Ski gear for backcountry traverses

[Readers might be interested in my 2/2014 addendum to this post.]

Backcountry skiing (that is, skiing solely on natural snow surfaces) can mean three different things in today’s world.  Three quite distinct things.  The first is off-track XC skiing, with light gear and on flatish terrain.  While speedy and enjoyable, steep and/or rough terrain and variable snow makes this gear largely impractical for serios backcountry travel.  The second and most common meaning is synonymous with mountain touring: skiing up steep mountains or mountain slopes with the primary purpose of making turns.  This gear runs the gammut from heavy and huck-centric to rando race superlight.  It is the most sexy for of backcountry skiing and holds the most cultural cahet, therefore it is the most lucrative and thus at the leading edge of technology.  While the race side is important, the up-down focus renders this segment lacking in the eye of the backcountry travelor.

The third segment, for which this essay is an attempted market overview, is dedicated to winter travel through rugged terrain, with the primary motive being contemplative and exploratory rather than aerobic or kinesthetic.  Practitioners seek to use skis for the winter equivalent of backpacking, bikepacking, or packrafting; as the most efficient technological aid to move through a large piece of wild terrain.  Though perhaps closest to the roots of skiing as a practice, this segment of backcountry skiing is by far the most underserved of the three insofar as equipment is concerned.  I will not further speculate on why this is so, but will attempt to give an overview of current equipment available for use in this genre.  I will begin with two trips which exemplify backcountry ski traverses, and a discussion of the equipment used in each.  I will then discuss skis, bindings, and boots as three individual (but interdependent) categories, with a brief conclusion given over to poles and skins.

Skiing the John Muir Trail

Ultrarunner Kevin Sawchuk has made several attempts to ski the 220+ mile John Muir Trail in the Sierras.  Though the first ski of the trail happened nearly a century ago, full ski traverses have been few and far between.  This is as much a function of the variability of the route as it is the length and difficulty.  Not only must high passes to climbed and descended (with stretches of 45+ degree skiing), but long flat sections must be covered with speed if logistics are to be minimized.  Ski gear for the JMT must combine attributes of mountain touring and XC skiing.

Kevin wrote an excellent article for BPL, though you’ll need a subscription to read it.  Anyone can read the ensuing discussion forum, however, and doing so will highlight many of the questions I’ll address in the following sections.  Kevin’s gear was as follows:

-Fischer Outtabounds Crown Skis (179cm) with 20mm Voile risers and Voile 3 pin cable bindings.
-Rossignol BCX11 boots.
-Black Diamond poles (one Whippet), BD full and BD kicker skins.

Kevin is about 5’10” and very fit, as well as a practiced telemark and nordic skier, and his gear reflects this.  He didn’t succeed this year, due to a lack of partners and lots of heavy new snow which made trail breaking extremely slow and taxing.  In the article he mentioned that his gear worked well, with the boots being excellent on the flats and ups, and ok on the downs.  The 68mm waist of the skis pushed the limits of his boots, especially on ice.  The boot were also only barely warm enough in conditions slightly below zero (F).

The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic

Perhaps the apotheosis of wilderness ski travel?  Point to point across various stretches of Alaskan wilderness in early spring combines many/most of the challenges which backcountry ski gear must face.  The duo of Luc Mehl and John Pekar have won this race the last three years, and the system they’ve evolved (and used this year, see video) is worth noting.  When Luc, Forrest McCarthy and I packrafted the Selway back in September I made sure to get all the details.  They use:

-Fischer Outtabounds Crown skis, with Dynafit toe pieces
-lightweight rando race boots (Scarpa F1 and Dynafit TLT4) stripped down (top buckle, etc), with thermomoldable liners
-Full skins, and skate length one piece poles with a second grip for traditional shuffling

The ski classic combines extreme cold with open water and/or overflow, and managing this combo is a major part of what drove Luc and John to use plastic boots.  Plastic is waterproof and non-absorbant, as are thermo liners.  Apparantly this combo allows you to slog through water, dump your boots, and keep rolling with little problem.  The lack of forward flex is ameliorated by the completely freely rotating Dynafit toe piece.  Luc said he didn’t see many ways to improve this setup.

