A couple of years ago I was teaching a snow safety class at Mt Cheeseman. Constant snow flurries, low visibility and wind kept us inbounds on day one. On day two, after the upper Cheeseman slopes had been controlled and opened by a hardworking 3-member Ski Patrol, my group headed into Tarn basin. We linked the lower angle pitches to the very bottom of Tarn and had 500 metres of first tracks – superb, low risk, boot-top plus powder skiing. We spread out for the section that rides through the runout of the Tarn chutes. As the group skinned back up the basin (again spread out for the exposed section), a pair of skiers dropped together into the Tarn chutes (approaching 40 degrees steep at the top). I felt troubled by this – dropping in at the same time seemed unnecessarily risky. If they had both been avalanched (it was within 24 hours of the snow fall – the time when snow is most unstable), we would have to make the difficult decision whether to go to help. My group, many of whom were in the backcountry for the first time, would be exposed to steep nearby slopes which could also avalanche. The so-called Slack country is not that slack. As soon as you leave the ski area boundary, it’s backcountry. Ski Patrol are often too busy to be able to respond to a backcountry accident, especially if it’s a powder day. Time is essential. No-one breathes for long under snow. It’ll be up there with the scariest thing you’ve ever had happen. I know: I’ve been there.
I feel like I see this often in New Zealand – people dropping wherever they feel like it in the backcountry, regardless of whether others are beneath them. Even wilder are all the times I’ve seen folks skinning back up the 35 degree ski lines while riders drop in around them. In other busy touring areas, you’d be given grief for this. It ties into manners but it’s really about risk management. Although spreading out in avalanche terrain is not necessary every single day on every single run, it’s a good habit to develop. Even when avalanche hazard is low, best practice is to at least verbalise the spacing plan among team members and assign regroup spots that are (as much as possible) away from avalanche runouts. The real trick comes into play when it’s unpredictable. I’ve had many friends get caught out by avalanches in an otherwise stable snowpack. Often an anomaly gets them – a small unexpected windslab carries the victim over a cliff or a wet slide knocks you off your feet and buries you in a drainage. This “spatial variability” – the idea that weak snow layers are variable from location to location, can be a frustrating concept. The only mitigation method is to avoid having too many people exposed at once on avalanche-prone slopes (slopes approaching and above 35 degrees). Set yourself up for someone to be available to help. The avalanche question already involves a complex interplay of factors: Is the slope steep enough to avalanche? What aspect is the slope in relation to wind and sun? What elevation is the slope and how does that affect the snow? What shape is the slope? Does it have steep rollovers? Shallow rocky areas? How is the weather affecting the snow? Add in ourselves with our odd habits and urges and ask: What happens if an avalanche occurs? Will the slide be big or small? Could you be buried deep in a terrain trap, swept over a cliff, swept into a party below….? It’s about examining consequences and options.
Best practice is to ski an avalanche-prone slope separately, particularly if there are several other groups in the vicinity. How much space you allow between riders will depend on the likelihood of an avalanche vs the consequence if the slope does rip. Before you drop, talk to your partner/s and establish the island of safety you plan to regroup at. It may be a long way down (think Crystal valley off Porters) – which adds to risk management. If the first skier makes it safely and the second gets avalanched, the skier below will have to skin to the rescue. Islands of safety are higher points like knolls or ridges. When you arrive at that island, look around and ask yourself “Am I in the safest spot I could be given the conditions?” Agree on the distance between team members before dropping in. Avoid stopping part way down. As you drop, have an escape route in mind, should the slope go. This may be a nearby ridge, a big rock that you can duck under or a route back onto the ridge you left from. It’s wise for the first person to ski/snow board cut – high across the slope – to test it before committing to the drop.
Respect other riders and avoid dropping in on them until they’re at a safe spot. Avoid dropping in above people skinning. Skinners and booters – take the line that avoids being directly under slopes that folks are riding, even if these means going further or it means you lose the race for first tracks. Honestly, there are always more first tracks!
I’m keen to avoid a multi-casualty accident in popular and accessible areas like Tarn basin and Crystal Valley. Having a little self control and skiing/riding one at a time while identifying safe stopping areas is a healthy habit – whether it’s a stable day or not. You never know when you could get it wrong.
At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s a quick version of dos and don’ts with backcountry etiquette:
1. If the ski area is generous enough to sell a one-ride ticket, preserve that goodwill by only taking ONE RIDE! Don’t be the one who kills the privilege!
