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Guide To Ski Touring | Ascending On Foot

Bootpacking can lead you to some epic terrain. We team up with UIAGM Guide Mike Arnold to learn his tricks

Header Image: Mathis Dumas

Bootpacking – the art of hiking up a steep slope with skis over-shoulder, or strapped to your pack. It’s all simple, right? Just one foot in front of the other and repeat until you reach the top of the feature you’re hiking up.

If, like Mpora, you’ve ever been caught out trying to swim up a slope that’s got a layer of deep (stable) snow on it, then you’ll realise the importance of these hacks for making your next bootpack that bit more efficient.

“Mikey has spent an impressive amount of time walking around the mountains in search of some of the best descents in the world”

We’ve teamed up with Chamonix-based UIAGM mountain guide and The North Face athlete Mike Arnold for this how to article. Because Mikey has spent such an impressive amount of time walking around the mountains in search of some of the best descents in the world, we figured he was the perfect guy to call on for these tips.

Pictured Mike Arnold. Photo: Fabian Bodet \ Christian Pondella

When to Start Bootpacking

It’s important to understand when the best time to bootpack is. It’s no secret that bootpacking is a pretty inefficient way to travel around the mountains. While skis are able to provide you with adequate surface area to prevent you from sinking too far into the snow, our feet don’t.

We’d therefore suggest to always plan your route firstly with avalanche safety in mind, but secondly with efficiency in mind. If there’s an easier ridge you can take to ski tour up, then take that.

However, there sometimes gets to a point where bootpacking becomes inevitable – usually around the time where you’re finding yourself having to put in a new kick turn in the skin track every 10 to 20 metres.

Mike says: “Boot packing most of the time can be anticipated during the pre trip planning with your teammates.  Looking at the map and understanding terrain that could dictate boot packing is crucial. Narrow couloirs, sharp ridges and steep cols are typical terrain features that would have a bootpack in.”  

Plan Your Line

Pictured: How you stash your skis can come to help you as things steepen. Photo: K Erickson

Just as you would with a ski descent, you want to plan where you’re going and where you’ll set the bootpack. It’s obviously a little more simple than planning your descent, but could come to save you a heap of time and energy if done right.

Mike says: “These days I have been packing and using Billy Goat (Snow Shoes) surface platforms for ascending faces and couloirs in the mountains.  These along with crampons attached to your ski boot allow you to have better flotation as you ascend, but also give you security when snow conditions change from soft to hard throughout the couloir.”

A general rule that you’ll want to stick to is that you’re going to generally find lower snow depths towards the sides of a couloir. You also won’t want to be bootpacking in the centre of a ski line. It’s always worth being considerate of where you’re setting the track – this’ll keep you out of the firing line from any snow, ice or rock that might come down your way from skiers above.

“You’re going to generally find lower snow depths towards the sides of a couloir”

It’s generally also easier to search out rockier looking sections, signifying lower snow depths where you’re not going to be sinking up to your waist. This is the same if you’re hiking up a face, it’s common to find an easier track if you skirt under and around rocky outcrops, rather than forcing a line directly up the face.

Mike says: “All couloirs present different challenges and dangers.  Given the terrain configuration of the couloir, here are a few things to think about.  – Do the sides of the couloir looked loaded and have Slab Potential? Is there a risk of spindrift, snow or rock fall due to warming on side walls? Does the centre of the couloir have a big runnel in it presenting firm snow for travel conditions?  If there are overhead hazards, is there obvious safe zones?”

Boots: Walk Mode

Pictured: Getting your boots into walk mode makes ascending a breeze. Photo: Holly Burns

It sounds simple, and that’s because it is. Just take ten seconds out before you start hiking up the slope, to get your boot loosened off slightly and into walk mode (if you own the Dynafit Hoji Free, then this is all achieved through the flip of a single lever).

This time spent before hiking will come to pay dividends in comfort whilst bootpacking, and you’ll find that you’re able to hike more efficiently and faster than when your boots are strapped up into ski mode.

Carrying Skis: A-Frame, Diagonal and Holster

Pictured: There are a wide range of ways to attach your skis to your pack, each with their merits. Photo: Ben Styles

Get yourself a good pack that’s able to carry a pair of skis in various ways. Each system has its own merits, let’s take a look at them.

A-Frame – the classic system, with each ski inserted vertically into the ski carries at the side of the pack, tied together with a ski strap at the top to create an ‘A’ shape. The most stable way of carrying skis, as the weight of the skis are spread either side of the pack, but can sometimes become frustrating when you begin to hit into the skis with each swing of the leg on steep slopes.

Diagonal – A quick, but still comfortable, way to sling your skis onto your pack – ideal for short bootpacks where you’ll soon be having to remove your skis from your pack again. Tie your skis together with a ski strap and insert them into the bottom diagonal ski carry loop found on your pack before clipping them into the top buckle of your pack. The strapped-up skis can also be dropped down on one side of the ski carries on the side of your pack, to give a quick vertical carry.

Mike says: “This is my preferred method of carrying skis for long boot packs especially if it involves any section of mixed climbing. The ski tails are shifted to one side, giving your feet more freedom.”

“Get yourself a good pack that’s able to carry a pair of skis in various ways”

Holster – The quickest, but most uncomfortable ski carry out there and only possible to do with tech bindings. Tie your skis together with a ski strap and unclip the sternum strap of your pack. Take the tips of the skis and push the tips through the gap between the shoulder strap of your pack. Flip the skis vertically so that the heel binding is sitting on your shoulder and reattach your sternum strap. Hey presto, you’ve mounted your skis on your pack without removing your pack!

Bootpacking Efficiency

Photo: Holly Burns

It’s not the most technical art form out there, but bootpacking does require some consideration to technique in order to produce an efficient stride that you’re able to maintain (so that you arrive at the top of your descent ready to rip it up).

Most importantly for the longer limbed of you out there is to remember to take short, slow steps. There’s nothing worse than somebody breaking trail with huge strides, forcing those behind them to essentially break trail themselves.

Mike says: “A great technique for when bootpacking conditions are steep and deep is utilising your knee in a swiping motion to break the snow in front of you, then packing the step out with your boot like normal.  This limits the amount of times you lift your leg high and avoids filling in the previous steps.”

Take shorter steps to not only look out for your shorter friends, but also because they’re inherently more efficient than larger strides. Where possible, make sure that you’re always walking in previous trails. There’s no point in trying to break your own trail when there’s already a staircase put in place.

“There’s no point in trying to break your own trail when there’s already a staircase put in place”

There’s nothing worse than somebody clipping at your heels on the bootpack. Spread out as 1) it’s polite and 2) it’s much safer than bunching together in one large group. This safety is important. Give each other adequate spacing where possible to avoid the whole group being taken away by a slide – just be considerate of any falling debris.

Don’t bootpack on the skin track

Don’t bootpack on the skin track. Another simple rule to adhere to. Bootpacking on the skin track ruins the track by creating a load of holes in what was once a perfectly flat track. It won’t be much easier than hiking to the side of the skin track, anyway.

Ice axe and crampons use

Pictured: Carrying an ice axe can get you out of some sticky situations. Photo: Holly Burns

We always recommend carrying at least an ice axe in your pack when travelling around steep terrain – one that’s able to fit in your avalanche compartment with your shovel and probe is ideal.

You may never use this axe, but you may come across an unplanned nasty section where it could become an invaluable tool to help you cross safely and confidently. The same goes for crampons – these spikes have gotten us out of a load of tricky scenarios (checkout our top ski touring equipment roundup for a selection of the best axe and crampons).

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