Mountain Chronicle Backcountry Tools

Mountain Life
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Mountain Life

None of the people with whom I regularly ski the backcountry is what you'd call an equipment nut. Some of them do keep their boards tuned, and some seem to show up each season with a new toy or two. But most are like Jerry, who tried a new pack last winter and gave it back in favor of his grungy, body-hugging companion of 15 years.

Or Andy, who telemarks on a pair of 205 cm K2 slaloms that could have been used by a hirsute Phil Mahre. Which is not to say that backcountry gear is any less subtle or less passionately discussed and appreciated than pure alpine gear.

On the contrary, this stuff is absolutely organic to the shape of a successful day. If it works, it is enabling in the best sense of the word, taking us into the wild, uphill and down, out and back, safely, and in a style both languid and ecstatic.

If it doesn't work, if it breaks, or if we fail to follow the practical rituals the gear demands, then we may face something a good deal more serious than an off-day in the bumps. At the pass in the morning, everything gets tossed from pickup beds onto the snow: skis, poles, packs, boots.

The first thing I do is strap on my avalanche beacon, checking to make sure the little red light is blinking. I usually lift it to my ear and turn away briefly from the amiable chatter to listen to its faint, heartbeat ping.

This is the sound that will lead my friends to me should I be buried under the snow. Later, one of the group will switch from "transmit" to "receive" and listen to each of us passing by, just to make sure we're beeping.

It's a sober, healthy habit. Not morbid by any means, but neither are there jokes about failed signals or weak batteries. Skins, on the other hand, usually engender at least one crack about babies or disease prevention.

Mine, like everyone's here, are "glue-ons," that is, full-length, nylon climbers that hook to the ski tip and stick, plush side out, to the P-tex. This is some kind of super glue: Like the adhesive on Post-ità‚„¢ Notes, it sticks when you press it on, then peels off like magic when you're done climbing. In the old days, when skins were made of seal hide, they had to strap them to the ski with a bunch of clumsy hardware.

Without the skins' ability to glide and grip, we'd go nowhere. Their mechanical brilliance would be wasted, however, if we didn't have boots and bindings designed for the uphill trek. The heel must be free.

"Free the heel and the mind will follow," goes the old saw. Tele-skiers run free-heel all the time, uphill and down. Andy may have old skis, but he clicks into new telemark bindings with aircraft aluminum toe boxes and spring steel cables around the boot sole.

Like most telemarkers these days, he has also made the switch from leather to stiffer, sexier plastic boots. Jerry and I (and Jen and Sandy and Bill and Rich), having grown up alpine skiing, prefer a randonée- or alpine-touring setup.

These bindings go both ways, hinging free while you're walking, then clamping down, locking the heel, for alpine-style descents. It's a brilliant compromise. Within minutes, the trail steepens.

I reach down with a ski pole and flip the bindings' heel elevators up a notch. This keeps my foot relatively flat, eases Achilles and calves. The "cocktail clips" on my boots are in walk mode; the cuffs hinge back all the way to vertical.

On the descent, I will lock them forward in the aggressive ski mode. But for now, the motion is as free and natural as walking up stairs.

We take turns breaking trail, the rhythms slow and mesmerizing, like a human train. I love breaking, pushing first through the sparkling surface, reading the terrain, laying in kick turns as we zig-zag a steep section through old-growth spruce.

Now and then we stop and regroup, talk route-finding, drink water and melt chocolate on our tongues. On longer tours, we stop midway for lunch, sit on packs and share steaming cups of spicy, sweet tea.

At the top, an alabaster saddle a thousand feet above treeline, Jerry traverses onto the north-facing pitch, steps out of his skis and pulls the shovel from his pack. Snow flies from the "hasty pit," as, badgerlike, Jerry burrows through progressively older layers.

Andy looks at metamorphosed grains through a hand lens. Jer isolates a column of snow and tests its shear strength. The older strata have "bridged," and the new snow seems well-enough bonded. We're good to go.

Off come the skins with a satisfying "rrrripppp." I fold them back-to-sticky-back and store them away. We'll need them again to get up out of this virgin cirque where the only sign of man is a half-buried, abandoned silver mine a thousand feet below.

Zippers zipped, packs cinched, bindings locked down, "cocktail clips" switched to ski mode: The veterans' hands move from task to task with the economy of ritual. We'll ski this slope one at a time, according to protocol and, after years of unhurried days, by mutual preference.

Somebody will go first, calling out, "Watch me." He'll cut the potential avalanche start zone, pouncing down on the snow, testing, just to make sure, then gradually settle into the turns, bouncing left and right in trampoline, sponge-cake snow. Satisfied whoops drift up to meet congratulatory cheers hollered down.