2. Know Before you Go: Check the Avalanche Advisory (https://www.avalanche.net.nz/region/5)
2. Be nice to the ski patrol as you exit and enter the ski area.
3. Exit through designated areas. Do not return to the ski area via closed areas (this message is to all you people exiting Porters – that full sliding fall down Bluff face is incredibly unpleasant to witness).
4. Be friendly to other travellers. We are all in it for a good time and we need to look after each other out there.
5. Avoid dropping in on others below
6. Avoid skinning up the down routes. Skin lower angle routes back to the ski area. Spread out where it’s exposed.
7. Ski/Ride out of potential avalanche path runouts as much as possible – aim for a safe regroup spot where you are not under others who are skiing/riding down.
8. If you see an avalanche or get weak test results, share that info to other BC travellers, ski patrol and send it to the local avalanche observer.
Here’s what I have going on for 2018-2019:
The Craigieburn Haute Route: Now in it’s third year, this iconic trip across the Craigieburns involves light packs, excellent ski terrain and ski club hospitality. Still in conjunction with Chill, still with my secret guiding weapon, Stu Waddel! August-September
Private hut-based trips to the gorgeous maritime glaciers of the South Island. Sadly they are diminishing. Ski NZ’s longest glacier Haupapa/Tasman Glacier and it’s tributaries or the West Coast glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef and their tributaries. September-November.
Utah. I’ve lived in Utah’s Wasatch range for nearly 20 years yet people still welcome me to the USA. The kiwi accent endures. I know this range extremely well and would love to introduce you to the secret stashes of ‘the greatest snow on earth.’ Utah has many world-class ski resorts. Tack on some days of ski touring to your holiday. Learn to ski tour. Introduce family to the sport. It’s all good. January-April each year.
Nevada. Ok this one is gold. The past two years I’ve had the opportunity to train American Ski Guides based from the Ruby High Yurt in the Ruby Mountains way out in the Great Basin of Nevada. I love this spot for it’s wildness and remote position. The yurt has tremendous views, heaps of great ski options right outside the door and opportunities for ‘heli bumps’ to more remote ski touring in the range (thanks to the Ruby Mountain Heli ski operation). February-March. 2-4 day trips for four people.
Iceland. I’ve joined with my friend and fellow IFMGA guide, Emilie Drinkwater to charter a yacht in the Western Fiords of Iceland in May 2019. Hero skiing at it’s finest in an exotic location close to Europe…. I can take a group of four for 6 days yacht-based ski touring in this fine island nation. Emilie will also have a group of 4, meaning flexibility to choose where we ski and for how long each day.
Antarctic Peninsula. After travelling to the Peninsula on foot twice in the past two years, I must return on skis with some of my adventurous people. For this mission, I’ve joined forces with Ice Axe expeditions as they have the ship and the organisation to ensure a smooth and safe voyage to ski some of the most remote mountains on earth. We meet in the extreme southern Argentine town of Ushaia to sail across the Drake Passage to the Peninsula. Again, a guide: guest ratio of 1:4 means flexibility to ski as much as you like among the fabulous wildlife and scenery of Antarctica. It’s a trip of a lifetime. November 2019.
Links for more information can be found here: YO, come and join the great ski times!
Let’s go big….
Winter is winding down in SLC. I was interviewed a while back by Utah Avalanche Forecaster, Drew Hardesty. I loved talking to Drew and producer Ben Bombard. My perspective is pretty personal – and quite long. Sorry about that. Only listen on a long drive or a long work out. Here it is
The AKG 2018 pre-season prep is underway. Right now is my climbing season. So far mostly gym focused for fitness.
And fresh back from South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Year 2. A remarkable landscape and experience. Guiding with Tarn Pilkington. This year the big treat was having Michele Gilbert join the trip. This stalwart of climbing, Michele prefers cool weather, low altitude and she doesn’t get seasick! That plus her passion for wildlife meant it was all good.
I wrote this awhile ago for Chill. It pertains to the NZ ski guide scene but the American Mountain Guide Association(AMGA) ski guide road is similar. Both associations align to the common platform for Mountain Guiding: the IFMGA/International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations. If you are curious on how to become a ski guide, read on:
For my job, I host people on their holidays (or at least days off). Initially I wondered if I wanted my favourite sports (climbing and skiing) to become my career. Somehow that evolved to a yes, without really stopping to think too much about it. I always knew I wanted a job outside. I’m often asked how to become a New Zealand ski guide (I’m a climbing guide as well but this is a ski blog). These days I’m also an American Ski and Mountain Guide but I did my guide training in NZ. Becoming a ski guide is pretty involved but obviously fun with skiing as the focus:
Firstly you have to be an expert skier. The standard of the NZ ski guide is rising as the calibre of our clients rises. You have to keep up. In fact, you have to stay ahead! Many guides are or have been ski patrollers or ski instructors. Both are good paths into ski guiding. Patrolling is excellent because you learn about terrain and avalanches and first aid. Ski instructing is great because you learn about the mechanics of skiing and can help people improve. I come from a ski racing and patrolling background. The ski racing gave me solid technique and the patrolling taught me about rescue, terrain and the snow pack.
