Sunday, March 15, 2015

Top 10 Recommendations For Hopeful Ski Mountaineers

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With prime ski mountaineering season right around the corner for the Rockies, I've been thinking a lot about my start in this incredible sport.  Particularly, I've been reflecting on how much I've learned since I started, and what advice I'd give to an aspiring ski mountaineer.  So, I decided to write a little article about it.  Regardless of your interest/experience in ski mountaineering I hope you find it enjoyable. 

A young man with a dreams.
High peaks, dramatic sky, steep lines, remote wilderness, massive exposure, varying terrain, incredible all adds to the allure of ski mountaineering.  But, if it were an easy sport everyone would be doing it.  Even in an age when social media displays ski mountaineering exploits to a huge audience, the difficulties of the sport have kept the number of participants relatively small.

If it is so difficult, how does one even approach becoming a ski mountaineer?

I don't want to sound pompous, but feel like I'm fairly well qualified to give advice on this subject.  Despite growing up in the rolling mountains of central Pennsylvania (a great place to grow up, but not exactly a hotbed of ski mountaineering) I have become fairly accomplished in the sport.  The transition from a dreaming kid in Appalachia to a ski mountaineer with iconic descents under my belt didn't happen overnight.  It was a long and tricky learning process.

I want to inspire others who, like me, dream of adventure in the mountains.  I have learned a lot over the years (sometimes the hard way) in my pursuit of ski mountaineering, and I'd like to share some of that with you.  So, without further adieu, here is my top 10 list of things aspiring ski mountaineers should do to make their learning process faster, smoother, safer and more enjoyable.

1 - Take Baby Steps

All the small steps add up.
There are lots of ways to get hurt or die while ski mountaineering.  The risks are too numerous to list so I won't even try.  Attempting too much too soon is a recipe for disaster.  Approach the sport slowly and chip away towards your goals.  Progressing at a slow, steady, humble pace will help you build your physical skill set and your understanding of the ski mountaineering environment.

On a given mountain the weather, social factors, snow pack, group ability level, terrain and much more can change.  With each of these changes comes a change in the risks.  The best way to truly understand the risks is with lots of experiences in lots of situations.  Until you have a large amount of experience YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW.  If you don't know that you are taking a particular risk then you are simply hoping to get lucky in order to avoid it.  I've had my fair share of luck in the mountains (good and bad), and take my word for it; it is better to truly understand your situation than to rely on luck.

There is a classic saying that goes "There are old mountaineers and there are bold mountaineers...but there are no old, bold mountaineers."  Put your ego aside, be humble, and take baby steps.  It will pay off in the end.

2 - Learn From More Experienced Ski Mountaineers

Watch and learn.
This one seems rather obvious, but there are many who begin ski mountaineering alone or with other novices because it can be difficult to find more experienced partners.  To this I say "be patient."  Do your best to ski with those that have more experience than you.  They can help you understand different situations and combat the "you don't know what you don't know" issue.  Your journey from novice toward expert will be faster, smoother, and safer under the tutelage of an experienced ski mountaineer.

If it weren't for my ski mountaineering mentors I would either: (1) not have accomplished many of my goals, or  (2) not be here today because of foolish decision making.

When an opportunity arises for you to learn from an experienced ski mountaineer make sure you are ready.  That person is likely going out of his/her way to do you a favor, so make it as easy for him/her as possible.  Study what you are attempting (see #4), make sure you've trained for what you attempting (see #5) and make sure you have all the necessary equipment for what you are attempting (see #7).  The easier you make it for the people you want to learn from, the easier it will be to find people to learn from.

If you are reading this as an experienced ski mountaineer I'd like to suggest that it is your duty to give back to the sport by helping novices.  Remember, you were once in their boots.  Help them learn, help them be safe, and help them maintain a sense of humility and respect.

3 - Get Formal Training

University students learning about snow.
Along with finding more experienced ski mountaineers to learn from, a great way to understand the risks of the ski mountaineering environment is through formal training.  Take an avalanche class (or two, or three), a mountaineering skills course, or attend a ski mountaineering camp.  Companies like Exum Guides offer camps that will train you for big and difficult objectives.

Along with my formal avalanche training through AIARE, I've taken part in guiding courses and mountaineering skill camps.  Each one taught me something new and different, and they were enjoyable experiences in and of themselves.

Commit to some formal training.  It will be worth it.

4 - Be a Ski Mountaineering Student

I did years of study before this descent.
If you want to be a good ski mountaineer you've got to study ski mountaineering.  Start by learning some of the history of the sport.  Read about and appreciate the accomplishments of those who came before you.  Learn from their successes and failures.  Learn from their good ideas and mistakes.  Read their trip reports and expedition accounts.  You'll be educated and inspired all at the same time.

Along with the history of ski mountaineering, study all the other aspects of the sport.  Study and practice snow science.  Study and practice rope work.  Study survival skills.  Study old and new gear technology.  Study and keep up with current ski mountaineering feats.

If you are planning a ski mountaineering objective of your own, spend hours pouring over maps and pictures of the area.  Search for trip reports from others who attempted the same or a similar objective.

A studious ski mountaineer is a better ski mountaineer.