Skis

Selecting skis for wilderness traverses requires all sorts of tradeoffs.  Longer skis track and float better, but shorter ones are easier to get around in trees and brush, and allow you to herringbone and kickturn in more places.  Fatter skis have greater float when breaking trail and deal with funky snow better, but require a stiffer boot to be managable on hard snow and ice.  More sidecut initiates turns faster, but doesn’t track as well.  Which of these attributes suits you, your terrain, and your skiing best can be estimated, but in the end requires experimentation to establish.

Backcountry skis must be light, but they must also durable.  Advanced materials used in rando race skis allow the inverse relationship between weight and dampness/edge hold to be bent a bit, though it’ll be a while before that trickles down into more skis.  Full metal edges are requisite, no questions needed.  Perhaps the most contentious question for these skis is whether to use waxable or waxless skis.

Waxless (aka fishscales, pattern bases) is in my mind a necessary evil.  Fishscales drag, slowing forward movementon the flats, especially while skating.  They don’t work well in cold, dry snow, and cleaning glide wax out of the pattern is a pain.  Unfortunately, the only alternative is kick wax, and that is an even worse option.  Wax is great when you hit it right, and a nightmare otherwise.  The best conditions for wax (cold, dry powder that stays cold and dry all day) are the easiest to wax for.  The problem arises when conditions change (which can be as simple as coming out of the shade and into the sun) and you have to strip the old wax and put on new stuff.  Stripping klister and soft solid waxes is easy at home, with an iron and paper bag pieces.  It’s a lot harder in the field, and bits of old wax left on a ski can be a magnet for snow and ice.  It’s not a cooincidence that both Kevin and Luc use waxless skis, and I won’t consider buying a ski these days without a patterned base.  Forunately Fischer still makes the Outtabounds, Madshus kept the Karhu 10th Mtn and Guide alive in the Epoch and Annum (with better, more consistent edge grinds), and in the BC 125 Rossignol has introduced the widest waxless ski yet.  The BC 125 feels particularly stiff and solid for a waxless ski, and I’d love to add it to the quiver.  While tiny compared to heavier turning-specific skis, these options are great to have.

Bindings

Here you’ve got two choices: 75mm 3 pin duckbill or Dynafit.  Other tele and rando options are too heavy, and NNN BC and the like are not reliable (the toe bar tends to rip out under heavy load).

3 pin bindings, are bomber, simple, and cheap.  With a good mount and anti-ice tape there is little to ice up, go wrong, or break.  Risers and climbing wires of various dimensions are easy to add.  The shortcoming is that 3 pin bindings largely rely on the boot for forward flex, which puts us into the central paradox of backcountry boots: the stiffness and flexability are inversely related.  As Kevin found out, even the stiffest fabric/plastic boot available (the BCX11) is not stiff enough (laterally in the sole, mostly) to drive the wider waxless skis in difficult conditions.  Boots like the BCX11 may still be good options, but they compromise turning to promote touring.

Dynafit bindings are more mechanically complicated than 3 pins, but nonetheless have an impressive reputation for durability and reliability.  A skier has hung from a single toe piece over a crevasse without damaging the binding, or releaseing from it (in tour mode).  More importantly, a Dynafit toe piece allows for full forward rotation, thus enabling efficient touring even with stiff plastic boots.  Being able to lock the heel also facilitates turning in difficult conditions, and the lightest dynafit-compatible heel-toe sets are as light or lighter than 3 pins without risers (but with climbing wires).

Boots

By far the most complex and recalcitrant category of gear dealt with here, finding good boots for wilderness ski traverses is not an easy or cheap process.  Fit is crucial of course, and combining good fit with other desirable traits is far from straightforward.

