Words By: Lily Krass
The wind was howling in the Tetons as our group of six peered over the edge of a sharp rocky outcropping, looking for the entrance to the line we’d mapped out on CalTopo.
An icy chill permeated all four layers I had on as we transitioned on the ridge, geared up with ropes and harnesses so we could carefully navigate and evaluate the line, leaving ourselves the option to belay a partner for a spicy down climb, or put in a ski cut before sending the rest of our team down.
The cold was draining, and all I could think about was getting into our line as quickly as possible to the warmer valley below. It would be a lesson in efficiency, but urgency rarely pays off in the alpine. I thought about what Exum’s Brenton Reagan had told our group just minutes before: “We have to practice ways to be efficient and move through terrain faster, without cutting any corners.”
The complexity of ski mountaineering is at once alluring and daunting.
Uphill fitness, technical rope work, expert downhill skills, thoughtful decision making and careful route finding; it’s a sport that somehow encompasses every skill in the toolbox, both physically and mentallly. Brenton Reagan, IFMGA and Lead Exum Guide sums it up well: “A lot has to happen for everything to go right.”
Determined to find a more creative and integrative way of teaching, Reagan put together a small community-oriented ski mountaineering clinic this winter, supported by Arc’teryx and Exum, to provide consistent mentorship for a few eager locals looking to develop their skills in the backcountry. Through a mix of field time in Grand Teton National Park, skills practice at Snow King Mountain, and weekly calls over Zoom, Reagan and Exum Guide Morgan McGlashon helped our group of five break down the process of planning, skiing, and evaluating different objectives, allowing us to slowly integrate these practices into our own skiing. Embracing mentorship, creating a culture of asking questions, and passing on knowledge is the direction Reagan sees the backcountry community headed towards, one that will ultimately benefit everyone on the skintrack.
While the steep, jagged slopes of the Teton Range are the perfect proving ground for developing ski mountaineering skills, these takeaways are relevant for any backcountry skier looking to get into more technical terrain this spring.
Practice technical systems in non-technical terrain
Dialling in the systems you plan to use before you’re in a high-stress situation may sound obvious, but being precariously perched above a rappel in the choke of a 45-degree couloir is not the time to work out the kinks.
To kick off this course, our group met at Snow King Mountain for an afternoon of skills development inbounds. We practiced rappelling off trees and skiing on belay, and Brenton and Morgan showed the group a few efficient ways to coil and carry a rope while skiing.
For someone like me who doesn’t have a strong climbing background, rope management is something that I find myself needing extra practice with compared to my more rock-savvy counterparts. But even those who are used to climbing in the summer will realize how much harder everything is with gloves on, and how quickly your fingers can go numb.
Inefficient rope work can flip an efficient ski tour on its head the minute one small detail goes wrong (tangled rope!), and the only way to fight that is practice, practice, practice. Our Snow King clinic day inspired me to carve out a few hours each week to practice rope skills with my ski partner at our local hill.
If you do this at your local resort, it’s worth checking with ski patrol to make sure to find a quiet zone where you won’t be a hazard for downhill skiers.
Share information to build a bigger picture
One of the biggest hurdles for getting into bigger objectives as a recreationalist is gathering enough beta on conditions without going out every day. Staying up to date on the avalanche report is important, but it takes more than that to pinpoint the specific zone or line you’re going after.
Operations like Exum have their own database for information sharing, with daily observations on snowpack and surface conditions from each of their guides in the field. This is a hard one to put into practice since most recreational skiers don’t have 20 friends who spend all day everyday ski touring and making professional-level observations. Part of Reagan’s goal for this course was to help us develop a similar framework for making and evaluating observations that we can easily share with our own network.
His advice was to keep it simple and make the format consistent so it’s easy to check all the boxes after you finish skiing, then choose a handful of friends and see what works. Red flags (cracking, collapsing, observed avalanches), weather, surface conditions, and any pit or below-surface stability assessment tests are all easy pieces of data to jot down and share with friends who didn’t get out that day.
Whether it’s a Facebook page, WhatsApp group, or text chain, I’ve found that the more data I share after a ski tour the more I find myself getting back. This helps form a more clear picture as to what’s going on out there, even if I have a pretty computer-heavy week.
Invest in gear that’s lightweight, so you actually bring it
Lightweight gear isn’t cheap, but it’s worth its weight (or lack thereof) in gold. “If your gear is heavy, you’re less likely to end up bringing it,” says Reagan while we pored over a colorful pile of technical gear in the Snow King parking lot.
There’s definitely something to be said for not expending extra energy when you’re getting into something more technical, and lightening your load will get you there faster and leave you fresher for the descent. A svelte ski mountaineering harness, ultralight static cord, aluminum crampons, and a lightweight ice axe are worthy investments for anyone who plans to devote time to skiing more technical objectives.
Reagan routinely stashes his 30-meter Petzl RAD Line (a hyperstatic 6mm cord) in his pack for days he might want to do a belayed ski cut or scope a line with a little extra security. “Many days I never take it out, but it’s so light (660 grams) that I don’t even think about it throwing it in.”
Put in the effort to create a solid Plan A, B, and C
When planning a big mission, don’t let Plan B turn into tucking tail and skiing back down the skintrack. That’s no fun and usually leaves us with that weird feeling of regret and disappointment most skiers know all too well. “You’re more likely to take the safer option if you’re excited about it,” says Reagan, who advises putting some real effort into building a fun and exciting Plan B and C that still feels like an adventure.
Our Plan A on day one had been to link up a few north-facing couloirs in Grand Teton National Park, with a few mandatory rappels that would put our new systems to the test. Raging winds and new snow made it clear that we needed to reevaluate, so we scratched the expectations of getting gnarly with our ropes and put together an entirely different tour plan that prioritized safe, playful, and wickedly fun powder skiing. High fives in the parking lot hardly made our epic day look like a Plan B, but on paper that’s what it was.
“Sure you can wait and wait for the perfect ski mountaineering window,” says Reagan. “But sometimes that’s hard to nail or you might wait forever. Often you can learn more on the days you need to adapt your plan.”
A few weeks later, we returned to our original mission—linking steep couloirs in the Tetons—and the extra time we had to prepare and hone our skills paid off. A belayed down climb transitioned into a roped ski cut, and a few minutes later we were well on our way, reaping the rewards of the latest refresh on some steep and deep terrain in the alpine.
Looking back on the preparation that led up to our days in the Tetons, I’ve realized just how much goes into nailing an objective in the backcountry. It’s a lifelong craft that takes patience and consistency, and one that’s difficult to learn on your own. Exum and Arc’teryx are working to help share the secrets of the trade with more and more skiers, and I look forward to seeing the progression that comes out of it.