5 - Develop Physical & Mental Toughness

Poise & confidence under stress.
Climbing mountains is difficult.  Skiing mountains is difficult.  Climbing and skiing mountains as one activity is even more difficult.  The physical demands of ski mountaineering are incredible.  You need cardio fitness for long approaches, enormous climbs and equally enormous descents.  You need strength fitness to haul weight, make technical climbing moves, and resist g-forces on a descent.  You need a high pain tolerance as your lungs start to burn, your feet start to ache, your back gets sore and your legs get gassed.  If you aren't physically tough your body simply won't allow you to be a ski mountaineer.

Physical toughness alone, however, isn't enough.  Mental toughness is just as, if not more, important.  There will be many times when it is easier to continue sleeping in your warm bed instead of waking up and braving the cold at 2:00 am.  There will be many times when taking a long break on an approach will feel much better than continuing to make needed progress.  There will be so many times when turning around in the middle of a climb because you're tired will be easier than continuing to the top.  In order to be a good ski mountaineer you've got to be mentally tough and understand what your body is actually capable of.  Chances are that it is more than you think.

Mental toughness doesn't relate just to pushing your body to it's limits, either.  Mental toughness also has a lot to do with overcoming fear.  Let's face it, there is a lot to be scared of or nervous about when one is climbing and skiing big, steep, exposed mountains.  A total lack of fear is a sign of either naivety or lunacy.  A mentally tough ski mountaineer recognizes this fear but does not let it affect his/her physical performance.  You've got to be mentally tough to overcome your fear and continue to perform at a high skill level.

6 - Rock Climb & Ice Climb

More skills = more opportunities.
You don't NEED to rock or ice climb to ski mountaineer.  Likewise, you don't NEED to understand the stock market to invest in it.  But, in both cases, you'll be a lot better off if you do.

Rock and ice climbing will help you learn general mountain and rope skills.  These skills will open the door to many more ski mountaineering opportunities.  It's pretty straight forward: the more skills you have the more opportunity you have.

Furthermore, rock and ice climbing can help you with your mental toughness.  Even when you're roped in, being on a large rock or ice face with nothing but air underneath you can be intimidating.  But, in order to continue climbing, one must perform at a high level in the face of fear.  The mental toughness developed in climbing will translate to ski mountaineering.

I'm not saying you need to become an expert rock or ice climber.  I am, however, saying that doing some rock and ice climbing will significantly help your ski mountaineering.

7 - Get the Right Gear, Over Time

Steep Denali line...trusting my gear.
Don't blow your bank account, but don't be too stingy either.  In order to ski mountaineer and have an enjoyable time doing it, you need the right gear.  Over the years I've slowly accumulated the gear I need.  Now, I've got the gear for nearly any expedition.  If I tried some of the things I do today with the gear that I started the sport with I would be miserable (it was heavy and cumbersome!) and not as safe.  As I've slowly accumulated the gear over time, I've had the opportunity to really get to know how to use it, and understand its pros and cons.  You trust your life with your gear, so it is important to have the right gear for a given objective, and know how to use it.

Getting the right gear for a given ski mountaineering goal will make that goal more enjoyable and more attainable.

8 - Be Hopeful, not Expectant

Not what we hoped, but what we expected.
The possibilities for amazing ski mountaineering experiences are endless - steep lines, deep snow, amazing views...the list goes on and on.  Do not, however, let possibilities become expectations.  Doing so is a dangerous practice that leads to disappointment, injury and even death.  

For starters, it is not uncommon for conditions and weather to be miserable, or to make many attempts at the same goal without achieving it.  If you expect things to go your way all the time you'll be sorely disappointed.  If you're regularly disappointed you likely won't stick with the sport very long.  

More importantly, having high expectations can lead to poor decision making, which can lead to injury or death.  The desire to achieve a goal because you're expectant can cloud your judgment.  Clouded judgment leads to dangerous decisions that you wouldn't otherwise make.  You'll end up trying to do what you expected to do rather that what you should do.

It isn't all doom and gloom, though.  Sometimes things work out exactly as planned (or better than you could have imagined).  So, instead of being expectant I suggest that you be HOPEFUL.  Enter each scenario with a hope that it will be great, but understand that it may not.  You'll be much happier and safer if you take this approach.

9 - Don't Compare to Others

Individually bettering ourselves together.
You don't have anything to prove to anyone other than yourself.  I'll say it don't have anything to prove to anyone other than yourself.  Challenging oneself is a good thing, and ski mountaineering is a great way to do so.  But, in this era of internet videos, big egos and constant "one upping," it can be easy to fall into the trap of needing to be like, or "better" than others.  That is not what this sport is about.

Even though the nature of ski mountaineering fosters deep friendships and social situations, it is still a personal sport.  It gives you time for introspection.  It helps you appreciate those things in life which are truly important.  It helps you realize what you are capable of.  It helps you put your ego in check.  It can teach you a lot about yourself.  It can teach you a lot about others.  

Allow others to inspire and teach you, but don't try to be "better" than others.  Simply try to better yourself.  This will make you a wiser, safer and happier ski mountaineer.

10 -  Be Thankful

There is always more to experience, learn and do, but be thankful with what you've already been afforded the opportunity and ability to do.  If you are fortunate enough to pursue ski mountaineering then your life is already truly blessed.  The building of friendships, the use of your body, the experience of the natural world, the thrills and's all icing on the cake.

A moment of extreme thankfulness atop Denali.


  1. This one seems rather obvious, but there are many who begin ski mountaineering alone or with other novices because it can be difficult to find more experienced partners.Kim Nedman

  2. Awesome post! Will include this in a new article of my website