Turning-oriented skiers will advise a performance fit, which means little if any room in front of the toes.  For all day, cold weather skiing, avoid this, and size ski boots and liners as you would a good hiking shoe: with lots of room for the toes to wiggle.  The forces applied to your feet when turning may get them to move around, thus making your turns less powerful and precise, but tight boots promote bilsters, cold feet, frostbite, and pain.  Avoid them.  For the same reasons, a solidly anchored heel is essential.  Achieving that will depend on the boot and on your feet.  Fit aside, we can divide boots into plastic double boots and fabric/plastic or leather single boots.

Single layer boots are more like hiking boots, and only available in 75mm duckbill.  A new resurgance of burly all leather boots has lately happened, and in some ways these might seem a good option.  They promise to be durable, waterproof (with snoseal), and somewhat stiff for driving bigger skis.  Andrew Skurka selected such boots for his Alaska-Yukon loop, and reported that while they skied and hiked well, they eventually became saturated during challenging spring conditions and then, as leather products do, never dried.  Fabric and plastic single boots, like the Alpina 2075 or Rossignol BCX11 might be better in this regard, but as mentioned they leave a lot to be desired in the turning department.  This can be a good tradeoff, especially for a strong legged skier using narrower skis.  Warmth will depend on the person, Kevin found his BCXs too cool, whereas my old 2075s (which were very high volume, thus allowing thick socks) where quite warm in similar conditions.

However, I think that most folks will gravitate towards plastic double boots, for warmth and control reasons already mentioned.  The concern with such boots is, first, achieving a decent amount of touring flexibility, and second, having the boots be reasonably hikable.  Wind blasted and sun melted areas are a part of most good trips, and being able to walk a few miles in your big boots without killing your feet is vital, even if such inflexible soles will never be especially efficient.  The tourability issue seems to be easily answered with dynafits, though I don’t know if the presence or absence of toe bellows is here consequential.  The walkability issue is a more difficult one, and centers on good rubber and tread on the sole, a degree of rocker in the boot, and soft toe bellows.  I should add that duckbills are certainly not a help where walking is concerned.

The number of boots made with softer plastic has shrunk dramatically, currently including only the various high end rando race boots (F1, Dynafit DYNA) and the Garmont Excursion tele boot.  Older Scarpa T4s, T3s, and even T2s can be had, and work well, but are increasingly rare as folks seek out NOS to fill this hole.  Thermo liners can be retrofitted into any of these boots.  Of particular interest is the Intuition Pro Tour, which adds laces and an achilles flex zone, the former to keep the heel anchored, the later to enhance touring.  Bottom line is that few if any factory boots fit the needs of this category well, and aftermarket modding is almost inevitable.

Poles and skins

Ski poles need to be adjustable; shorter for going down, longer for going up, longer still for skating on the flats.  Many burly adjustable poles exist, they’re just all needlessly heavy.  The Pekar fixed length pole solution (see video, above) is one promising solution.  The other is new BD trekking poles.  Thought they’re supposedly not designed for skiing, nor to accept powder baskets, I bet both can be worked around easily enough.  In general, stay away from twist lock poles, they are not reliable.

Skins are essential for backcountry travel.  It doesn’t take much to get into terrain too steep for fishscales or wax, especially when the snow is very low moisture.  Kicker skins have their place, but I think that wall to wall skins made of a better gliding material are more versatile.  I’ve been impressed with my Climbingskinsdirect.com skins.  They grip almost as well as BD Ascensions, are much more packable, and have better glide.  The solid metal tip loops are the best I’ve seen, too.  The new crop of mohair skins are interesting as well.

Skins must be wall to wall.  Don’t shortcut here, it is not worth it.

A solid tail attachment is essential for skins, and in my experience nothing is better in terms of security or convenience than the venerable rat tail.  Use a good solid piece of shock cord for the tail, and fold and stitch (use floss and a leather needle) the skin to the tip loop and rat tail.  Stitching is more durable than folding and sticking, and the minimal unglued bit on the tip reduces the tendency for snow to pack in under the skin starting from the tip.