Each in turn at his own pace, parallel or telemark, skinny skis or fat, hearts pounding (electronic and arterial), watched over by the brothers and sisters, and finally, down in the basin, having left behind a fragile personal callig- raphy in a place unknowable without these special tools.

Peter is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at pshelton@skinet.com or check out his previous columns at www.skinet.com/ski.

BACKCOUNTRY TOOLS By Peter Shelton

One of the people with whom I regularly ski the backcountry is what you'd call an equipment nut. Some of them do keep their boards tuned, and some seem to show up each season with a new toy or two. But most are like Jerry, who tried a new pack last winter and gave it back in favor of his grungy, body-hugging companion of 15 years.

Or Andy, who telemarks on a pair of 205 cm K2 slaloms that could have been used by a hirsute Phil Mahre. Which is not to say that backcountry gear is any less subtle or less passionately discussed and appreciated than pure alpine gear.

On the contrary, this stuff is absolutely organic to the shape of a successful day. If where the only sign of man is a half-buried, abandoned silver mine a thousand feet below.

Zippers zipped, packs cinched, bindings locked down, "cocktail clips" switched to ski mode: The veterans' hands move from task to task with the economy of ritual. We'll ski this slope one at a time, according to protocol and, after years of unhurried days, by mutual preference.

Somebody will go first, calling out, "Watch me." He'll cut the potential avalanche start zone, pouncing down on the snow, testing, just to make sure, then gradually settle into the turns, bouncing left and right in trampoline, sponge-cake snow. Satisfied whoops drift up to meet congratulatory cheers hollered down.

Each in turn at his own pace, parallel or telemark, skinny skis or fat, hearts pounding (electronic and arterial), watched over by the brothers and sisters, and finally, down in the basin, having left behind a fragile personal callig- raphy in a place unknowable without these special tools.

Peter is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at pshelton@skinet.com or check out his previous columns at www.skinet.com/ski.

BACKCOUNTRY TOOLS By Peter Shelton

One of the people with whom I regularly ski the backcountry is what you'd call an equipment nut. Some of them do keep their boards tuned, and some seem to show up each season with a new toy or two. But most are like Jerry, who tried a new pack last winter and gave it back in favor of his grungy, body-hugging companion of 15 years.

Or Andy, who telemarks on a pair of 205 cm K2 slaloms that could have been used by a hirsute Phil Mahre. Which is not to say that backcountry gear is any less subtle or less passionately discussed and appreciated than pure alpine gear.

On the contrary, this stuff is absolutely organic to the shape of a successful day. If it works, it is enabling in the best sense of the word, taking us into the wild, uphill and down, out and back, safely, and in a style both languid and ecstatic.

If it doesn't work, if it breaks, or if we fail to follow the practical rituals the gear demands, then we may face something a good deal more serious than an off-day in the bumps. At the pass in the morning, everything gets tossed from pickup beds onto the snow: skis, poles, packs, boots.

The first thing I do is strap on my avalanche beacon, checking to make sure the little red light is blinking. I usually lift it to my ear and turn away briefly from the amiable chatter to listen to its faint, heartbeat ping.

This is the sound that will lead my friends to me should I be buried under the snow. Later, one of the group will switch from "transmit" to "receive" and listen to each of us passing by, just to make sure we're beeping.

It's a sober, healthy habit. Not morbid by any means, but neither are there jokes about failed signals or weak batteries. Skins, on the other hand, usually engender at least one crack about babies or disease prevention.

Mine, like everyone's here, are "glue-ons," that is, full-length, nylon climbers that hook to the ski tip and stick, plush side out, to the P-tex. This is some kind of super glue: Like the adhesive on Post-ità‚„¢ Notes, it sticks when you press it on, then peels off like magic when you're done climbing. In the old days, when skins were made of seal hide, they had to strap them to the ski with a bunch of clumsy hardware.

Without the skins' ability to glide and grip, we'd go nowhere. Their mechanical brilliance would be wasted, however, if we didn't have boots and bindings designed for the uphill trek. The heel must be free.

"Free the heel and the mind will follow," goes the old saw. Tele-skiers run free-heel all the time, uphill and down. Andy may have old skis, but he clicks into new telemark bindings with aircraft aluminum toe boxes and spring steel cables around the boot sole.

Like most telemarkers these days, he has also made the switch from leather to stiffer, sexier plastic boots. Jerry and I (and Jen and Sandy and Bill and Rich), having grown up alpine skiing, prefer a randonée- or alpine-touring setup.

These bindings go both ways, hinging free while you're walking, then clamping