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Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1: Uphill Travel Techniques

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Once your tour is planned, executing it effectively and efficiently can make a big difference in how your day progresses. In this section, we’ll focus on efficient touring that, in turn, helps set you up for a successful, stress-free mission.

If you’re just joining us, make sure you start at the beginning to get the most out of this course.

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Touring Efficiency

Even the fittest among us has a finite amount of energy, so we want to conserve as much as we can. Conserving energy will help us:

  • Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 efficiency

    Have energy for an unexpected route change

  • Deal with an emergency. If you have to dig a shelter, haul somebody on a sled, etc.
  • Prevent us from collapsing on the couch for an entire evening after a tour
  • Have energy for an extra run

A lot of the suggestions I’ll make are subtle tweaks to subtle movements (e.g. sliding your skis instead of lifting them as you tour uphill), and may seem pointless given how little energy it takes to lift your foot, lift your arm, etc. But when you think about making these motions 1,500 times, and the collective energy it takes, it all adds up. At the end of the day, it’s all about saving your energy for more important things—like skiing down from the top of your tour.

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Track Setting

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Types of Turns

If you know how to make these turns, you can make safe, efficient skin tracks that are a joy to follow.

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Using Heel Lifts/Risers

Several things determine whether you should use heel lifts:

  • Ankle flexibility
  • Your ski boot’s forward range of motion
  • How tightly you buckle your boots
  • How steep your track is
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Heel Risers: Pros and Cons

Benefits: They make it easier and more comfortable to skin in some situations, and they make it easier to climb steep slopes.

Drawbacks: They shorten your stride, make ski crampons less effective, and are not quite as stable (especially if you have tiny heel lifts, or you’re doing things like kick turns).

My two cents: Try not to use them. If possible, set a track that doesn’t require them (this may not be possible in some situations—like on a narrow ridge). If you find yourself bending at the waist and the track is not that steep, it’s probably because your boots don’t have much forward range of motion (common with some stronger freeride boots), or your ankles don’t have range of motion—maybe due to tight calves.

Not using your binding’s heel lifts has the advantages of giving you improved stability, better compatibility with ski crampons, and a longer stride. I use them when the terrain requires a steeper track. For instance, I’ll put them up on a narrow ridge where not using them would result in multiple kick turns because I don’t have enough space to do AVA turns.

Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 heel lifts
(Photo: Alton Richardson)

Whatever you decide, try to set a track that doesn’t require you to frequently put your heel lifts up and down. The last thing you want is to be fiddling with your heel risers every 50 meters. So be attentive when setting the skin track. It’s not necessary to set a steep track just because the slope is steep. You don’t have to skin straight up the hill. Instead, set a track at an angle and try to keep it consistent and not change incline haphazardly.

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Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 choke down on poles

How to Use Poles While Touring

I rarely use adjustable poles, but they can be valuable when you need them. For example, when you’re poling out on a long flat road. Whether you choose to use telescoping poles or standard ones, here are some things to consider regarding backcountry poles and poling technique on ascents:

  • While touring uphill, choke down with your uphill hand, so your hands are level
  • Make smaller movements when setting your poles between strides—it takes more energy to lift your arm higher
  • When planting your poles, be mindful of keeping your hands below your heart, so they’ll continue to get blood flow and stay warmer
  • Don’t rely on your poles for stability—your upper body isn’t as strong as your lower half, so focus on setting solid strides
  • It’s helpful to have a pole with insulation below the grip. If you don’t have insulation on the pole, wrap the pole shaft with duct tape

Pro Tip: Boot Packing

When boot packing, avoid punching your toes into the slope, leaving your arch and heel unsupported and therefore torching your calves. Instead of punching your toe straight in, kick at an angle that allows your entire foot to be supported. This may mean climbing the slope diagonally, or zig-zagging, instead of climbing straight up.

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Efficient Transitions

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Transitions can be a bigger time assassin than Facebook. Having a routine and keeping the items you need accessible will greatly improve your transition time. And, as we talked about earlier in the course, even the strongest, fittest person has a finite amount of energy. So the more efficient you are, the more energy you have to deal with an emergency, an unexpected route change that adds time and/or effort to the day, or to simply make more runs. Transitions are not only a time to switch from skinning to skiing mode or vise-versa, they’re also a time to take care of yourself. That means eating, drinking, reapplying sunscreen, keeping warm, and organizing your pack for the next transition so that you have the clothing or tools you need without having to dig for them.

Pack everything according to when you might need it. My repair kit, first-aid kit, carabineers, cordelettes and slings, along with my bivy sack, are all at the bottom of my pack. My pack opens all the way, so I can still access them quickly if needed. But if you have a top-loading backpack, then having the correct order is even more important. Unless it’s snowing or windy, my shell is on top of all the rescue gear. After that extra gloves, extra hat, and my puffy goes on the top. I always have my water bottle on the side right next to the zipper, and my food in the top zipper pocket, so both are easy to reach. I keep sunscreen, a compass, and a multi-tool in the waist strap pockets.

The first thing I do when I get to the top of the tour is put on my down jacket to trap in body heat. Next, I put on a dry hat and warm gloves. Now I go about pulling my skins, and getting something to eat and drink. I re-apply sunscreen if needed, switch my boots from touring to skiing, and I’m ready to go.

I always put my skins in the dedicated avy compartment of my pack, with my shovel and probe. That way I don’t get snow into the main part of my pack, where all my warm, dry clothes are.

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