Off-Piste Technique 3 - Ski Mountaineering

Article by Andy Perkins
Thursday 24th March 2011
 

Ask most people to name a ski tour and they'll probably answer "the Haute Route". What they usually mean by that is the classic hut-to-hut ski mountaineering traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt. While this classic outing is a great example of the genre, there are many others that are less busy and equally good if not better. In this final article I'll be looking at the steps to take us from ski touring into the magical world of the ski mountaineer.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Classic ski mountaineering: the descent towards the Col de Mont Brulé on the Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route.

 

Why is it so magical? Because we're travelling through the same mountains that we climb all over in summer, but seeing them with a fresh pair of eyes, affording us a new set of possibilities. We're travelling so much more quickly than on foot, seeing the mountains glide past and, best of all, with much less impact on our knees than those huge summer descents.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Ski mountaineering team on the summit of the Bishorn (4153m).

 

 

Is it Ski Touring or Ski Mountaineering? - "mountaineers carry ropes".

 

Many folk try Chamonix-Zermatt as their first experience of ski mountaineering, and most will tell you afterwards that they wish they'd had a gentler introduction, even if they did make it to Zermatt. I thoroughly recommend a progression from off piste to day touring to star tours or safaris before setting off on a multi-day hut-to-hut ski mountaineering experience. Unless you just want to tick Chamonix-Zermatt, then eBay all your kit and move on to scuba diving or parachute jumping.

 

Andy Perkins - Ski Mountaineering Part 3 planetFear

Fantastic terrain in the Urner Alps, ascending the Lochberg.

 

So let's assume we've got a couple of ski tours under our belts like the Silvretta and we want to step up to the next stage of ski mountaineering; what do we need to add in terms of skills and kit? In short, the extra thing that mountaineers carry is a rope and the ability to use it. This could be because we're going to be travelling on glaciers where the rope will be there as a back up if we get inadvertently involved in some slot action. We could be scrambling or even climbing with our skis on our packs to access remote slopes of fresh snow or even just to get to the summit for the sake of it. Because it's there? Oh yes. Or we could be getting the rope out to get into or out of steep spicyness. Whatever  - as soon as we need a rope we're not just skiers or ski tourers but ski mountaineers. 

 

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IFMGA guide Paul Warnock and Mike Rae in mountaineering mode on the Lochberg, Urner Alps, Suisse.

 

Where can we ski mountaineer? - "anywhere white and pointy".

 

Ski mountaineering can be done all over the white pointy parts of the world from the summit of Everest downwards. Let's assume for the moment we're starting out from Europe, then we're talking about the main alpine chain from eastern Austria to southern France with the main concentration of glacial action among the 4000m peaks between Zermatt and Chamonix as well as north of the Rhone valley in the Bernese Oberland. This enormous glacial range is reminiscent of Pakistan and Alaska in scale and grandeur, and could have been made for ski mountaineering.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

 

Classic ski mountaineering: crossing the Col de l'Eveque on the Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route.

 

Ski Mountaineering from hut to hut - "mid March to early May".

 

If we're getting into the high mountains then we're going to start to use the hut system. A few of these are open and manned from Christmas onwards and most high alpine huts are open between mid March and early May for what is effectively quite a short window of opportunity to get our fix. Some ski mountaineering can extend well into the summer, with late May and early June being prime season for skiing Mont Blanc before the crevasses start to gape open.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Ski mountaineers approaching the Dix hut, a model of how a hut should be run, thanks to the team headed by Pierre Antoine Sierro.

 

At this stage it's useful to clarify what a hut is: some people imagine a squalid version of their garden shed with wind whistling through the gaps, overcrowded dorms and unspeakable toilet facilities. Yes - it's the Gouter hut on Mont Blanc. Luckily most huts are considerably better than this. In general, the further east we go, the better the huts are, with Austrian huts having beer on tap, showers, private rooms, lecture facilities and even climbing walls in some cases! When the wardens are there, there will be a filling 3 course evening meal and a half decent wine list. It's crucial to reserve in advance and, if you decide not to go, have the courtesy to call so that the warden doesn't call out the rescue services for you.

