a quote I heard second hand this year. Funny. Yes, ski crampons kinda suck because you lose all glide. Still, I think they are an awesome tool to have in the kit especially in the early spring.
B & D Ski Crampons
There is nothing that sucks more than trying to get up steep slopes that have a hard spring base with a little fresh snow on top. Boot packing would be very tiring but trying to put in some kick turns results in sliding down in small sluffs. Ski crampons come into their own in these conditions IMHO. I like these from B&D Ski Gear. You can order them in whatever width you want down to about 70 or so mm which works just fine on race skis and cost a good bit less than brand name ski 'pons. One important note- try them out before going skiing! I have Trab race bindings and had to enlarge the rounded rectangular hole up by the round bar that is the attachment point (see the slight flare in the left 'pon?). Takes just a second with a file but would be a pain out in the middle of no where.

By the way, both foot and ski crampons nest in your quick access crampon pouch in your race pack really nicely like this:


Last but not least, let me just quickly say that race skis ROCK as corn harvesting machines and handle steep hard spring snow nicely too. God that is fun skiing! Of course they are also ridiculously light on your back while booting your descent- important with the flimsy shoulder straps of a race pack. And you should still be sporting that race pack! Nothing better. If you need to hike in a ways I just wear trail runners and clip my ski boots into the bindings. A tad awkward and uncomfortable but not too bad once you get used to it.

One final and very important reason to use race skis is that when hiking or booting around on steep terrain the tails dont stick down that far so they dont catch on stuff like the rocks you are stepping over. This doesnt sound like a big deal but it can be!


I hope this has got you thinking about what you need to assemble a spring skiing kit. It is an amazing time of year to be out skiing and with the right tools it can be super fun to hit some really challenging terrain safe, fast and light!

Finally, if anyone has any thoughts on their own spring kit, post up!


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