By Indrek Kongats
With the first snow sticking to the ground, it is a sure sign that the ski season is close behind.
I enjoy snowshoeing, cross country skiing and, most importantly, skiing and snowboarding. When the slopes get covered with that first significant blanket of white stuff, enough to make the first run down the hill it’s like being reborn once again.
Some people can’t wait for the ski lifts to even open and need to have the bragging right of making the first tracks down the hill for the new season. Then after that, it’s the first tracks of the day each and every day and a tally of how many of those you get in during the course of the season.
Getting up the hill without a tow or a lift requires a level of fitness beyond many people. It also requires time and, of course, permission from the resort, which is even harder to come by. Most resorts don’t allow climbing up the slopes and for good reason. The danger of tangling with early morning groomers and snowmobiles traversing the hill are battles you don’t want to have and definitely can’t win. Essential equipment is also required and the knowhow on how to use it.
Regular downhill skis and boots work fine if you take the skis off and strap them to a backpack that is made for carrying skis or snowboards. Dakine and Burton are leaders in the this field and you really can’t go wrong with either. They also have areas for attachment of helmets, large interior spaces for your insulated jacket (that you don’t want to be wearing on the climb up), heavier gloves and other accessories like cameras, water bottles and energy bars to snack on.
The trend in the past few years is to have specialized skis, bindings and boots to carry out the mission and this equipment is called Alpine Touring, AT for short. The skis are much lighter but wider then true downhill skis. The bindings are the most specialized component in that the heel of the binding releases and pivots at the toe so you can sort of cross country ski up hill; on the way down you can lock down the heel as in a true downhill binding. Marker’s Duke Bindings are the brand of choice and most local skis shops carry them or an equivalent. Combine them with any vast number of backcountry or Telemark ski brands such as K2, Rossignol, or Atomic and you are half way there.
AT boots are your next important ingredient. More rigid than Telemark boots, but lighter than downhill boots and with a sole made for walking, AT boots are essential to get the most out your equipment and experience. Once again, all good ski shops carry these specialized boots or can order them for you. Buying ski boots is very tough over the internet because of fit and flex preferences, but, most importantly, they need to be tweaked to your feet and stance. A good boot fitter will customize your boots to your feet, correct your stance, mold the shell and design insoles so that your feet will not hurt and you can ski like a pro.
Finally, the secret weapon to skiing uphill are things called skins. Skinning is again ever so popular, and like a cross country skier that uses specialized gliding and kicking waxes, the AT skier will attach skins to the base of their skis to climb up a steep slope.
Good AT skis have notches or holes in the tip and tail to attach the skins. Originating in France, these removable skins where made out of real seal skins, called “peaux de phoque.” The directional dense short hairs of the seal’s fur allow movement forwards but stops the skis from sliding backwards. Today they are made out of synthetic materials or mohair. Black Diamond and K2 are players in the skins game, among others.
Telescopic poles, avalanche probes, shovels and emergency beacons are all important accessories for the serious AT skier, but whether you are climbing Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine or trekking up the cross country trails of your local resort to get to the top of the slope, the experience can be awesome and rewarding.