 

A friend of mine refers disparagingly to some huts as hotels and prefers a more spartan and spiritually pure experience. If you're the same and/or you're ski mountaineering out of season, then most alpine club huts have winter rooms with blankets, a stove and basic cooking facilities, which is a great wilderness trip as long as you're happy to carry your own food in and carry a down jacket.

 

 

Strings and Things for Ski Mountaineering


String is a very important thing.
Rope is thicker,
But string,
Is quicker.

p.s. The meaning of this is obscure
That's why, the higher the fewer

Spike Milligan

 

We've already defined ski mountaineering as using a rope, but what kind? My standard ski rope is 30m of 7mm confidence rope. If we're on a glacier then we'll need two ropes in case the skier carrying the rope is the one down the slot. My second rope can be anything from 30m of 6mm Kevlar cord up to a 60m 7mm tagline. To get down the Col de Chardonnet on the Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route, for example, we need 90m unless conditions are optimal or we're steep specialists.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Roping down in wild weather in the Stubai. Tim Winther and Mike Rae get tough.

 

Added to this we'll need some extra kit depending on the terrain and the hazards. For a quick abseil into a couloir using a ski belay, a rope could be all we'll need. For glacial travel, it's going to be quite a lot more. When I'm skiing with a group, I carry the following:

3 screwgate karabiners
2 screwgates
and 8 foot slings

2 ice screws

3 snaplink karabiners

2 prusik loops

A Wild Country Ropeman Mk. 1 and a screwgate

A Kong Duck and a screwgate

 

It sounds like a lot, but to do a full crevasse rescue all of that could be necessary. Alternatively if you're a group of 4 mates, then you could get away with each having:

1 screwgate

1 screwgate and 8 foot sling

1 ice screw

1 snaplink and 2 prusik loops

 

On top of that, we'll need an axe and crampons, and with these light is right (up to a point). Alloy crampons are good for use on hard snow. However, I prefer an axe with a steel pick to make progress on ice. Axes made entirely of alloy are often referred to by guides as "toffee hammers". I'm a firm Grivel fan and use G10L crampons and an Air Tech Racing axe.

 

Tying it all together

 

Making an anchor - vertical or horizontal skis ?

 

It doesn't matter how strong the rope is unless the anchor it's tied to is solid enough to take the intended load. For a simple slide into a couloir, the load might even be less than bodyweight, but for full crevasse rescue it'll be considerably more. So belays need to carefully constructed - you only get one chance at this.

 

Andy Perkins - Ski Mountaineering Part 3 planetFear

Taking the sting out of the steep. Rob Hayhurst and a tidy looking ski belay in the Alpes Vaudoises.

 

For the fastest anchor when someone's down a slot, just turn sideways and lie in the snow, preferably backed up to someone behind you. Quick, simple and effective, but it does mean 2 members of the party are literally tied up. For an independent anchor, I often use the vertical ski belay with the skis lined up one behind the other. This is especially useful when the snow layers are inconsistent. The rope needs to be tensioned by adjusting the clove hitches so that all the skis are loaded evenly. It's super quick to install too.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Slope on a rope: the author testing out suspect snow in the Silvretta, belayed by IFMGA guide Rob Jarvis.

 

For strength, however, you can't beat the horizontal ski belay. For those of us familiar with the axe belay, we know that the depth and length of the slot as well as the angle of the front wall are all critical. In addition you'll need a shovel or an axe to dig the slot.So it's great when done well, but requires a bit more time and meticulous attention to detail.

 

Tying on - at the end or in the middle of the rope

 

Once we've got a good anchor, we can tie ourselves (or someone else) to the other end of the rope. This is usually with a figure of 8 to our harness which most climbers will be very familiar with. All very straightforward.

 

If we're roped together as a team then things get a little more complex. Regardless of the number of people on the rope, I usually have the skiers at each end of the rope 12 full arm spans apart, which is about 15 to 18m. So the folk in the middle will tie on with 2 overhand knots and the guys at the end will take on coils. This process is best learned from an IFMGA mountain guide.

