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Guide To Ski Touring | Ascending On Skis

Get the edge over your mates when you're next out in the backcountry with these tips from UIAGM Guide Mike Arnold

Header Image: Jordan Tiernan

Slide left foot forward, slide right foot forward. Left foot, right foot, left, right… ski touring is beautifully simple. The idea that you’re able to use your skis as a means to access some of the finest, and more importantly, completely untracked snow in the region you’re in through nothing but man-power is brilliant.

We’ve teamed up with Chamonix UIAGM mountain guide and The North Face athlete, Mike Arnold to give you some pointers in making your life that bit easier whilst you’re out ski touring in the backcountry.

Pictured Mike Arnold. Photo: Fabian Bodet \ Christian Pondella

We’re not going to promise that this article is going to make you the next Kilian Jornet – you’ll have to get down onto the treadmill for that – but we are going to give you some pointers that’ll give you the edge when you find yourself out in the backcountry. Let’s get right into it.

Be bold, start cold

First things first – strip a layer! OK. I guess this shouldn’t technically be first, as we wouldn’t recommend shedding said layer(s) until you’ve attached your skins and adjusted your boots into walk mode – else you’ll just end up freezing. But seriously, get rid of one or two layers – be bold, start cold. You’ll thank us later.

“You’re able to use your skis as a means to access some of the finest… untracked snow in the region”

Attaching skins

Attaching skins – that must be easy right? Well no, not really. It’s pretty easy to get snow and water stuck between your skin and ski – rendering your skin glue almost useless. Oh, and make sure you’ve adjusted your skins correctly at home – the rear tail clips frequently become slack and require correct adjustment.

Mike says: “When the time comes that your skins don’t stick to your skis, use your knee and rub the glue part of the skin back and forth on your knee. This provides heat and friction to the skin glue and allows the skin to stick.  Another option is to stow the skins in your jacket as you descend while lapping some powder terrain. This keeps them nice and warm.”

Efficient skinning

Pictured: Ensuring you don’t lift the ski with each stride produces an efficient glide. Photo: Ed Fildes

A simple stride from one ski to the other, skinning is effortless. Until, that is, you start lifting each foot through every stride as though you’re walking. Don’t do this. You should see the ski touring stride more as a slide than a step, as you’re looking to slide each foot forward down the skin track to avoid lifting the weight of each ski every time you lift up your foot.

Saying that, the only time you should be ‘stepping’ down on each ski is when breaking trail in deep snow as this provides a platform for your ski in the fresh snow.

Mike says: “When conditions become firm – use the “Scribe Stamp and Roll” technique.  Apply pressure on the uphill outside edge to create a small “slicing” platform, apply body weight, then roll the the knee back downhill slightly to utilise the skin for progression in the track.”   

Binding risers

Pictured: Use bindings when the going gets steep. Photo: Jordan Tiernan

Binding risers. They’re kind of like the trekking poles of the ski touring world. And, in an effort to be the tough guy, nobody ever wants to be the first to use them. Don’t be that guy. Binding risers have been designed to help you when the skin track starts getting steep. They’re an invaluable tool to avoid exerting needless energy.

Mike says: “Binding risers are there for a reason.  That said, remember to set an efficient skin track as you navigate through the mountains; using natural terrain features like trees, and convex and concave features to your advantage. Anticipating a change in direction on the skin track, use the platform where the snow falls off the tree to create a platform for easy kick turning.”

It’s also important to realise when you don’t need risers (basically on any kind of flat terrain / short downhill sections). Practice at home how to efficiently switch your binding risers with your ski pole, to avoid the need to bend over and contort your body into all sorts of shapes as you reach down to flip/twist them.

“Remember to set an efficient skin track as you navigate through the mountains”

Ski crampons

Buy some ski crampons. They’re invaluable. They’re one of those bits of kit that you think you’ll never need until you do. When things get steep and icy, with a long slide down below you, you’ll be thankful that you’ve invested in these beauties. Make sure you buy the right ones for your binding and width of ski.

Ski pole grip change as it steepens

You’re going to want to adjust your ski pole grip as the slope begins to steepen. If you’re facing horizontally across a steep slope then the downhill slope is going to fall away below you, whilst the uphill slope rises steeply above you.

Adjust your pole grip so that your hand is towards the top of the pole on your downhill hand and your uphill hand is low down the uphill pole. This will give you an even hand level on your poles.

Mike says: “Just like in skiing – if your shoulders are level, you are balanced and moving efficiently.”

We always recommend poles with long grips for this reason. Black Crows make some great ones. One last point on poles. Get rid of the pole straps. They get in the way, and should never be worn in avalanche terrain.

Kick turns

Pictured: Kick turns will be required when the slope is too steep to naturally turn. Photo: Jordan Tiernan

As things begin to get even steeper then you’re going to want to learn how to do the infamous kick-turn. Easy for those of us with large hip mobility, an absolute nightmare for the inflexible amongst us – especially when things are particularly steep / icy.

As with most things, while practising get out there on safer slopes where you can make all the mistakes in the world.

The key to kick-turns is to get your skis facing horizontally across the slope and stamp out a platform (you’re winning if you’ve got snow conditions that allow for this). In a fast movement, get the tail of your ski in front of your downhill boot. Roll your leg over so that both skis are horizontal to one another, before stepping up on your uphill leg. Then give your downhill ski a ‘kick’ at the heel, to lift the ski and move it around to match what your uphill ski was (it’s now, if everything’s gone to plan, become your downhill ski with you facing in the other direction).

Mike says: “My favourite kick turn is the “AVA” kick turn (given the snow conditions and trail breaking gives you a platform).  Imagine yourself at the kick turn… making an A with your Skis initiating your downhill ski first, then a V with opposite leg, then another A, back to parallel…  This gets you through the kick turn balanced, efficiently and timely.” 

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