Flowing Uphill: Tips for Efficient Skinning
Coming from an alpine skiing background, I have to admit that I didn’t take to backcountry skiing immediately.
The pace seemed too slow, the vertical was one tenth of what I was used to getting at a resort and the gear seemed doily compared to heavy metal alpine gear. On top of that, I had the good misfortune of learning from Alex Lowe, aka the “Lung with Legs,” and spent most of my uphill time with my eyes half-closed, lips pulled back, gasping for air and bordering on puking while I tried to keep up to him while he broke trail and ran laps around me. It was more torture than fun, and the backcountry bulb didn’t go off for me until one day when we scored first tracks on a 5,000ft couloir in waist-deep powder right down the center. After that the BC hook was set, but it still took me many miles to find my groove and learn how to efficiently walk uphill with skins on.
Love the Up
I’m indebted to Alex not only for breaking all of the trail, but for breaking my competitive spirit as well. Since I had no chance of keeping up with him, I slowed down, adjusted my pace for the long haul, and at least wasn’t touring with my lips peeled back in pain. After a season or two, I cut my times in half on long climbs and was able to do them in relative comfort. Busting out a 3,000ft climb never becomes truly effortless, but once you learn to relax and love the up as much as the down, it becomes a fun and even anticipated part of the sport.
In this regard, learning to love the uphill is as much a mental game as physical. An important element of this is to banish all thoughts of alpine skiing and embrace the idea that touring is the same, but very different. Even though the sports share similar gear and turning techniques, touring is much more of a slow-burn and cerebral activity versus the adrenaline rush of riding the wire. Route finding, avalanche awareness, and trying to glide effortlessly uphill are all Zen-like activities. Relax, take a deep breath (or a few thousand of them), and enjoy the upward journey.
Boots on the Ground
Skinning is not a twelve-step program where you can take 12 steps and become an instant expert. Instead, it takes a few million more than that, which is frustrating as it looks so basic. The two base elements of efficient skinning are to first learn to glide your skins, and second to make sure your skis are parallel.
The gliding part is a developed feel where you are just barely lifting your ski enough to clear the plush (the furry part of the skin), but not so much that you are taking a downward step. A good way to visualize this is to break trail in a few inches of new snow and then observe your skin track. Ideally, the track will all be roughly the same depth and not have deep pockets which indicate more of a stepping stride rather than gliding. This will vary with snow depth, and in deep snow it is almost impossible to glide, but in many conditions your skins should thrum along with a slight happy vibration as the plush barely skims over the snow.
The parallel skis part is more complicated as it has to do with bone or binding alignment. The idea is to have two perfectly parallel ski tracks, but it is very common to see skin tracks where one or both ski tips are splayed outward, which vastly reduces glide and encourages stepping. Part of this may be genetic bone alignment, but it can also be caused by a mismounted binding, especially pin tech bindings (Dynafit, Plum, G3 Ion, etc.) where the exacting metal-to-metal connection means that being off by 1 degree on the mounting translates into an inch or more at your ski tip. This can often be fixed by loosening up the rear mounting screws on your toe piece and rotating the binding back to a centered position.
Stride & Glide
Aside from fit, the most important element of a ski touring boot is a resistance-free fore/aft range of motion. Known as cuff rotation, this is a common spec on most boot designs, although there is a large difference between theory and reality. A stiff cuff is akin to walking in a cast and will limit your stride, whereas a flexible cuff provides an extra 4-6 inches of leg travel per stride, which quickly adds up over a long climb. Ski mountaineering race boots are insanely light, but where they get a lot of their speed is from having a huge range of resistance-free cuff rotation.
A closely related factor to cuff rotation is touring with your upper buckles and power strap completely loosened, which in itself provides a few extra degrees of motion. It is common to see people switch from skiing to tour mode by only popping the rear tour lock, but on long climbs the extra time it takes to loosen your buckles and straps will more than be made up. As an added benefit, loose upper cuffs allow your feet to roll sideways a bit as needed, which helps with skin adhesion.
Avoid the Sweat & Freeze Cycle
A quick and easy way to ruin your day is to begin it with a dreaded Sweat & Freeze cycle, which usually goes like this: after crawling out of a warm car or tent, you shiver and put on a nice thick jacket, then in the excitement of the moment start skinning at a breakneck pace. Twenty minutes into the tour you are sweating bullets and stop to strip down; by now your base layers are sweated out, cold and clammy. After a few more minutes you get cold, so you stop to put on a jacket. Repeat as unnecessary.
This key to avoiding this tragedy is to start out a bit cold and/or underdressed and then work your way up to a cruising-speed operating temperature. When touring, your primary source of warmth comes from physical exertion, so it is important to carefully and proactively regulate it. I usually tour in a light hardshell jacket which I can unzip to vent. If I’m getting too hot, I’ll adjust my pace downwards a few notches, and only if that doesn’t work will I take my jacket off. Conversely, an oversized synthetic puffy jacket is one of the few things I carry with me on day tours and I instinctively break it out at the top of a climb, especially if we are on a windy peak or I’m anticipating a cold descent. A warm puffy jacket helps preserve heat/energy, which in turns mean more runs per day.
An essential part of pacing is the idea of establishing a sustainable speed and to avoid stopping. I’ll often go for 30-60 minutes without coming to a complete stop, which means being able to perform a lot of little adjustments and tasks while moving. Things like venting zippers, adjusting your pole length, switching out hats, cleaning sweat off of glasses, eating a mini snack, taking a photo or adjusting your pack can all be done at a slow pace, which is far better than coming to a complete stop.
If and when you do stop, try to make it efficient so that your core temperature doesn’t drop. This doesn’t mean full-on frantic racing, but more along the lines of trying to combine a lot of little things such as taking a drink, getting something from your pack and putting on sunscreen all into one quick pit stop instead of several. Efficient touring is very much a tortoise-versus-hare type of activity.
Practice Makes Perfect
The secret to efficient touring is to practice, practice, and practice. What you may lack in raw speed and horsepower can more than be made up for with mileage. The irony of efficient skinning is that you are practicing something as basic as walking uphill, but touring is a sport of subtleties and you get better with every step you take … just in very small increments.
The backcountry is all about quality – scoring perfect lines in pristine conditions in an amazing environment with close friends. About the only thing that could make it any better is to get more of it with less effort, which means going out as much as possible. It’s a vicious cycle, but someone’s got to do it.