 

Abseiling with skis on - sideways or backwards?

 

To get down a steep snow slope, I often have folk slot their poles behind their packs, then wrap the rope under their packs and around both wrists. You can then sideslip very steep terrain with much more confidence and security.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Olga Bornemisza loving the rope in the Bernese Oberland.

 

If it's really steep then you may need to abseil with skis pointing directly up the slope and using an italian hitch or an abseil device (though I rarely carry one when ski mountaineering because of the weight).

 

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Katy Ellis out of the Ski Club of GB office and on the rope in the Alpes Vaudoises, belayed by IFMGA guide Julie Ann Clyma. 

 

If it's steep and rocky then the skis will need to go on the pack and you can abseil in the normal way. If folk aren't confident about abseiling then they can be lowered, but this can be quite a nervewracking process!

 

Andy Perkins - Ski Mountaineering Part 3 planetFear

Lowering on spicy terrain in the Hochtirol of Austria.

 

Getting out of crevasse trouble - prusiking

 

Speaking of nervewracking events, if you go down a crevasse then there's a whole series of things that could happen. Hopefully your mates will be able to drop you a rope very quickly while you get your ice screw into the sidewall of the slot and clip yourself to it with a sling. Once you've got the situation stabilised you can think about getting out. You're going to need to get your skis off without losing them before you can do anything. It's also useful if we can hang pack and poles off the rope too.

 

Once that's all done, you might be able to climb out with a swift tug from above. But if the crevasse has overhanging and/or hard sidewalls then prusiking will be the way forward. With one prusik knot clipped to your waist and the other to a footsling you make gradual progress to the lip (where the rope will have cut massively into the soft snow). By then you'll be knackered but with daylight getting close you'll be happier. The whole thing will be much less stressful if you have a mechanical device or two as listed above.

 

Rescue - when it all gets a bit emotional

 

Unfortunately shit happens sometimes, and the person down the slot can't climb or prusik out, so we may need to abseil in to sort his/her injuries out. Once we've done that, then we'll need to haul using some kind of pulley system. It all gets quite complex and you'll need a day or two of training to get the basics, followed by regular practice just as you'll be regularly practising your avalanche search procedures.

 

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Crevasse rescue is a procedure well worth practicing. Justine Powell on the pull in the Alpes Vaudoises.

 

Bedtime Reading - "guidebooks and mountain guides".

 

There are loads of guidebooks covering multi day hut-to-hut ski mountaineering trips. Many Brits use the Cicerone guides by Bill O'Connor or Paul Henderson, plus the touring guide for the Chamonix area published by Vamos.

 

Andy Perkins Ski Mountaineering Part 3 - planetFear

Turns well earned. Paul Warnock reaps rewards on the Lochberg, Urner Alps, Suisse.

 

All the technical stuff above is a quick skim through the skills range we're going to need. One excellent book where you can learn more about crevasse travel is Miles Bright's excellent book "Crevasse Rescue for Skiers and Snow Boarders". But the most effective learning is going to be hands-on in a snowy environment with a qualified IFMGA mountain guide. A list of British Mountain Guides can be found at http://www.bmg.org.uk/ and the author is one of many active British guides based in the Alps.

 

The author - Andy Perkins

 

Andy Perkins is a British Mountain Guide based in the Chamonix valley with a direct view from his house towards the Aiguille du Midi. He spends over 70 days a year working on skis -  off piste, ski safaris and ski mountaineering. You can find out more at at http://www.andypmountainguide.com/

 

 

Related Articles-

Off-Piste Technique Part 1 - Andy Perkins

Off-Piste Technique Part 2 - Ski Touring. Andy Perkins

All Terrain Ski - Q&A With Barry Roberts

Steep Ground - The Tricks For Off-Piste Skiers - Barry Roberts

Off Piste Skiing Checklists and Further Info - Barry Roberts

Fitness & Nutrition For Off-Piste Skiers - Barry Roberts

 

 

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