Before you get into the NZMGA Ski (or Climb) pathway, you need certain prerequisites – the Avalanche 1 certification (one week) and the 40 hour First Aid qualification. Most NZ patrollers and guides take the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care course (PHEC). You then need to refresh PHEC every two years.
You also need backcountry ski mileage. A minimum of three seasons winter backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering are needed and two of the seasons must be in NZ. All up you must have a minimum of 30 quality days (quality means full days in a variety of terrain and mountain ranges, in a leadership role). Ten of these days must include winter mountaineering up Logan grade one peaks using ice axe, crampons and ropes and you must have ascended a minimum of two grade 2 peaks in winter. The NZMGA gives examples of peaks in Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland National parks. Of the 30 days, 15 must be on glaciated terrain. Ski patrol work in a strong programme may be counted toward some of the non-glaciated days.
Once you have your personal mileage, Avalanche 1 and PHEC, you apply for the ski pathway. This pathway includes two training courses and two assessments. First up is the Snow and Ice Guide training course (SIG). This seven day glacier-based course takes your amateur technical skills and teaches the basic guiding skills needed to begin guiding. These skills revolve around safe-guarding clients, crevasse rescue, rope work, footwork and general mountain sense. Next, the ski pathway requires a pass in the one day Technical Ski examination, examined by a NZMGA Ski guide who is also a ski instructor.
Once your skiing is approved, there’s a four day Ski Guide Training course. It expands on the Snow and Ice Guide Training as it’s on skis and prepares you for the first (level 1) Ski Assessment course. You’ll usually do the SIG, the Technical Ski exam, the Ski Guide Training course and your level 1 Ski Guide assessment in the same year. There will be a fair bit of money and time going out so you have to want it. It’s like doing a diploma.
The level 1 Ski assessment takes place in glaciated areas (generally Mt Cook or Westland) over 14 days. It’s intensive. There are never more than six candidates and two assessors on a course. Several candidates will be level 2 guides taking the second (and last) tests of the ski pathway. They will expected to take a leadership role. Candidates take turns at guiding. On your days of guiding, you’ll get the weather forecast and plan your trip for the next day (and pack) the night before. After getting up early, you prepare hot drinks for your team, make your weather and snow observations and brief the group on the plan for the day and expected hazards. You run through the safety checks and you are off – for a day that could be up to 12 hours long.
At the end of the assessment you should feel fitter and feel like you’ve been put through your paces pretty effectively. There will be some low times but in general you’ll have had a lot of fun with like-minded people. The good news after that crazy year of courses and training and passing the assessment, is that you are now an assistant ski guide and you can start working. The next couple of seasons (including overseas ones if you are lucky) are spent ski tour and heli-ski guiding and learning as much as you can about leading others through avalanche terrain. Before you can attend your level 2 assessment you must attend and pass the Avalanche 2 certification. This is an in-depth process that takes about two years and is a mix of online learning, a field training course and a final field exam. In NZ this is done through the Otago Polytechnic. Certain Canadian and American avalanche certifications can be recognised too.
There is a timeframe of five years in which to complete these courses – from the Snow and Ice Guide Training to the level 2 Ski assessment. You have to make up your mind that this is what you are doing. However, once you commit, you’ll be rewarded with fresh air, untracked snow, you’ll meet people, and ski new runs in different mountain ranges. It’s a great job with the best office!
This is from an article I wrote when I was ski columnist at the Christchurch Press 2011-2014. I’m getting really worried about kea so I’m rehashing the story. I’m definitely seeing fewer in the mountains, despite there being a good crowd of the alpine parrots up on Avalanche Peak (Arthur’s Pass) when we went tramping last week. We have taken to photographing and recording our kea sightings. Here’s an example: https://keadatabase.nz/birds/vortex
Let’s be kind to kea:
Arriving at the Porters car park last season, I got into a kid-skis-wind flummox that had me running to a side door of the car, while the back hatch was open. In that brief moment, a kea swooped into the back of the car, grabbed a Tupperware container from the lunch bag and took off with it. I chased it to no avail. The kea and his delinquent mates had done a runner.
