It's the minute-to-minute details and protocols that help us avoid dangerous situations. While modern ski equipment empowers us to become superhuman in the mountains, it must function correctly to lessen risk and increase our performance. Always inspect, tune, assess, and repair your equipment before heading into the mountains.
Use this guide to make sure your gear is practical and reliable.
Foot pain and cold toes are a huge distraction. Backcountry skiers need comfortable, lightweight boots that provide support and continuous blood flow to the toes. Downsizing your boots for performance is unnecessary (unless you're a downhill racer) as long as you use thermo-fit, high-density liners correctly. Heat-moldable liners form around your foot and the inside of your shell. Too much (extra) padding, thick foot beds, and boots that are too small can compromise circulation. So can too-tight buckles and straps, so don’t over-tighten your boots.
Today's advanced alpine-touring (AT) bindings like the Dynafit Beast 16 offer higher DIN settings and are durable enough for on- and off-piste skiing. Make sure the forward pressure and DIN are set correctly to prevent pre-release. The last thing you want is for your skis to release in hazardous/avalanche terrain.
Take advantage of modern wide skis and tune them accordingly. Detune the tip and tail edges from the point where the sidecut ends and the ski begins to taper. Those tapered tips and tails are designed to prevent snow build-up and provide catch-free float and steering when you're smearing and sliding to control speed or stay on line. Regularly file off burrs and nicks using a stone; keep your skis sliding effortlessly by maintaining your bases and edges; and use wax or silicone on the tops to prevent snow from sticking.
Skiing is a low center of gravity sport, so a good ski pack is wider at the bottom, narrower at the top, and keeps the weight lower, so you don’t get top heavy and thrown down the mountain. The best packs also have easy access to the bottom, so you can easily store and reach your heaviest items. What’s more, packs can provide spinal protection, make great anchors, and even be used as a splint. You must carry a probe, shovel, extra warm layer, and water, and they should always be secured inside—never put these things on the outside of your pack. Use the chest and waist buckles.
What to Wear
Many skiers are overdressed and overheating, often making it harder to breath, focus, and perform well. Excessive sweating speeds up dehydration, so shed and add layers as necessary. If needed, briefly remove your shell to dry the sweat on the inside. Wear jackets and pants with ventilation zips, and jackets with high collars, combined with a thin silk or wool-blend neck gaiter, to help expel moisture and excess heat.
Select a transceiver that makes practical sense for you. Wear it. Turn it on. And keep it on. Transceiver batteries can last weeks even when used daily, but check battery life daily. Replace them when they drop below 60 percent. Strap the transceiver to your chest high and tight, under your jacket, so it's not dangling and being a nuisance. Conduct a group transceiver check before heading out. If you’re wearing a radio, situate the transceiver on the opposite side to prevent radio chirp. And, practice, practice, practice. Even the most highly trained pros can struggle with deep multi-burials in a stressful avalanche situation.
Choose a helmet with excellent ventilation that doesn't compromise your ability to hear your partners or sounds coming from the snow pack.
Knees are vulnerable to impacts from ski edges, hard snow, rocks, trees, and stumps. I wear kneepads whenever I ski to protect my knees, keep my ligaments/joints warmer, and pad my knees when kneeling in the snow.
Ski poles are one of the best tools for probing to identify weak layers in the snow pack, cutting wind lips/mini cornices, digging hasty pits, and even a hasty shallow avalanche burial. Choose a robust, non-telescoping pole, and ensure your baskets are extra secure.
When you stopping on ridges, slopes, and summits, be mindful of your equipment.
- Having your gloves blow down the mountain is awful. If you remove them, shove them inside your jacket in the arm sleeve.
- Even with ski brakes, skis will still take off. Strapping them together when carrying them helps. Slide the tails securely in the snow when stepping in, and wedge them in the snow when setting them down.
- Shove your ski poles grip first into the snow to secure them from falling downhill.
- When digging snow pits, secure your pack by shoving the grip handle of your pole through a shoulder strap and then into the snow.
- Probes and shovels always have to be shoved into the snow or they'll take a ride.
Be safe. Skiing is life!
Dean Cummings is a professional big mountain skier and mountaineer, Alaska heli-ski pioneer, product engineer, award-winning outdoor educator, and World Extreme Skiing Champion.
Stay tuned as Cummings sheds light on various Steep Life Protocol topics throughout the winter.