What I use, and what I’d like to have

Ski gear is expensive.  It’s easy to obsess over plans for the perfect kit, but skills are more relevant.  Get the basics and get out, then gain experience and assemble the next kit as you go.  The following is what I use know and why, and what I’d get if money were no object, and why.

My current kit:
-Karhu Guides (185cm) with Voile Mountaineer 3 pin bindings, 15mm risers, and short climbing wires
-Climbingskinsdirect.com wall to wall skins with rat tail
-old BD Traverse poles
-blue Scarpa T2s, modded (removed lean lock, replaced upper toungue with split toungue, cut down back), with original liners

The skins are great.  The poles are solid, but I’d like lighter ones with a softer rubber or cork grip (better in the cold).  The Guides are great skis, and do everything at least ok.  They have aggressive fishscales that are slow, but grip very well.  The bindings were cheap and are solid, and the boots were cheap and fit my feet.  I tried some lower thermo liners but the lack of laces and a stiff toungue were problems.  I want some Pro Tour liners for these boots.

My ideal kit:
-Rossignol BC 125 skis (165cm) with Dynafit TLT speed bindings
-Fischer Outtabounds Crown skis (195cm) with Dynafit toe piece
-full CSD.com skins for both
-Scarpa F1 boots, with intuition Pro Tour liners

I’d take F1s over the DYNAs because of durability issues with the later.  I’d like a shorter, fatter ski with a full binding for turning, trees, and bushwacking, and a longer lighter ski for distance.  My ideal pole (two piece aluminum, adjustable between 110 and 150cm, 8-10 oz a pole, cork grip) doesn’t yet exist.

Irregardless, winter is on the move here in Montana, and I couldn’t be happier about more snow in the near future.

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7 thoughts on “Ski gear for backcountry traverses

  1. 200 bucks is certainly a good price! It really depends on what you want to do with the skis. All things being equal, a fatter ski will allow you to go shorter, and will thus float a bit better and be more maneuverable at the expense of straight line speed.

    However, my overnight this past weekend drove home that BC skis get treated harshly, and its thus nice to not spend massive cash on them. For kicking around the woods and moderate touring for turns the BC125 would probably be great, especially for that price. Just have enough boot to edge them (plastic with 2 buckles, I’d say).

  2. Thanks man! I bit the bullet and ordered the BC 125s. Decisions, decisions. Reading on ski forums seems to indicate that most people are quite happy with them. Some even claim that they are better than the Guides/Annums. We’ll see. With those and a used pair of voile 3 pin bindings I’m half set. Now to find cheap boots . . .

  3. Greetings,
    I am looking to ski the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (9-14 hours in Colorado) and was interested your opinions of equipment. I just tried on the new TLT5 boots, and they BLOW AWAY my old TLT4… I use the matching TLT bindings- and am thinking to buy the new Radical toe piece, and, for mostly inbounds, the BD Havoc skis. MY ski thoughts are about the Rossi BC 110 versus the 125. This kit would be for training, day tours with BC nordic folks and the Traverse. I will do some COSMIC ski races, but expect to that I might do those on the Dynafit RacePerformace skis (the yellow, not red ones)

    your thoughts are greatly appreciated!
    -ed westhead

    1. Hi Ed, thanks for commenting.

      I’m not at all personally familiar with the terrain and typical conditions, so any thoughts I have are not so worthwhile.

      I suspect for the Traverse and BC tours you might find a skinny and lighter ski faster. Fatter would deal with descending and funky snow better. I plan to get some Glittertinds soon and experiment more with that end of things this winter.

      It’s an interesting case, the Grand Traverse. My partner in the Wilderness Classic this summer, Paige, won the coed category a while ago, and used classic race skis (no edges at all!) and combi boots. But she is a very, very skilled tele skier. It’s only recently that rando gear has started to win consistently. I don’t know enough about the course to say if gear makes that much of a difference, or if the fast people are now on rando gear.

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