‘‘You’re not doing yourself and your species any favours,’’ I yelled in futility, much to the mirth of others in the car park.
Yes, the charming New Zealand kea, an alpine parrot of great character and unbelievable opportunism. And bastion of alpine areas throughout the South Island. Despite the apparent crowds of kea hassling people and facilities at ski areas, kea numbers are in decline. Estimated at a total population of between 1000 and 5000, they are threatened by habitat destruction, predation of nests, and their own curiosity.
‘‘The majority of kea at skifields are either juveniles or sub-adults[one to three-years-old] or adult males,’’ according to Tamsin Orr-Walker, of the Kea Conservation Trust. ‘‘The adult males visiting the skifield may have mates and perhaps chicks in a nest nearby [in
beech forest on ranges either side of the ski areas] and will be finding food for them.’’
As skifields become more aware of problems with kea, management have begun to take steps to ensure areas are safer for the birds. The removal of highly toxic (yet tasty)
lead nails from the roofs of older buildings has significantly reduced harm to kea but lead-building materials still exist at some ski areas. Similarly, signs aimed at discouraging feeding kea haven helped create awareness that human food is too high energy for them. Chocolate, that old standby when the going gets tough on the slopes, is also highly toxic for the birds. By feeding high-energy human food to kea, people encourage them to rely on us rather than forage in the forest. They end up with more time to get into mischief, hanging around car parks and roadways.The likelihood of conflict with people is intensified as kea like interesting shiny objects. Their highly inquisitive nature
results in damage to property – not just to visitors’ cars but also to that of land owners.
Says Orr-Walker: ‘‘It’s important to remember that kea are neophiliacs [love all new things], so will be attracted to any new objects they see [like gloves,your lunch, bag – or passport as one tourist down south found out]. Many of these objects may not be healthy for kea to consume and autopsies have found that swallowing foreign objects has caused the death of some kea.’’
Such gregarious birds, but we need to remember that we are visiting their turf. If we want to be the only country in the world with an alpine parrot, we must take special care: don’t feed kea, keep your car doors closed (note to self here), remove all the rubber you can from your roof-rack, don’t leave things lying around in the car park, clear your table immediately if eating outside, and tell kids and others to do the same. Pick up cigarette butts! Do I even have to say this!
Let tourists know that kea are a threatened species and that we lessen the bird’s chance of survival by leaving tempting objects lying around.
It’s like your mother told you – pick up after yourself. Go further and pick up after others too. That way, the alpine parrot of great brazenness and curiosity has a greater chance of thriving.
❏ For more information see
Touring Choices are many
On a recent Craigieburn Haute Route all five of our guests had frame bindings (mostly Marker Dukes and Barrons) while I toured on tech (Dynafit Radical ST) and Stu holds loyal to telemark bindings. The frames worked well for these big guys. On ascents that were better suited to hiking than skinning, pack weights increased dramatically once the guys put their skis on their packs and several of them mentioned tight hip flexors as the days rolled on. Once 20cm fresh arrived at Mt O however, the guys were sorted for maximum downhill excellence.
Although my chosen touring rig is to use Tech bindings (Dynafit) I have a set up with a pair of Marker Tour lite frame bindings. I have to use touring bindings as my Dynafit ski boot soles are only compatible with touring binding(whether tech or frame). I keep my beefier Marker tech bindings for ski area skiing and side country only – dipping out of bounds for a short tour then heading back inbounds with a less than half hour skin. I avoid putting these bad boys on my back as they are far heavier than any tech binding I own. In the 90’s I toured exclusively on telemark bindings and did all my BC guiding on teles but gave it away once telemark gear became heavier than AT (alpine touring) gear. I’m not a fan of a big quiver of skis – my preference tends to an all purpose ski. I tour more than I ski the ski area. I don’t fall very often. My boot choice (I don’t own downhill boots), the amount I tour (80-90% of my skiing) and my stability (or timidity – call it what you will) are perhaps the biggest factors defining my binding choices.
I looked to http://www.outdoorgearlab.com/topics/snow-sports/best-at-bindings for a solid review on the pros and cons of tech and frame. If you’ve got the time and interest, check this extensive article out. There’s an excellent graph ranking all kinds of touring bindings. Otherwise stick with me for the condensed version:
Tech bindings use “pins” that slot into metal lined holes near the toe of your boot and feature a heel piece that never leaves the ski. Depending on the brand the heel piece is manoeuvred to allow the heel to release for uphill skinning. Most tech bindings have brakes (or at least the option to add brakes). While they look frail, they are actually super strong. I’ve seen only a few break and that’s often due to many years of wear or incorrect use.
