Understanding Backcountry Ski Touring Gear

Backcountry Ski Options by Howie Schwartz

As a professional ski and mountain guide, I use and recommend Dynafit touring bindings. I also sometimes use and recommend Fritschi Diamir’s. I use and recommend Marker Barons with regular alpine boots. And yes, I even still use telemark gear on occasion.

Do I contradict myself by supporting such a broad spectrum of backcountry touring gear? No, I don’t think so. There used to be two types of skiing: resort skiing and backcountry skiing. Now, there are many ways to ski the mountains of the world: ski touring, ski mountaineering, ski running, XCD, ski camping, off-piste skiing, sidecountry, slackcountry, lift-accessed backcountry skiing, cat-skiing, heli-skiing, heli-hut skiing, sled ghost riding, speed flying, ski BASE jumping etc. Gear is becoming more specialized, designed to address a broader spectrum of backcountry ski activities. I like skiing. I like many types of skiing and I own a quiver of gear for all of them.

Internationally, one thing is agreed upon by most all backcountry skiers: heavier and fatter generally translates to: more efficient descent and less efficient ascent. Greater efficiency leads to increased levels of enjoyment. People want equipment that will maximize pleasure.

Classic ski touring in the Italian Dolomites

You better know how to make those skis turn in terrain like this

I think where the problem starts is American manufacturers selling the wrong equipment to the consumer. They create a few mid-range products that supposedly rule at everything – “a quiver of one.” These products can be OK, but they usually do nothing very well. One prominent company’s slogan for their backcountry equipment is, “It’s all about the down.” If it were really all about the down their skis and boots would be heavier and perform like regular alpine gear. Are they really trying to convince the backcountry touring customer that it is all about the down when they are spending 70-80% of their time going up? It is no surprise that these products do not sell so well in the educated European market.

I see the difference between mainstream European and American approaches as more geographical than cultural. There are many places in the Alps where light and fast touring is key for linking amazing itineraries in very rugged terrain. The Alps have the comfort and safety of civilization around every mountain corner. Popular backcountry ski venues in the US such as the Wasatch in Utah, Teton Pass in Wyoming, and the Front Range in Colorado are relatively tame. The average tour in these locations is shorter and more straight up and down, car to car. The snowpack in these venues tends to be consistently soft, light, and deep – great for fat skis.

When it really is all about the down, have fun with your ski choice

The combination of these geographic characteristics guides the gear choices people make. It is not based so much on cultural difference. Go to places in the Alps like Verbier, Switzerland or La Grave, France in winter and you will see people in the backcountry with gear biased toward downhill performance. It only makes  sense. You will see a similar bias in North American heli-skiing, and modern sidecountry skiing accessed from a growing number of ski resorts worldwide.

The Eastern Sierra is a confusing place for modern backcountry skiers. Here, the most exciting skiing is in wilderness. This means hauling your ass up the hill. The hills here are not trivial either and 7000 foot descents from alpine summit to desert sage are a world-class main attraction. If you are lugging big heavy gear up these mountainsides you are wasting tons of energy. Nowadays, lightweight AT gear is so high performance that the High Sierra is more stompable than ever.

I have seen many aspiring backcountry skiers confounded by the dearth of backcountry gear choices available. When buying, first ask yourself where and when you want to go. This will help you understand the best set-up for your situation. If you are like me, you worship backcountry skiing. You don’t want to be confined to one type of it. It is all so good, especially when you are using the right equipment for the tour.

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Howie Schwartz is a professional UIAGM/IFMGA Ski and Mountain Guide. Based in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada, Howie is co-owner of Sierra Mountain Guides; a Guiding service specialized in climbing, skiing, trekking, and even trail running throughout the world. Howie also teaches AIARE Avalanche courses throughout the west and is quite possibly one of the most annoying people to ski with thanks to his ability to make all snow look like powder by skiing everything perfectly. He is also a brilliant bluegrass musician. –DolomiteSport is lucky to have Howie’s thoughts about understanding ski gear choices

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2 Comments

  1. Igor January 19, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    ski touring, ski mountaineering, ski running, ski randoneering ….

    we need a new post Dan, how to definetely call this sport/hobby where we skin up the mountains and then have fun descending them? ;-)

    Igor

  2. tite January 19, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Thanks for this thoroughly understandable overview of the 2 approaches. Namasté

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