Weight – often around half the weight of the average frame binding.
A more efficient pivot point at the toe, meaning you can stride more naturally while skinning, resulting in energy saved. Additionally, you are not lifting the weight of the frame with every step as the binding stays on the ski (unlike the frame where the binding lifts with the foot) = way easier trail breaking.
The user does not need to step out of the binding at transitions from skin to ski and vice versa.
Tech style bindings are typically harder to get into, especially in softer snow or on ice (ie. they take some getting used to but generally less than a day).
They require a specialised boot with the aforementioned metal-lined holes for the pins.
They are durable but typically not quite as beefy as many frame versions.
They are more expensive than frame bindings.
Upshot: Because of their weight and efficient stride, they are the best choice for backcountry users who tour on their setup more than 50% of the time. The primary disadvantage that comes from a lighter binding is that the bindings feel less damp on firm snow – an easy trade off when you skin for hours to get to that firm snow, or a poor trade-off when you take a lift or a helicopter to get there. Another trade off for most tech bindings is that you will need a boot with “tech fittings” and you will almost definitely not be able to use your downhill boots in them – meaning it’s harder to financially “ease” into the transition of purchasing a touring setup. It’s also worth remembering that tech bindings are not designed for hard-out inbounds skiing and that too many ski area days will eventually wear the binding out.
Frame bindings feature a metal structure (hence the term “frame”) connecting the toe and the heel piece of the binding that can be freed for touring, and locked down for skiing.
A. Safety: They are arguably marginally safer due to their releasability – both on ascent and descent.
B. Downhill: For primarily in-bounds focused skiers, their greater mass, while heavier for the way up, means superior dampness and performance on the down. The firmer the conditions and the greater the speed, the bigger to advantage to frame style.
C. Boot compatibility: Most frame styles work with downhill boots and are easier to get in and out of.
A. Weight: Frame style bindings look more like a traditional downhill binding but feature some sort of “release” that frees your heel to allow you to tour; this means that with every step, you are picking up extra weight because of the binding.
B. The pivot point (with the exception of the Fritschi Freeride Pro), is also typically not as efficient. On a long climb you’ll tire quicker, something that is even more noticeable on flatter approaches.
C. Weight: Frame styles are often about 50% heavier, but sometimes even greater compared to their tech counterparts.
D. Transitions: The Marker bindings require the user to step out of the binding at any skin-ski transition.
In New Zealand the most commonly used frame binding would be the Marker Barron or Marker Duke, although I see a few Fritschi Diamir and newer Atomic frame bindings around as well. These are a popular option for the skier who only busts out a few skins each year. Almost all ski tour guides use tech bindings. We are in it for long-haul protection of our hip flexors – the area to feel the greatest strain from many uphill steps with a heavy binding. Another problem spot in terms of weight are the shoulders and back if carrying your skis for any period of time.
Outdoor Gear Lab puts it succinctly when they state that a tech binding tours significantly better than a frame binding skis when comparing the two. It really does come down to expected use. If you tour 50% of the time then you are probably best to go for tech. At around the 50% area vs. 50% touring mark, it would be advisable to go for a strong tech binding such as the Marker Kingpin or the Dynafit Beast 16. While a little heavier than a Dynafit Radical or the G3 Ion techs, these tech bindings offer superior downhill performance. The Fritschi Vipec tech bindings come somewhere in the middle of the Kingpin/Beast and G3/Dynafit Radical. The Fritschi Freeride Pro offers hassle free transitions and a solid touring efficiency, yet remains downhill boot compatible and are just as easy to step into.
With 30 years on the market, Dynafit have had the tech binding world pretty sorted. Now that their historic patent has ended, binding companies such as the ever strong Marker, have been quick to jump on the tech train and we’ve seen a significant broadening of options. It’s just a matter of priorities – are you a side country specialist or are you taking it further and longer? Update: Look out for Diamir’s new Tectron binding – a step in along similar lines to the Kingpin. Your choices have never been better!
Photos from top left: Modelling my dynafit radicals and Nancy Loves Bikes fine midweight top! Crushing ladies release the tech heels for access to Memorial hut, Bob and Marianne model frame and tech on a recent HR, Kids can tour too – Obie and Scottie head to Crystal valley. Obie using old tech gear of mine (dynafits and cut down skins and a pair of small boots found in a consignment store in Salt Lake City!)